The World Cup group stage consists of 48 matches, and while we plan on tuning into every single game, we understand that being a responsible adult can sometimes interfere with these plans. For that reason, we’ve selected the most important, must-watch, matches from each of the eight World Cup groups.
Group A: Russia v. Egypt
June 19 - 2PM ET – Krestovsky Stadium (St. Petersburg)
The first match of the 2018 World Cup will feature two of the least feared teams in the tournament, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Vladimir Putin is a man with influence. I’m not saying that he arranged for Russia to be in the easiest group and open against the nation with the lowest odds of winning...well yeah, he probably did. Regardless, I still highly recommend tuning into the opening ceremonies because Russia will no doubt pour billions of precious rubles into the spectacle. As long as the Russians don’t succumb to pressure they should pick up some momentum in their opening match, which will make things interesting for their match against Egypt.
Mo Salah’s comeback from Sergio Ramos’ illegal judo move is looking positive. Even if he’s not quite ready for The Pharaohs' opening match against Uruguay, Mo should be ready to go against Russia. Egypt and Russia are both expected to defeat Saudi Arabia and lose to Uruguay, which would make this match the deciding factor for second place in Group A.
Russia will most likely sit in and attempt to manage the unmanageable Salah, probably with several players. Egypt on the other hand will rely on Arsenal's Mohamed Elneny to control the middle of the field and create opportunities for the Pharaohs to capitalize on Russia’s weaknesses. Prediction: Russia 1, Egypt 3.
Group B: Iran v. Morocco (but don’t miss Spain v. Portugal)
June 15 - 11AM ET – Krestovsky Stadium
Portugal v. Spain is the matchup in Group B that looks most exciting on paper but we want to draw your attention to the opening group match that will make or break the tournament for Group B underdogs -- Iran, the number 1 ranked team in Asia, versus Morocco, the number 4 ranked team in Africa (FIFA World Rankings).
Iran and Morocco aren’t on great terms these days. 90 minutes of World Cup soccer should help relieve tensions, right? The soccer itself will be a bit sloppy in comparison to other group stage matches, but the level of emotional investment won't be missing. This match will have the intensity of a World Cup final, and as such, the players will leave their hearts on the field. Both sides sport potential young breakout stars. Iran's Alireza Jahanbakhsh, known as the "Iranian Ronaldo", has just made history by becoming the first Asian top scorer ever in a Western European league, having netted 21 goals for AZ Alkmaar in the Eredivisie. He was also the third-highest assister in Holland with 12, so contributed directly to 33 goals in 33 matches. He is lightning quick, blessed with supreme dribbling skills and confidence. He's only 24 but has World Cup experience to his name, having taken part in the 2014 tournament as a substitute. Expect him to shine brightly in Russia. Morocco, on the other hand, will feel confident with Hakim Ziyech leading their team. The 25-year-old was born in Holland and represented them at the under-21 level, but eventually chose Morocco because his chances in the senior squad seemed to be limited. The Dutch are missing this tournament, though, while Ziyech is picked out as a rising star. Ziyech led the Eredivisie with 15 assists, scoring nine goals, taking free-kicks and generally running the show for the Amsterdammers this season. Prediction: Iran 3, Morocco 2.
Group C: France v. Peru
June 21 - 11AM ET – Central Stadium Yekaterinburg
Paulo Guerrero is back! The Peruvian captain had been banned from competing in the 2018 World Cup due to a doping violation, but after weeks of appeals and protests (including a letter signed by the captains of the other Group C teams), a Swiss Federal Tribunal temporarily lifted the ban, allowing the 34-year-old to play in the World Cup this summer.
Peru, a World Cup absentee for the last 36 years, has a very talented, hard-working, and organized team under the leadership of Ricardo Gareca. France has perhaps the most technical team in the tournament and it will be very difficult for any team to prevent them from scoring. Ousmane Dembele is a front-runner for young player of the tournament, and the rest of the team speaks for itself. Peru’s imposing physical presence, however, should prevent France from moving the ball as freely as they like to. And the Peruvians aren’t just brutes; they had to finish ahead of a very talented Chile team to get here. This could be the best battle in the group stages. Prediction: France 2, Peru 2.
Group D: Argentina v. Iceland
June 16 - 9AM ET - Otkiritie Arena (Moscow)
Is Iceland a real contender at the World Cup this summer? Is Argentina a real contender for the trophy? I’m writing this in Boston and this matchup conjures memories of the Celtics falling to LeBron James in game 7 this year. Iceland, like the Celtics, don’t have a lot of star power. They have Gylfi Sigurdsson, Aron Gudmundsson, and an organized hard-working defensive unit. Argentina – like Cleveland with Lebron – have Lionel Messi. Of course that’s an understatement. The Argentina squad is full of talent, so much that Mauro Icardi didn’t fit in, but we have yet to see the team produce consistent results.
Building a team around one player creates problems, even if that player is the considered by many to be the best in the world. On paper Iceland cannot keep up with Argentina, but the game isn’t played on paper. Iceland will make things uncomfortable for Argentina and one quick break could change the momentum of the game. Or Messi could bag three goals in the first half. Prediction: Argentina 1, Iceland 1.
Group E: Costa Rica v. Switzerland
June 27 - 2PM ET - Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
Los Ticos somehow made it all the way to the quarterfinals in Brazil four years ago. We’re still trying to figure out how they finished top of a group that included Uruguay, Italy, and England, but they found a way to win matches that no one expected them to. A solid core of the team that performed so well in 2014 will travel to Russia this summer, including Bryan Ruiz, Marco Ureña, and most importantly Keylor Navas. The biggest downside to this Costa Rica team is that they might have lost some of the underdog energy that fueled them in 2014. That being said, they’re still the Group E underdog.
If Costa Rica is underrated then Switzerland might be overrated. The Swiss men are generously ranked at number 6 in the world, a position that they’ve earned as a result of collective effort and a soft schedule. Xherdan Shaqiri “The Alpine Messi” brings an element of unpredictability that is difficult to defend and he can score amazing goals like this one https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NAhJor6C4ik against Poland at EURO 2016. One of the big questions will be whether Granit Xhaka can make it through the group stage without getting a red card. Prediction: Costa Rica 2, Switzerland 1.
Group F: Germany v. Mexico
June 17 - 11AM ET – Luzhniki Stadium (Moscow)
Will Germany hold on to the trophy for another four years? It’s certainly possible, but the big black-red-and-gold target on their back will make it difficult. A young and feisty Mexico side has the first chance to take aim at that target. The first half of this match could be pretty cagey as the two teams feel each other out and search for non-existent holes. With so much talent in the squad, the biggest challenge for Die Mannschaft might be deciding on a starting XI. Timo Werner and Leon Goretzka could contend for young player of the tournament, while Leroy Sane was shockingly snubbed from Jogi Löw’s final 23.
The big question for El Tri is whether they have enough goal-scoring potential to beat the giants. It will take a combined effort from Gio Dos Santos (and his brother), Carlos Vela, Hirving Lozano, and Chicharito to find the back of the net. Andres Guardado, the team’s captain, has been an effective leader in the middle of the field and his injury concerns should be squashed by kickoff in Moscow. Juan Carlos Osorio has done an excellent job in charge of El Tri; they are a resilient group with World Cup experience, a unique style of play, and genuine quality throughout the roster. Prediction: Germany 2, Mexico 2.
Group G: England v. Belgium
June 28 - 2PM ET – Kaliningrad Stadium
England and Belgium, despite producing some of Europe’s most talented players, are masters at World Cup underachievement. Tunisia and Panama are the other two teams in Group G, so barring some miraculous upsets, the Brits and the Flemish should be fighting for the top spot in the group by the time they face each other.
England v. Belgium is shaping up to be a Premier League All-Star game. Will Alderweireld and Vertonghen’s training ground familiarity with Harry Kane give them a competitive advantage, or vice versa? Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard will face some combination of Dele Alli, Eric Dier and/or Jordan Henderson and/or Jesse Lingard. Belgium should control possession when they have the ball but who will win tackles for them in the middle of the park? Prediction: England 1, Belgium 3.
Group H: Colombia v. Poland
June 24 - 2PM ET - Kazan Arena
Last but certainly not least, Colombia v. Poland will feature the leading goal-scorer from the 2014 World Cup against the leading goal-scorer from the Bundesliga this season. Oh, and they’re also teammates at Bayern Munich. James Rodriguez took a back seat to Robert Lewandowski’s goal-scoring conquest in 2017/18, but Lewandowski’s achievements were in large part a result of James’ ingenuity.
Without his Bayern Munich buddies, Lewandowski could struggle to find space around the goal. Piotr Zielinski is another exciting young player to watch, and if Poland have a successful run he is another that might be contention for young player of the tournament. Colombia has one of the most exciting teams (and kits) in the World Cup this summer. With David Ospina, Yerry Mina, Davinson Sanchez, Juan Cuadrado, Radamel Falcao, and a number of other exciting talents, Colombia has a real opportunity to build on their 2014 success.
Colombia’s squad is arguably deeper and better-rounded than any of their opponents in Group H, but the Poles will have one of the largest traveling support groups in Russia. On the other hand, Japan (Shinji Kagawa) and Senegal (Sadio Mane) will be lurking and pouncing on any opportunity to advance out of the group. Prediction: Colombia 4, Poland 3.
When all is said and done, the group stage matches won’t be remembered as vividly as the latter stages of the tournament, but these matches often capture the spirit of the World Cup. The smaller nations are finally given their chance to upset the world superpowers, young players break out on the global stage, and supporters go absolutely mental. If you can watch every minute, by all means do.
Author: Nick Barron