The World Cup is the ultimate sporting soap opera. At its best, it toys with the emotions of billions of viewers, galvanizing one moment and possibly mortifying the next. A month of action-packed, heart-wrenching international football is on deck.
It feels like just yesterday Netherlands winger Arjen Robben raced in alone with just Iker Casillas to beat, subsequently throwing his hands to his head in despair after being denied a goal, and eventually a World Cup. Countless Dutch supporters mimicked Robben when Spain's Andrés Iniesta scored the game-winning goal in the second period of extra time.
That was 2010, and this is now. Does Spain have enough left in the tank to win its fourth consecutive major trophy? Will a dark horse win the Golden Boot award the way Thomas Müller did in 2010? Will a highly touted young Belgium squad make some noise in the tournament after a 12-year absence? The answers to these questions will surface in Brazil, and a few more to questions we haven't even posed may also materialize–as such is the drama of the World Cup.
The tournament is less than ten days away, and it's time to clear up your schedule. Here is a look at the ten most anticipated group-stage matches of the World Cup.
10 10: Belgium vs. Algeria – June 17
One of the youngest, but perhaps the most hyped squad heading to the World Cup is Belgium, which returns to the tournament following a 12-year hiatus. Defender Daniel Van Buyten is Belgium's lone player above the age of 29.
Brazil, and the rest of the World will get its first curious look at the Red Devils when they open group H play on day six of the tournament. Belgium is led by its rock at the back, captain Vincent Kompany (Manchester City) and its scintillating attacking threat, Eden Hazard (Chelsea). Soccer enthusiasts are more than familiar with those household names, and while they are sure to make their mark on the grand stage, expect several other Belgium footballers to follow suit.
9 9: Columbia vs. Ivory Coast – June 19
Many will be keeping a close eye on Columbia, assuming star striker Falcao is match fit and ready to go. His country will suffer in the glitz and glamour department, not to mention on the pitch, if his celebrity presence is not on display in Brazil. For the sake of entertainment, specifically in this match, we cross our fingers and hope that he will participate.
Ivory Coast makes its third World Cup appearance and will aiming to finally escape the group stage. Its chances are far more favourable this time around compared to 2010 when it was grouped with Brazil and Portugal.
8 8: Switzerland vs. France – June 20
With Honduras and Ecuador rounding out group E, this matchup will be billed as the battle for first.
Switzerland and France were grouped together at World Cup 2006 in Germany, and advanced to the round of 16, finishing first and second respectively. However, both failed to impress at World Cup 2010. The French were among the most disappointing teams at the tournament, finishing last in seemingly the easiest group. France's prospects in Brazil are far brighter. It gets an injection of youthful firepower with 21-year olds Paul Pogba (Juventus) and Raphaël Varane (Real Madrid) expected to play vital roles.
The Swiss have historically played its neighbours tough, and will need to put forth another herculean effort to capture top spot in group E.
7 7: Argentina vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina – June 15
The group F opener is a mouthwatering matchup. Lionel Messi makes his debut in Brazil, and Bosnia gets its first taste of World Cup football.
The tournament has been played six times in South America, and each time, a country from the continent has been victorious. That bodes well for Argentina, which was dismissed in the quarter-final by Germany in 2006 and in 2010. Pablo Zabaleta enters in tremendous form, and Javier Mascherano excels at protecting the back four when sporting baby-blue. That duo, coupled with some of the world's elite attacking options in Higuain, Agüero, and the sensational Messi should equate into a relatively facile exit of the group stage.
On the flip side, Bosnian midfielder Miralem Pjanić enjoyed at breakout season with AS Roma, and will be relied upon to pull the strings in the middle of the park. His mastery on set-pieces adds another lethal dimension to this squad. Stuttgart's Vedad Ibišević and the man to watch for the Bosnians in Brazil, Manchester City's Edin Džeko, require excellent service, and Pjanić will certainly deliver.
6 6: USA vs. Portugal – June 22
Labeled as this year's "group of death," Germany, Portugal, Ghana, and the USA will inject the majority of drama into the opening round of the tournament.
Head Coach Jürgen Klinsmann opted to move forward without USA's most iconic forward; all-time leading scorer Landon Donovan was excluded from the World Cup squad. Klinsmann is counting on Dempsey to shine, and Altidore to shake his poor form and deliver at the World Cup.
Cristiano has flourished at the club level, and is fresh off a Champions League title with Spanish giants Real Madrid. However, he hasn't lived up to the billing on the International level. Of course, all eyes are on the 29-year old, but in Brazil, so will be the excruciating pressure.
5 5: Brazil vs. Croatia – June 12
The opening ceremony of the World Cup in itself is a can't-miss spectacle. The ambiance is extraordinary, and once the home nation steps onto the pitch for its national anthem, the shear togetherness of a nation will be on full display.
Brazil is heavily favoured, though it must fend off a pesky Croatian side that returns to the World Cup after failing to qualify in 2010.
4 4: Uruguay vs. England – June 19
This clash features a mesmerizing dose of attacking prowess with two of the world's most feared front lines. While each forward deserves a proportionate amount of attention, one particular Uruguayan will receive the overwhelming majority.
Luis Suarez will vie to spoil the party of the country he plays his club football in. And, the English will need to formulate a unique game plan to stop him from doing so. Suarez devastated defenders all year in the premier league to the tune of 31 goals. Let's not overlook the potent Edinson Cavani and the man who scored five magisterial goals in South Africa, Diego Forlan.
3 3: England vs. Italy – June 14
These teams had a recent bout in the quarter-finals of Euro 2012. The match went the distance, with Italy triumphing in penalty kicks. The unperturbed Andrea Pirlo stepped up to the spot and elected to utilize the "cucchiaio," paralyzing Joe Hart in one of the more memorable goals in recent Azzurri history.
Outspoken Italian forward Mario Balotelli ignited the pre-tournament fire when he shrugged off the quality of the English squad. "I don't look at England as a team that can win the World Cup", said Balotelli. Along with "Balo," the Italians feature a number of young attacking options in Insigne, Immobile and Cerci.
Its most intriguing young talent resides in the midfield. Paris Saint-Germain's Marco Verratti makes his first major appearance for Italy at just 21 years of age. The devastating injury to Montolivo may see the heir apparent to Andrea Pirlo hit the pitch sooner than expected.
The English attacking trio of Sturridge-Rooney-Welbeck will be handful to deal with for the Italians. Sturridge and Rooney combined for 38 goals this season in the Premier League, and Italy lacks experience at fullback.
Football lovers will be sent into jubilation while watching the midfield chess match between Pirlo and De Rossi, and Gerrard and Lampard unfold.
2 2: Germany vs. Portugal – June 16
Each fixture in Group E will be sublime. The first match of the group between the Germans and Portuguese will be the cream of the crop.
Ronaldo will have a much more troublesome time dismantling the Germans than the Americans, and proving that a star can accomplish the bulk of the work and carry a nation.
Expectations are incessantly lofty for the Germans, who enter the the tournament with back-to-back semi-final losses after reaching the final in 2002. Miroslav Klose sits just one goal back of Brazilian icon Ronaldo for the all-time lead in World Cup goals. It is unlikely that he starts for the Germans, but his pursuit of the record is among the top stories to follow as the tournament progresses.
1 1: Spain vs. Netherlands – June 13th
In a rematch of the 2010 World Cup Final, Spain and Netherlands will look to prove that experience rules all in Brazil.
Teams like Belgium, France, and Italy will include a strong contingent of youth, whereas Spanish and Dutch will rely on its usual suspects. Spain played Cesc Fabregas in a "false 9" role at Euro 2012, and it will be interesting to see if del Bosque opts to include the out-of-form Torres or the aging, all-time leading Spanish scorer Villa in his opening day lineup. The Dutch go as far as Van Persie, Sneijder and Robben takes them, though they have all hit the dreaded age 30.
This match kicks off day two of the World Cup and it'll have the ambiance of a knockout round fixture. Can't-miss.
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