Chances are if you’re like most football fans around the world, you’ve been reading (and listening) through World Cup previews. There are about a million of them out there, and many of them include guides to the group stage’s best matches. So by now, we all have a few we’re looking forward to: Spain versus Portugal, Argentina versus Iceland, England versus Belgium, etc.
But as we head toward the beginning of the 2018 Cup, remember that there are 48 total matches throughout the group stage (six in each of the eight groups) – which means there are sure to be more great ones than most previews would have you expect.
These are five more excellent group stage matchups that are being somewhat overlooked in the majority of previews.
1. Russia vs. Saudi Arabia
At a glance this looks like a fairly miserable matchup, and one that could be destined for something like a 0-0 or 1-1 finish. Saudi Arabia is the worst team in the field in terms of rankings and Russia is believed to have a real chance of becoming just the second host nation, after South Africa in 2010, to fail to advance past the group stage. That said, you don’t always need beautiful football to get an enjoyable Word Cup match. It’s the tournament’s debut, which should provide enough excitement and tension to mask the poor quality of play. Additionally, there could be an upset. It’s been suggested that recent issues for Russia could bode well for Saudi Arabia.
2. Portugal vs. Morocco
In terms of anticipated matches, something interesting is happening in Group B. Almost everyone is mentioning the June 15 Portugal versus Spain match as a must-see event, yet almost everybody seems to believe Spain will win the match, and by extension the group. Don’t get us wrong – that ought to be a thrilling match. But the more compelling contest in the group might be Portugal versus Morocco on June 20. This is because it looks fairly likely that the winner of this match will come in second in the group behind Spain and advance to the knock-outs. Portugal will be favored thanks to the indomitable Cristiano Ronaldo, but Morocco is perhaps one of the most underrated teams in this tournament field.
3. Croatia vs. Nigeria
When the World Cup groups were first announced the quick consensus became that there was no “Group of Death,” which is the moniker traditionally applied to the toughest group. Slowly though, we’ve come to see Group D as probably the hardest group from top to bottom. Argentina versus Iceland is the match being talked about most, because it pits a tournament favorite in Argentina against an underdog with some legitimate ability in Iceland. But Croatia and Nigeria might be the most evenly matched teams in this group, and both are completely capable of advancing. This June 16th match will feature a ton of talent (most notably Croatia’s Luka Modric and Nigeria’s Victor Moses), and will play a very pivotal part in deciding the group.
4. Germany vs. Mexico
This one’s fairly straightforward, but still doesn’t seem to be generating that much buzz. Germany are the current favorites to win the World Cup, and in doing so would capture their second straight after winning in Brazil in 2016. And while Mexico probably isn’t a team that can win it all, it certainly has the stuff to get to the round of 16, and perhaps a round further. This is likely the toughest competition Germany will face in the group phase, which should make it a fun match to watch – either to see the mighty Germans tested, or to see them assert themselves as the class of the Cup.
5. Poland vs. Colombia
This is a situation not unlike the Croatia versus Nigeria match. Poland and Colombia will play in the very competitive Group H. The difference is that unlike Group D, there’s no clear favorite here. Japan and Senegal round out the group, and both can be tough teams at their best. But if a team is going to assert itself in Group H it’s probably going to be one of these two. Poland is ranked highest at 8th in the world (a ranking that feels at least a little bit inflated), and Colombia is viewed as a World Cup dark horse. This one should be excellent to watch.