Mon 18 Jun by Mark Gleeson
The World Cup heads into the second series of group games this week as the competition moves swiftly along to the stage where the field is drastically reduced by half.
It takes exactly two weeks to complete the group phase with three outings apiece for each of the 32 finalists, and much shorter for the identity of the first casualties to become apparent.
Tuesday 19 June
RUSSIA v EGYPT (8pm, Krestovsky Stasium, St Petersburg): There were not many who gave Russia any chance of getting past the first round and made much of the fact they were the lowest ranked nation coming into the tournament. Even the locals were pessimistic. But now the mood is much changed after winning the opening game 5-0 over Saudi Arabia and another victory will ensure the hosts advance, while condemning Egypt to an early exit.
Wednesday 20 June
PORTUGAL v MOROCCO (2pm, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow): Ronaldo could yet carry Portugal far in this World Cup but last Friday’s performance against Spain is unlikely to be replicated every game. Portugal have had a lot taken out of them by the exertion of holding their neighbours to a draw, opening a door for Morocco to possibly spring a surprise.
Thursday 21 June
ARGENTINA v CROATIA (8pm, Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod): This has quickly become what it was always destined to be – the game to settle the winner of the group. Lionel Messi will need to put his penalty failure behind him to lift Argentina on his shoulders but Croatia are a collection of very smart and energetic players and could win a second game in Group D.
Friday 22 June
NIGERIA v ICELAND (5pm, Volgograd Arena, St Volgograd): For a side that came through the toughest of qualifying groups in the African zone, Nigeria were hopelessly languid and limp in their opening game last Saturday as they lost to Croatia. Next opponent Iceland play a similar physical and disruptive style, which means the Super Eagles might again have their wings clipped.
Saturday 23 June
BELGIUM v TUNISIA (2pm, Otkrytie Stadium, Moscow): Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ will not really be tested until they get to the last of their group games next week against England. Tunisia are feisty but not anything near the class they need to be to cause an upset.