The wait for the 2014 World Cup is growing unbearable, as our daydreams are overrun with grand visions of epic elimination games between the tournament favorites. But don’t get too far ahead of yourself. We still have to get past the first phase of the competition, and there are plenty of group stage matches that you don’t want to miss.
Before we get to the breakdowns of the must-watch games, here’s the entire schedule for the group stage.
Now that you’ve had the chance to look over the agenda, here are three games that you must make time for.
Spain vs. Netherlands: June 13, 3 p.m. EST
The rematch of the previous World Cup final is supposed to come much later in the competition. In 2014, it’s the third game of the tournament.
Which group stage match are you most looking forward to?
While 2010’s World Cup final only had one goal, both of these defenses have shown cracks, and there will be plenty of goal-scoring chances with some of the game’s premier playmakers (e.g. Andres Iniesta and Robin Van Persie) in action.
For Spain, it will be a chance to prove that they haven’t lost a step. There are legitimate questions about the weakened defense and the lack of finishing up front, but La Roja can still dominate the time of possession with their elite midfield. A convincing victory over the Netherlands would ease concerns in the Spanish camp.
For the Oranje, any points in this match would go a long way to getting out of the group stage. Don’t overlook the potential of Chile to do some damage in this group, so the Netherlands will have a fight on their hand to grab second place in Group B.
Ghana vs. USA: June 16, 6 p.m. EST
Even in the most loaded group of the competition, it would be a shock if Germany doesn't finish the group stage in first place. As a result, the battle to advance will be fierce, and the outcome of this game will play a gigantic role in determining which nation goes home early.
The United States will be looking to erase their demons by beating the side that has knocked them out of the last two World Cups. Jurgen Klinsmann oversaw the greatest year in the history of US Men’s Soccer, and this is arguably the most talented American side ever assembled. But how far can Klinsmann’s men advance in the “Group of Death?”
Ghana are in the same boat as the USA. In almost any other group, the Black Stars would be a favorite to make it to the knockout rounds (and probably win a game or two there). In 2014, the Ghanaians may not even make it out of Group G.
With plenty of attacking potential and iffy defense from both sides, this should be an incredibly entertaining match. Both teams will leave it all on the field with knockout stage aspirations hanging in the balance.
England vs. Italy: June 14, 6 p.m. EST
Two of football’s powerhouses face off in the group stage, and it should be a titanic encounter. Neither team is playing their best football, but they both have the talent to go deep into the tournament.
With Uruguay also in the group, it’s very likely that only one of these two teams will make it out of the group stage, so their chances of advancing hinge on getting points from this matchup.
England have looked completely disorganized at times (especially on the back line), and the weak midfield is extremely concerning. The experienced veterans (Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard) will need to play exceptional football, but England's chances rest on the play of the younger stars like Daniel Sturridge and Jack Wilshere.
On the other hand, Italy have been the more solid team leading up to the World Cup, so they have the chance to cement their status as a World Cup favorite with a good performance against the Brits. One concern for the Azzurri is their inconsistent attack, which is tied to their over-reliance on forward Mario Balotelli.
Italy will be the slight favorites, but this match could easily go either way. This game will be a huge turning point for one of the World Cup's biggest contenders.