The 2014 World Cup is finally set to begin, and a number of enticing group-stage fixtures await as the top 32 national teams vie for the ultimate prize.
Most of the groups are even across the board, but the draw left a couple of foursomes that catch the eye and all but guarantee a few highly touted nations to be eliminated early on.
That only increases the ante for these group-stage fixtures, as every nation knows its World Cup fate is on the line every time it takes the pitch. An early loss to an inferior foe could prove detrimental to its chances with bigger and better nations upcoming.
Let's take a look at every group-stage match and who is likeliest to advance out of each group.
|June 12||Brazil vs. Croatia||A||4 p.m.||Sao Paulo|
|June 13||Mexico vs. Cameroon||A||12 p.m.||Natal|
|June 13||Spain vs. Netherlands||B||3 p.m.||Salvador|
|June 13||Chile vs. Australia||B||6 p.m.||Cuiaba|
|June 14||Colombia vs. Greece||C||12 p.m.||Belo Horizonte|
|June 14||Uruguay vs. Costa Rica||D||3 p.m.||Fortaleza|
|June 14||Ivory Coast vs. Japan||C||6 p.m.||Recife|
|June 14||England vs. Italy||D||6 p.m.||Manaus|
|June 15||Switzerland vs. Ecuador||E||12 p.m.||Brasilia|
|June 15||France vs. Honduras||E||3 p.m.||Porto Alegre|
|June 15||Argentina vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina||F||6 p.m.||Rio De Janeiro|
|June 16||Germany vs. Portugal||G||12 p.m.||Salvador|
|June 16||Iran vs. Nigeria||F||3 p.m.||Curitiba|
|June 16||Ghana vs. United States||G||6 p.m.||Natal|
|June 17||Belgium vs. Algeria||H||12 p.m.||Belo Horizonte|
|June 17||Brazil vs. Mexico||A||3 p.m.||Fortaleza|
|June 17||Russia vs. South Korea||H||6 p.m.||Cuiaba|
|June 18||Australia vs. Netherlands||B||12 p.m.||Porto Alegre|
|June 18||Cameroon vs. Croatia||A||3 p.m.||Manaus|
|June 18||Spain vs. Chile||B||6 p.m.||Rio De Janeiro|
|June 19||Colombia vs. Ivory Coast||C||12 p.m.||Brasilia|
|June 19||Uruguay vs. England||D||3 p.m.||Sao Paulo|
|June 19||Greece vs. Japan||C||6 p.m.||Natal|
|June 20||Costa Rica vs. Italy||D||12 p.m.||Recife|
|June 20||Switzerland vs. France||E||3 p.m.||Salvador|
|June 20||Ecuador vs. Honduras||E||6 p.m.||Curitiba|
|June 21||Argentina vs. Iran||F||12 p.m.||Belo Horizonte|
|June 21||Germany vs. Ghana||G||3 p.m.||Fortaleza|
|June 21||Bosnia-Herzegovina vs. Nigeria||F||6 p.m.||Cuiaba|
|June 22||South Korea vs. Algeria||H||12 p.m.||Porto Alegre|
|June 22||United States vs. Portugal||G||3 p.m.||Manaus|
|June 22||Belgium vs. Russia||H||12 p.m.||Rio De Janeiro|
|June 23||Australia vs. Spain||B||12 p.m.||Curitiba|
|June 23||Chile vs. Netherlands||B||12 p.m.||Sao Paulo|
|June 23||Brazil vs. Cameroon||A||4 p.m.||Brasilia|
|June 23||Croatia vs. Mexico||A||4 p.m.||Recife|
|June 24||Italy vs. Uruguay||D||12 p.m.||Natal|
|June 24||Costa Rica vs. England||D||12 p.m.||Belo Horizonte|
|June 24||Japan vs. Colombia||C||4 p.m.||Cuiaba|
|June 24||Greece vs. Ivory Coast||C||4 p.m.||Fortaleza|
|June 25||Nigeria vs. Argentina||F||12 p.m.||Porto Alegre|
|June 25||Bosnia-Herzegovina vs. Iran||F||12 p.m.||Salvador|
|June 25||Honduras vs. Switzerland||E||4 p.m.||Manaus|
|June 25||France vs. Ecuador||E||4 p.m.||Rio De Janeiro|
|June 26||United States vs. Germany||G||12 p.m.||Recife|
|June 26||Portugal vs. Ghana||G||12 p.m.||Brasilia|
|June 26||South Korea vs. Belgium||H||4 p.m.||Sao Paulo|
|June 26||Algeria vs. Russia||H||4 p.m.||Curitiba|
|Group A||Group B||Group C||Group D|
|Cameroon||Chile||Ivory Coast||Costa Rica|
|Group E||Group F||Group G||Group H|
Steven Cook's predictions
Note: Highlighted teams predicted to advance to knockout stage.
Italy vs. England
Two of the most well-known international teams will battle in one of the first matches in Brazil as Italy and England duel for a leg up in Group D.
The Italians haven't made much noise internationally since their 2006 World Cup victory, but they changed that in a big way at the 2012 European Championship. Mario Balotelli's ascension into the role of star striker and some young talent infused with the typical experienced starting 11 made for a run to the finals that ended with a loss to Spain.
Italy figures to be a serious contender down the line, but England doesn't at the moment after having to fight to even get into the field of 32 heading to Brazil. However, there's enough skill up front with Wayne Rooney and enough experience throughout the lineup to compete for 90 minutes with any team—even Italy.
It would be surprising to see either team give the other much leeway by being too aggressive early on. Uruguay looms in Group D and will be ready to pounce following an early win over Costa Rica that will give them an advantage heading into matches with both Italy and England.
Two teams with plenty of experience throughout the midfield should make for a tactical game that will only reach the attacking thirds often if Balotelli and Rooney get going for their respective sides.
Ghana vs. United States
The United States national team will open up with likely its easiest test of the group stage, but it won't feel as such when Jurgen Klinsmann's squad lines up against Ghana.
Instead, it will be as if they're facing a team that knocked them out of the last World Cup—oh wait, they are. The last time these two faced each other, Ghana outlasted the U.S. in extra time of the knockout stage at the 2010 World Cup.
Klinsmann has had his players honed in ever since the 23-man roster was set, per the team's official Twitter:
"Obviously it's a big moment for everybody on this roster. This is the right time to start working on details toward Ghana"- @J_Klinsmann— U.S. Soccer (@ussoccer) May 23, 2014
The Americans outshot Ghana and didn't trail possession, but they only connected on Landon Donovan's penalty attempt throughout the 120 minutes. Klinsmann will be imperative on getting his players in positions to get good looks on early, as history indicates Ghana is only harder to score on as time goes on.
What makes the USA's opener dually important is what lies ahead. Germany and Portugal are the final two teams the Americans will face, making the game against Ghana easily the most winnable—even though it's a hard-enough match as it is.
Spain vs. Netherlands
It's all but fitting that the 2010 World Cup final is being repeated on just the second day of action in Brazil.
Spain and Netherlands collided for an epic final four years ago that ended in Andres Iniesta's extra-time winner that sent the Spanish toward lifting the championship trophy.
Now, they will face off for early positioning in Group B—a group they are both widely expected to advance out of. Spain coach Vicente del Bosque could only describe the pairing as "fate," per UEFA.com's Alfredo Rodriguez:
It is fate that we play them again in our first match, the same as the final of the last World Cup. Let's see if we are capable of beating the Netherlands again; they have certainly changed since that World Cup final. I have always said that Dutch football has always been very powerful, and it will be a difficult group.
Both of these teams look a good bit different with four years separating their historic match, but the regular core for each looks just about the same. Like in 2010, it will be a chess match.
But unlike four years ago, both teams won't be pressing like their lives depend on it. They both know that it's just the first of three group-stage matches, and by far the toughest test for each—Spain and Netherlands should play like it, with neither giving up much throughout their opening 90 minutes in Brazil.