Ever since the World Cup group draw was completed back in December there's been endless talk about which teams will advance, potential sleepers and top squads that may be in danger. Now, it's time to actually play the matches to find out the answers.
While there are obviously some national teams in better position to advance than others, every side enters with the same goal. They all want to simply find a way to reach the knockout stages because anything can happen in elimination matches. And it's a realistic goal for most sides.
The next two weeks will be filled with plenty of drama and some unexpected results, which is part of the event's worldwide allure. So let's check out all of the key fixture information for the stage, followed by predictions and a preview.
|June 12||4 p.m.||A||Brazil vs. Croatia||ESPN|
|June 13||12 p.m.||A||Mexico vs. Cameroon||ESPN2|
|June 13||3 p.m.||B||Spain vs. Netherlands||ESPN|
|June 13||6 p.m.||B||Chile vs. Australia||ESPN2|
|June 14||12 p.m.||C||Colombia vs. Greece||ABC|
|June 14||3 p.m.||D||Uruguay vs. Costa Rica||ABC|
|June 14||6 p.m.||D||England vs. Italy||ESPN|
|June 14||9 p.m.||C||Ivory Coast vs. Japan||ESPN|
|June 15||12 p.m.||E||Switzerland vs. Ecuador||ABC|
|June 15||3 p.m.||E||France vs. Honduras||ABC|
|June 15||6 p.m.||F||Argentina vs. Bosnia-H.||ESPN|
|June 16||12 p.m.||G||Germany vs. Portugal||ESPN|
|June 16||3 p.m.||F||Iran vs. Nigeria||ESPN|
|June 16||6 p.m.||G||Ghana vs. USA||ESPN|
|June 17||12 p.m.||H||Belgium vs. Algeria||ESPN|
|June 17||3 p.m.||A||Brazil vs. Mexico||ESPN|
|June 17||6 p.m.||H||Russia vs. South Korea||ESPN|
|June 18||12 p.m.||B||Australia vs. Netherlands||ESPN|
|June 18||3 p.m.||B||Spain vs. Chile||ESPN|
|June 18||6 p.m.||A||Cameroon vs. Croatia||ESPN|
|June 19||12 p.m.||C||Colombia vs. Ivory Coast||ESPN|
|June 19||3 p.m.||D||Uruguay vs. England||ESPN|
|June 19||6 p.m.||C||Japan vs. Greece||ESPN|
|June 20||12 p.m.||D||Italy vs. Costa Rica||ESPN|
|June 20||3 p.m.||E||Switzerland vs. France||ESPN|
|June 20||6 p.m.||E||Honduras vs. Ecuador||ESPN|
|June 21||12 p.m.||F||Argentina vs. Iran||ESPN|
|June 21||3 p.m.||G||Germany vs. Ghana||ESPN|
|June 21||6 p.m.||F||Nigeria vs. Bosnia-H.||ESPN|
|June 22||12 p.m.||H||Belgium vs. Russia||ABC|
|June 22||3 p.m.||H||South Korea vs. Algeria||ABC|
|June 22||6 p.m.||G||USA vs. Portugal||ESPN|
|June 23||12 p.m.||B||Netherlands vs. Chile||ESPN|
|June 23||12 p.m.||B||Australia vs. Spain||ESPN2|
|June 23||4 p.m.||A||Croatia vs. Mexico||ESPN|
|June 23||4 p.m.||A||Cameroon vs. Brazil||ESPN2|
|June 24||12 p.m.||D||Italy vs. Uruguay||ESPN|
|June 24||12 p.m.||D||Costa Rica vs. England||ESPN2|
|June 24||4 p.m.||C||Japan vs. Colombia||ESPN|
|June 24||4 p.m.||C||Greece vs. Ivory Coast||ESPN2|
|June 25||12 p.m.||F||Nigeria vs. Argentina||ESPN|
|June 25||12 p.m.||F||Bosnia-H. vs. Iran||ESPN2|
|June 25||4 p.m.||E||Ecuador vs. France||ESPN|
|June 25||4 p.m.||E||Honduras vs. Switzerland||ESPN2|
|June 26||12 p.m.||G||United States vs. Germany||ESPN|
|June 26||12 p.m.||G||Portugal vs. Ghana||ESPN2|
|June 26||4 p.m.||H||South Korea vs. Belgium||ESPN|
|June 26||4 p.m.||H||Algeria vs. Russia||ESPN2|
FIFA.com and ESPNMediaZone.com
|F||Argentina||Bosnia & Herzegovina||Nigeria||Iran|
Preview for Opening Round
The World Cup draw is extremely convoluted due to all of the different rules aimed to prevent too many teams from one region in the same group. That said, the process actually did a pretty good job of spreading out the talent this time around.
A couple of the top contenders, namely Spain and Germany, landed in tough pools, but nothing that would be considered unreasonable. If they, along with Brazil and Argentina, play up to their full potential, all of the elite sides should move through without a ton of drama.
And while many of the groups are pretty straightforward, at least on paper before play actually begins, there are a few that should feature some pretty fierce battles.
It starts with Spain's Group B. La Furia Roja should advance and it would be a major surprise if Australia joins them. That leaves one spot in the Round of 16 for either a Netherlands side with plenty of star power or Chile, which is playing on its home continent.
The advantage falls to La Roja due to two main factors.
Most importantly, they are perhaps the most underrated group in the tournament with talent, depth and experience in every area. In particular, look for Alexis Sanchez to have a very strong showing out from the shadows of all the big names at Barcelona.
Which group will feature the most drama?
The other factor that swings the knockout berth to Chile is the Netherlands' issues in the midfield. Without Kevin Strootman or Rafael van der Vaart, manager Louis van Gaal has been forced to juggle his lineup and formation, which rarely leads to good short-term results.
Group D is interesting because it has three very good teams, but no dominant side. England, Italy and Uruguay are all pretty evenly matched overall and Costa Rica is definitely capable of playing the role as spoiler.
The Three Lions' hopes rest heavily on the shoulders of Joe Hart. The rest of the squad is good enough to make at least a run to the quarterfinals. But goalkeeping has been an issue for awhile and the Manchester City star went through a dip in form during the club campaign.
John Cross of the Daily Mirror passed along comments from England manager Roy Hodgson, who said his side is capable of going the distance:
Yes I believe the squad can win the World Cup, otherwise what's the point? But they're empty words.
I'm sure Scolari is saying Brazil can win it. If we're going to win it, we'll have to prepare and play very well, and this talented group of players have to show their talent. Otherwise all the words in the world count for nothing.
For Italy, Mario Balotelli must be a game-changing attacker. The midfield can match any team in the tournament and Gianluigi Buffon is still a rock at the back. But to advance from the group, the Azzurri need the 23-year-old striker to keep his head on straight and score a couple key goals.
Ultimately, both England and Italy hold a slight edge over Uruguay. There's no doubting the squad's attacking talent, especially if Luis Suarez is at full strength, but a lack of star power elsewhere on the pitch will cause them to fall short.
Finally, there's the "Group of Death," which is Group G. It features Germany, Portugal, Ghana and the United States, which are all capable of moving through to the next round.
The strength of Germany is on display in odds provided by Paul Carr of ESPN. Despite the tough group, the Germans are still better than 90 percent to advance while the other spot is up for grabs:
SPI odds to advance, Group G: Germany 91.8%, Portugal 40.2%, #USMNT 39.3%, Ghana 28.8%.— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) December 6, 2013
Portugal would be the obvious choice, but things could get very tricky for the Selecao. If they lose their opener to Germany and either the United States or Ghana win the other match, Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. would be in a major hole right away.
That's good news for the Americans, who should be able to avenge their losses to Ghana in each of the two previous World Cups. As long as the back line doesn't blink in the face of pressure from three different but dangerous attacking groups, the United States has a good chance to advance.
Ultimately, the group stage is rarely as predictable is it appears before the tournament. There will probably be at least one team that finds top form and comes out of the blue to move on. But the outlook for the top teams is very favorable thanks to a well spread out draw.