With but a week remaining before Brazil and Croatia kick off the 2014 World Cup, fans all over the globe are giddy with excitement.
Football's biggest tournament only comes around every four years, and South Africa 2010 seems like it happened ages ago.
The hosts will be amongst the heavy favourites for a tournament victory, but they won't be alone. Defending champions Spain won't surrender their title without a fight, while Argentina and Germany will feel their chances of winning are just as good.
Pre-tournament friendlies have given us some indication of the form all 32 teams are in, but looks can be deceiving. Teams such as Italy always seem to under-perform in the run-up to a major tournament, but no one would overlook the Azzurri.
Let's have a look at the full tournament schedule as well as betting odds and predictions for which teams will make it out of the group stages.
|Group A Fixtures|
|June 12||Brazil vs. Croatia||9 p.m. BST/4 p.m. ET||Sao Paulo|
|June 13||Mexico vs. Cameroon||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Natal|
|June 17||Brazil vs. Mexico||8 p.m. BST/3 p.m. ET||Fortaleza|
|June 18||Cameroon vs. Croatia||8 p.m. BST/3 p.m. ET||Manaus|
|June 23||Cameroon vs. Brazil||9 p.m. BST/4 p.m. ET||Brasilia|
|June 23||Croatia vs. Mexico||9 p.m. BST/4 p.m. ET||Recife|
|Group A Odds|
Brazil are the obvious favourites in Group A, but the race for second appears to be wide open. Mexico looked like potential dark horses for a tournament win prior to their 1-0 defeat at the hands of Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Croatia and Cameroon can smell blood in the water.
The hosts have one of the most talented squads in all of football, have dominated their last few fixtures and won the 2013 Confederations Cup. While none of this is a guarantee for success in the World Cup, there's no reason not to like their chances of surviving the group stages.
The Croatians lost their footing late during qualification but bounced back nicely in the play-offs, easily dispatching Iceland. They have a knack for elevating their play against tougher competition but often let one or two mental lapses decide a match in favour of their opponents.
Cameroon suffered an ugly 2-1 loss against Paraguay and were hammered 5-1 by Portugal, but the Indomitable Lions have found a way to score goals in all of their pre-tournament friendlies. Their 2-2 draw against Germany was beyond impressive, and Samuel Eto'o seems to be on a mission to prove he is still a world-class striker.
Prediction: Brazil and Croatia go through.
|Group B Fixtures|
|June 13||Spain vs. Netherlands||8 p.m. BST/3 p.m. ET||Salvador|
|June 13||Chile vs. Australia||11 p.m. BST/6 p.m. ET||Cuiaba|
|June 18||Spain vs. Chile||11 p.m. BST/6 p.m. ET||Rio de Janeiro|
|June 18||Australia vs. Netherlands||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Porto Alegre|
|June 23||Australia vs. Spain||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Curitiba|
|June 23||Netherlands vs. Chile||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Sao Paulo|
|Group B Odds|
Spain, the Netherlands and Chile are expected to do battle for the two top spots in group B, with Australia seen as a distant fourth.
The defending champions have some injury concerns going into the tournament, being forced to leave behind the likes of Thiago Alcantara and monitoring the situation of Diego Costa, as shared by FOX Soccer:
This could open the door for a highly talented Chilean team, who will be playing close to home and would love nothing more than to spoil the party for rivals Brazil, possible foes in the round of 16.
The Netherlands haven't looked very convincing testing out their new 5-3-2 formation during friendlies but boast enough veteran talent to surprise a few people. Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie won't have plenty more chances of appearing in a World Cup, and both will be eager to go out with a bang.
Australia's preparations for Brazil have been underwhelming, but the team seemed to be turning a corner in their 1-1 draw against South Africa. The Socceroos may be light on talent compared to the other teams in Group B, but they won't be planning on going home with zero points.
Prediction: Spain and Chile advance.
|Group C Fixtures|
|June 14||Colombia vs. Greece||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Belo Horizonte|
|June 14||Ivory Coast vs. Japan||11 p.m. BST/6 p.m. ET||Recife|
|June 19||Colombia vs. Ivory Coast||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Brasilia|
|June 19||Japan vs. Greece||11 p.m. BST/6 p.m. ET||Natal|
|June 24||Japan vs. Colombia||9 p.m. BST/4 p.m. ET||Cuiaba|
|June 24||Greece vs. Ivory Coast||9 p.m. BST/4 p.m. ET||Fortaleza|
|Group C Odds|
Group C might be the most competitive group of them all, with Colombia, Greece, Japan and Ivory Coast all perfectly capable of topping the standings.
The Greeks have struggled during their preparations and have relied too heavily on veteran Giorgos Karagounis to provide the team with chances. Kostas Mitroglou and Giorgos Samaras need to build a better rapport fast if the team wishes to beat three teams with strong attacking units.
The Samurai Blue struggled against a feisty Cyprus team in May but have otherwise looked splendid leading up to the tournament, and their brand of quick, incisive passing will be hard for other teams to keep up with, especially in Brazil's climate.
Colombia shouldn't be bothered by that climate too much, and the team has enough talent to overcome the absence of Falcao (although this little boy didn't like the news at all, via dirtytackle):
Jackson Martinez was a name on many lips as a potential transfer target prior to the 2013-14 season, but Porto's poor season has seen some of that talk disappear. A strong tournament from Falcao's likely replacement could see interest in his services spike again.
Ivory Coast haven't looked great during their preparations, but they're a solid team nonetheless. Unlike Colombia and Japan, the Ivorians can support their talented youngsters with some very experienced veterans, including Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba.
Prediction: Colombia and Ivory Coast just edge out Japan.
|Group D Fixtures|
|June 14||Uruguay vs. Costa Rica||8 p.m. BST/3 p.m. ET||Fortaleza|
|June 14||England vs. Italy||11 p.m. BST/6 p.m. ET||Manaus|
|June 19||Uruguay vs. England||8 p.m. BST/3 p.m. ET||Sao Paulo|
|June 20||Italy vs. Costa Rica||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Recife|
|June 24||Italy vs. Uruguay||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Natal|
|June 24||Costa Rica vs. England||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Belo Horizonte|
|Group D Odds|
Group D is billed as a three-horse race between Uruguay, England and Italy, but Costa Rica are a dangerous team that shouldn't be overlooked.
The Uruguayans haven't skipped a beat playing without injured striker Luis Suarez, and his return will only boost the team's chances of making it to the next round. Playing close to home will be a big advantage, and thanks to the struggles of some other teams, they look like a strong candidate to win the group.
England's 2-2 draw against Ecuador gave reasons for optimism, but the defence gave up far too much space for the opening goal and still looks shaky. Their tendency to disappoint on the biggest stage doesn't help their chances either, but the talent is there to make a deep run.
The Azzurri embarrassed themselves in their 1-1 draw against Luxembourg and seem to have issues everywhere, starting with the absence of Giuseppe Rossi. Mario Balotelli looked lively in their friendly, but their over-reliance on Andrea Pirlo could lead to the team struggling if he is marked out of the match.
Costa Rica looked very strong in qualification but have struggled breaking down stronger teams in friendlies, particularly Japan and Chile. Their status of underdogs in Group D will take away a lot of pressure, however, and if they can replicate their form from 2013, they're capable of anything.
Prediction: Uruguay and Italy break the hearts of the Three Lions.
|Group E Fixtures|
|June 15||Switzerland vs. Ecuador||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Brasilia|
|June 15||France vs. Honduras||8 p.m. BST/3 p.m. ET||Porto Alegre|
|June 20||Switzerland vs. France||8 p.m. BST/3 p.m. ET||Salvador|
|June 20||Honduras vs. Ecuador||11 p.m. BST/6 p.m. ET||Curitiba|
|June 25||Honduras vs. Switzerland||9 p.m. BST/4 p.m. ET||Manaus|
|June 25||Ecuador vs. France||9 p.m. BST/4 p.m. ET||Rio de Janeiro|
|Group E Odds|
France have looked very strong in the last few weeks, but as shared by Goal.com's Robin Bairner, Franck Ribery is still a question mark for Les Bleus:
Antoine Griezmann has filled in nicely on the wing, rounding out one of the more underrated squads travelling to Brazil.
The Swiss might not be as talented as their French rivals, but they're no slouches either. Ottmar Hitzfeld has his team playing solid, organised football, and if young Josip Drmic can keep up his good form, they could be a very dangerous team in the knockout stages.
They'll have to get past Ecuador first, however, and the South Americans put forth a strong showing against England. Dealing with the pressure of playing close to home will be the team's biggest obstacle, and their defence has to learn not to take too many chances.
Honduras looked great in qualification but seem to lack the talent required to compete with the aforementioned three teams. Back-to-back losses against Turkey and Israel will hurt the team's confidence, and neither of those teams made the World Cup.
Prediction: France and Ecuador make it through.
|Group F Fixtures|
|June 15||Argentina vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina||11 p.m. BST/6 p.m. ET||Rio de Janeiro|
|June 16||Iran vs. Nigeria||8 p.m. BST/3 p.m. ET||Curitiba|
|June 21||Argentina vs. Iran||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Belo Horizonte|
|June 21||Nigeria vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina||11 p.m. BST/6 p.m. ET||Cuiaba|
|June 25||Nigeria vs. Argentina||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Porto Alegre|
|June 25||Bosnia-Herzegovina vs. Iran||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Salvador|
|Group F Odds|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||6-1|
Argentina look like the dominant force in Group F, but their demolition of Trinidad and Tobago didn't go as smoothly as the final score of 3-0 would suggest.
Angel di Maria and Lionel Messi struggled with their finishing, and the same can't happen in Brazil. Even worse, the Soca Warriors were able to make Argentina's back line look bad, and T&T aren't exactly world-beaters. The Albiceleste have issues to fix, but a relatively easy group will help with that.
Bosnia and Herzegovina played an excellent match against Mexico and look ready to make some noise in their inaugural World Cup. Edin Dzeko is the big name on this team, but the team packs a lot more punch than just one star. Asmir Begovic will be hoping to build on his strong 2013-14 season, and he could be the team's most important player.
In contrast, Nigeria have struggled tremendously during their friendlies, and their inability to break down Greece highlighted a lack of flow between their midfield and striker Emanuel Emenike. The Super Eagles still have more than a week to fix these issues, and when they do, they're the best team in this group when it comes to talent (behind Argentina of course).
Iran comfortably won their group in qualification over Korea Republic and are flying under the radar as they head for Brazil. Carlos Queiroz has introduced a number of talented players from their domestic competition into the team, and the chemistry these players have is evident every time they step on the pitch.
Prediction: Argentina and Nigeria take advantage of the inexperience of their opponents.
|Group G Fixtures|
|June 16||Germany vs. Portugal||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Salvador|
|June 16||Ghana vs. United States||11 p.m. BST/6 p.m. ET||Natal|
|June 21||Germany vs. Ghana||8 p.m. BST/3 p.m. ET||Fortaleza|
|June 22||United States vs. Portugal||8 p.m. BST/3 p.m. ET||Manaus|
|June 26||United States vs. Germany||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Recife|
|June 26||Portugal vs. Ghana||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Brasilia|
|Group G Odds|
Group G is called the Group of Death for a reason, and if the final friendlies every team has played are any indication, a surprise could be on the books here.
Germany are the most talented outfit of the bunch, but injuries in the centre of the pitch seem to have taken away some of their lustre. Their 2-2 draw against Cameroon must have come as a shock to the fans, who won't be satisfied with anything other than a world title.
Portugal couldn't get past a staunch Greek defence but have the talent required to make a deep run in the tournament, and if star winger Cristiano Ronaldo is healthy, they have the best player on the planet at their disposal.
The USA have been far from their best during their preparations but have found ways to win anyway, the mark of a good team.
The return of Clint Dempsey against Turkey seemed to ignite the team, and Michael Bradley is hitting his best form at just the right time. Jurgen Klinsmann has his team playing smart, organised football, and the Americans look like they might be ready to make their mark in a World Cup.
Ghana are a more talented team than people give them credit for, and their 1-0 loss against the Netherlands showed the world they are close to ready for the World Cup. If Kwadwo Asamoah and company can iron out the details in time, the Ghanaians could surprise people in this tournament.
Prediction: Germany and Portugal do what they have to do, but it won't be easy.
|Group H Fixtures|
|June 17||Belgium vs. Algeria||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Belo Horizonte|
|June 17||Russia vs. South Korea||11 p.m. BST/6 p.m. ET||Cuiaba|
|June 22||Belgium vs. Russia||11 p.m. BST/6 p.m. ET||Rio de Janeiro|
|June 22||South Korea vs. Algeria||5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET||Porto Alegre|
|June 26||South Korea vs. Belgium||9 p.m. BST/4 p.m. ET||Sao Paulo|
|June 26||Algeria vs. Russia||9 p.m. BST/4 p.m. ET||Curitiba|
|Group H Odds|
Belgium are the runaway favourites in Group H and did nothing to change that status in their friendlies, beating Luxembourg and Sweden by a combined score of 7-1. Romelu Lukaku has found his shooting boots at just the right time, and the Red Devils are healthy and ready for their return to the big stage.
Russia had some difficulties against Norway and Slovakia and will have one more chance to jell as a team when they take on Morocco. The Russians have a tendency to be either very good or very bad in their fixtures, and if they get hot at the right time, Alan Dzagoev and company have the talent to win this group over the Belgians.
Algeria have surprised some people with their strong performances in recent weeks, beating Romania and Armenia in back-to-back fixtures. The Greens will travel to Brazil with one of the youngest squads in the tournament and little pressure to deal with, and Group H could present the team with an opportunity to progress to the next round.
Korea Republic didn't waltz through Asian qualifiers as expected and have hardly looked convincing during their preparations, as the team is still in somewhat of a transitional phase. The World Cup will be a learning experience for this young squad, who have the potential to be very great a few years down the road.
Prediction: Belgium and Algeria make it through.
Schedule for the knockout stages:
|Kockout Stage Fixtures|
|Round of 16||Quarter-finals||Semi-finals||Final|
|Winner Group A|
|Runner-up Group B|
|Winner Match 49|
|Winner Match 50|
|Winner Group C|
|Runner-up Group D|
|Winner Match 57|
|Winner Match 58|
|Winner Group E|
|Runner-up Group F|
|Winner Match 53|
|Winner Match 54|
|Winner Group G|
|Runner-up Group H|
|Winner Match 61|
|Winner Match 62|
|Winner Group B|
|Runner-up Group A|
|Winner Match 51|
|Winner Match 52|
|Winner Group D|
|Runner-up Group C|
|Winner Match 59|
|Winner Match 60|
|Winner Group F|
|Runner-up Group E|
|Winner Match 55|
|Winner Match 56|
|Winner Group H|
|Runner-up Group G|
Disagree with these selections? Be sure to let me know why in the comments section!
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