With most teams having played two games at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, things are starting to get a bit clearer regarding which teams will advance to the knockout round.
There have been incredible upsets, dominant performances from top contenders and plenty of goals. It is difficult to remember a World Cup group stage that has been this exciting, and there is no question that things are poised to get even more interesting.
With the group round starting to wind down, here are the latest predictions for how all eight groups will play out, as well as a preview of each match that will be contested on Sunday.
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Day 11 Preview
Belgium vs. Russia
Belgium entered Brazil as one of the chic, dark-horse candidates to go deep in the tournament and perhaps even challenge for the World Cup title. Though the Red Devils came out a bit flat in their opening match against Algeria, falling behind 1-0, they were ultimately able to pull off a 2-1 victory and take control of Group H.
Things figure to get even more difficult for Belgium Sunday when it takes on a talented Russian squad that salvaged a point against South Korea after a goalkeeping miscue nearly led to a loss. Although most analysts have tabbed Belgium as a sure bet to win the group, it wouldn't be wise to count the Russians out.
Russia is a talented squad that fully expects to advance to the next round, and a win over Belgium would help the team immensely in that regard. Belgium could potentially be vulnerable on the back line as center-back and captain Vincent Kompany's status is in question, according to SuperSport Blitz:
Belgium manager Marc Wilmots expects injured captain Vincent Kompany to be back in training ahead of their Sunday's clash against Russia— SuperSport Blitz (@SuperSportBlitz) June 20, 2014
Even if Kompany does play, it stands to reason that he won't be 100 percent and could be susceptible to making some mistakes. Whether Russia can take advantage of that remains to be seen.
With attacking talent such as Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne in place, Belgium is capable of running with and scoring against any team in the tournament. With that said, the Belgians haven't necessarily put it all together as a national team and needed a comeback to beat an inferior Algerian squad.
Because of that, expect a 1-1 draw in this match, which will suit Russia just fine.
South Korea vs. Algeria
Which Day 11 World Cup match are you most excited for?
Although it may look like the least exciting match of the day on paper, South Korea and Algeria will have plenty on the line when they play Sunday. While Belgium seems likely to advance, the second spot is very much up for grabs. A win by either of these teams would go a long way toward grabbing that position, so this should be a tightly contested affair.
Both South Korea and Algeria are usually content to sit back and play a defensive style. That will make set pieces particularly important, since there may not be a ton of chances within the flow of the game. South Korea is in a slightly better position after netting a draw against Russia, but perhaps it didn't even deserve that result since the goal it scored was fluky to say the least.
Algeria is a frustrating team that doesn't give up much defensively, so someone will have to step up for the Koreans. There may be no better option than captain Koo Ja-cheol, who seems calm and cool heading into the match, according to FIFA.com.
Things like morale and the preparation, that are not in the hands of the coaching staff, are my responsibilities. If I observe the players and I control them, so to speak, to make sure that they enter the match together, then I think we will get a good result against Algeria. I don't feel especially pressured or overwhelmed by the responsibilities.
Conventional wisdom suggests that Algeria will be the more desperate side, but the African team simply doesn't press forward much. Since South Korea is likely to apply much of the pressure, the Koreans will find a way to escape with a 1-0 win.
United States vs. Portugal
After the thrilling victory over Ghana to open its World Cup run, the United States has a chance to advance to the knockout round if it can find a way to beat Portugal. Team USA was a decided underdog entering the World Cup in a group with Germany, Portugal and Ghana, but the Yanks hold their fate in their own hands.
Portugal's World Cup couldn't have gotten off to a much worse start as it lost 4-0 to Germany, lost some players due to injury and lost defender Pepe to a red card. On top of all that, there are plenty of questions regarding the health of world-class attacker Cristiano Ronaldo. As seen in this photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated, Ronaldo's knee appears to be far from 100 percent:
Despite that, Team USA midfielder Kyle Beckerman is fully aware of how dominant Ronaldo can be regardless of how healthy he is, according to Filip Bondy of the New York Daily News.
He's a big challenge, for sure. It seems he's most dangerous when we have the ball and we're attacking. We need to have an eye on him at all times. The key is being on high alert. He doesn't need many touches. He can have 20, 30 touches the whole game and score goals. It's gonna take everyone watching each other's back.
While Portugal is expected to have Ronaldo in the lineup, the same can't be said for the United States and their striker Jozy Altidore. He went down with a hamstring injury in the 21st minute against Ghana and was forced to leave the match.
There is still some optimism that he could be back at some point, but he will not play against Portugal, per SportsCenter:
BREAKING NEWS: USMNT F Jozy Altidore will not play Sunday against Portugal due to strained left hamstring. pic.twitter.com/EDgVh6o4Fl— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) June 19, 2014
That certainly poses a dilemma for the United States as head coach Jurgen Klinsmann must decide between starting Aron Johannsson or Chris Wondolowski in his place. Also, striker Clint Dempsey broke his nose against Ghana, so he won't be 100 percent either.
The biggest key in this match is unquestionably Ronaldo. Germany held him in check, which rendered Portugal completely harmless. If Team USA can do something similar, then a win is very much possible. The Americans truly seem to believe that they have what it takes to advance. That belief will lead to a 2-1 upset of A Seleccao.
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