WITH just two days before Russia 2018 gets under way, it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty of the biggest and most esteemed competition in world football, the FIFA World Cup — the 21st edition to be exact.
The tournament kicks off on June 14 and will run up until July 15, will see teams from 32 different countries battling it out to be crowned world champions.
To date eight nations, Argentina, Brazil, England, France Germany, Italy, Spain and Uruguay have accounted for all 20 World Cup wins, with Brazil five titles leading the way.
As customary, Saint Lucians are known to be glued to their armchairs at home, while others will frequent their usual sports bars, including those on Jeremie Street, which normally turns into a party atmosphere at global event like these — and the question that is normally asked. Who should we be looking out for in the various groups and when do the big boys play each other?
On Thursday, the host Russia will start things off against Saudi Arabia from 4.00 p.m. at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, while Egypt will clash with Uruguay at 1.00 p.m., Central Stadium, in Yekaterinburg.
Russia will be hoping home soil advantage propels them through to the knockout stages.
And if the form guide is anything to go by, they’ll need all the help they can get.
The lowest-ranked team at the tournament, they haven’t had to play any qualifiers, neither have they made it past the group stage of any tournament since Euro 2008 when they reached the semi-finals.
Stanislav Cherchesov’s men will have their work cut out again, with the likes of Luis Suarez’s Uruguay and a Mohamed Salah-inspired Egypt side looking to spoil the party.
Saudi Arabia may also fancy their chances against the hosts.
Group B: Portugal, Spain, Morocco and Iran, but the key clash in here will undoubtedly be between Spain and Portugal.
Head coach JulenLopetegui has breathed new life into the Spain side, with the emergence of younger players including Real Madrid pair Isco and Marco Asensio.
But veteran midfielder Andrés Iniesta, 34, remains key, as does Portugal’s 32-year-old superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, who needs a World Cup winners’ medal to complete a very impressive set.
Morocco, with rising stars such as Ajax’s Hakim Ziyech in their ranks, and Iran will be have their sights set on causing an upset.
Two matches are scheduled for Friday 15 in Group B – Morocco vs Iran, 4.00 p.m, Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg, while Portugal vs Spain, 7.00 p.m, Fisht Olympic Stadium, Sochi
Group C: France, Australia, Peru and Denmark.
It’s time for Didier Deschamps’ young, exciting France side, boasting the talents of Paul Pogba, KylianMbappe and Antione Griezmann, to justify the hype.
But topping Group C might not be the formality many are predicting.
Denmark, with Tottenham’s in-form playmaker Christian Eriksen pulling the strings and chipping in with goals, offer a serious threat to their chances.
Similarly, Australia, once again pinning their hopes on evergreen talisman Tim Cahill, 37, are equally capable of upsetting the odds.
Two games are on the card for Saturday June 16 – France vs Australia, 11a.m, Kazan Arena, Kazan and Peru takes on Denmark at 5.00 p.m, Mordovia Arena, Saransk
Group D: Argentina, Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria
To cement his status as the greatest of his generation – and possibly ever – Barcelona forward Lionel Messi needs to lead his nation to a major tournament win.
His first task will be guiding Argentina out of the closest things Russia 2018 has to a ‘group of death’.
Croatia, with Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic at the heart of their midfield, are strong on paper, while Nigeria have exciting young forwards including Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi.
And Iceland have a history of knocking out big guns – just ask Roy Hodgson.
On Saturday, Argentina vs Iceland from 2.00 p.m, Otkrytie Arena, Moscow and Croatia vs Nigeria, at 8.00 p.m, Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad
Group E: Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica and China
Hotly-tipped Brazil should sail through to the knockout stages.
Coach AdenorBacchi – aka Tite – has transformed the national side since taking over in September 2016, adding stability and organisation to the Samba flair.
Forwards Neymar, Coutinho and Jesus are complemented by tough-tackling anchors Casemiro and Paulinho. The 7-1 drubbing to Germany at the 2014 World Cup is now a distant memory.
There isn’t much to suggest any of their Group E opponents are capable of denting their hopes of registering a 100% record going into the knockout stages.
Its Father’s day, on Sunday June 17, Costa Rica will take on Serbia, from 1.00 p.m, Samara Arena, Samara and Brazil vs Switzerland, at 7.00 p.m, Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don
Group F: Germany, Mexico, Sweden, and South Korea
If World Cup history tells us anything, it’s not to rule out Germany.
This time around, the defending world champions will be pinning their hopes on a new look, youthful team featuring the likes of Leroy Sane, Julian Draxler and Timo Werner, while Toni Kroos remains key, pulling the strings in midfield.
Standing in their way are three good, if a tad unremarkable teams in Sweden, Mexico and South Korea.
Familiar faces such as Mexico’s Javier Hernandez, now plying his trade at West Ham, and Sweden’s Victor Lindelof, of Manchester United, will be among those tasked with sending the Germans home.
Also on Sunday June 17, defending champions Germany takes on Mexico (CONCACAF), from 4.00 p.m, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
The following day, Sweden vs South Korea, 1pm, Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod
Group G: Belgium, Panama, Tunisia and England
Are England finally set to emulate the heroes of 1966 by bringing the World Cup home?
If it is the Three Lions’ time to shine, they’ll have to play their way out of a group that includes a particularly star-studded Belgium team.
Gareth Southgate’s men will have to be at their best to beat the Belgians, whose side includes Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, RomeluLukaku and Dries Mertens, to name a few.
Thankfully, wins over Tunisia and Panama should be little more than formalities for Harry Kane and company.
Monday June 18 – Belgium vs Panama, 4.00 p.m, Fisht Olympic Stadium, Sochi, while England will op[en their campaign against Tunisia at 7.00 p.m, Volgograd Arena, Volgograd
Group H: Poland, Senegal, Colombia and Japan
A tough group to call, each of the four teams are well capable of beating one another.
Poland have star striker Robert Lewandowski, fresh from bagging 16 goals in qualifying.
While Senegal boasts match winners such as Liverpool’s Sadio Mane, they qualified in controversial circumstances – their 2-1 defeat to South Africa was replayed after the referee was accused of match-fixing.
Colombia will be aiming for a repeat, or improvement on, their show four years ago, when they reached the quarter-finals in convincing fashion, thanks largely to forward James Rodriguez.
Japan will not be pushed over either, with former Manchester United midfielder Shinji Kgawa and Leicester’s Shinji Okazaki among their ranks.
Tuesday June 19 – Colombia vs Japan, 1.00 p.m, Mordovia Arena, Saransk, while Poland vs Senegal, at 4.00 p.m, Otkrytie Arena, Moscow.