The structure of the World Cup means that teams no longer have to remain undefeated in order to qualify from the groups and into the knockout stage. In the opening rounds of the competition, two out of four sides will progress from their respective sections but it is still important to finish at the top of your own table.
Countries finishing in first place should, in theory, have an easier match in the first of the knockouts but what are the group stage tiebreakers that could shape the destiny of this summer’s tournament?
Host nation Brazil will open the tournament in what will surely prove to be the most important match in Group A. Croatia await Luiz Felipe Scolari’s men and a win for the home country is likely to secure a place at the top of the section.
The remainder of the group is comprised of Mexico and Cameroon and while both teams have upset the odds in the past, Brazil and Croatia should be targeting maximum points from those fixtures. The Croatians started their qualifying campaign in positive fashion and in the opening games they comfortably matched eventual winners Belgium.
The Eastern European side then suffered a slump and after a shock defeat at the hands of unfancied Scotland, they finished second and needed to beat Iceland in the play offs to qualify for the finals. Brazil are certainly the stronger side on paper and are favourites to win the opening match at 3/10. There is a concern that Scolari’s men have played little in the way of competitive football however and this may not be as straightforward as the market suggests.
There’s no doubt over the most important game in Group B where Spain and the Netherlands face each other in a repeat of the 2010 World Cup final. The Spanish eventually won that game but needed extra time to seal the victory and it could be equally tight when the sides clash in Brazil.
Once again, this is the opening match of the group and there is so much riding on the outcome that it could be a very cagey and nervous affair. Both teams will be targeting two victories in the remaining fixtures against Chile and Australia and if this game is drawn, the winner of the section could be decided on goal difference.
Both Spain and the Dutch were impressive in qualifying and remained unbeaten as they headed their relevant sections. Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands’ side had the slightly better record with nine wins and one draw from their ten ties as Robin Van Persie finished as joint top scorer in all qualifying with 11 goals.
Spain won six and drew two of their eight matches and are slight favourites for the win in this vital game at Even Money. Holland are at 16/5 with BetVictor but a tense tie may well lead to the draw which is quoted at 47/20 with Winner Sports.
This could be the tightest of all sections at the 2014 World Cup and all four teams will feel that they have a chance of progressing to the next stage. We don’t have a ‘giant’ of World football here but Greece, Colombia, Ivory Coast and Japan will contest a very close group.
From that list, Colombia are the bookies’ favourites to qualify and the South Americans are odds on at 5/6 with Coral. Ivory Coast and Japan are bunched closely together in the group winner market so the most vital game will take place on 14th June when the two sides meet in Recife.
The Africans are very marginal favourites for the win at 13/8 while the Japanese follow at 2/1 with Stan James. Both teams were solid in qualifying and while that fixture looks almost impossible to call, a victory for either side is likely to result in progression to the next phase.
This is the so called ‘Group of Death’ with three strong teams battling it out for two qualifying slots. Italy, Uruguay and England will all be hoping to make it into the top two and while the Costa Ricans can be dangerous, they are likely to finish at the bottom of the section.
Neutrals may find this too tough to predict but the bookmakers have made Italy favourites to take the group stages at 7/4 with Stan James. Uruguay follow at 15/8 with Betfred while England are in third position at 9/4 with William Hill.
With three evenly matched teams in Group D, it’s difficult to pick one match that will decide the fate of those involved but the opening fixture sees Italy and England face off in Manaus on 14th June. When these teams met at Euro 2012, the Italians had the better of the play but it needed a penalty shoot out to separate them.
This could be another match where the importance of the outcome leads to a cagey set of performances from the players involved and the best option in the result market may be the draw at 2/1 with Winner Sports.
England will then travel to Sao Paolo to take on the Uruguayans and this is a match that Roy Hodgson’s men must win. Three points from this game together with a draw from the Italy tie should leave the nation in a comfortable position when they face Costa Rica who, in all probability, will have been eliminated after their first two fixtures.
The final, crucial match in this section sees Uruguay face the Italians in Natal and it could be a case of ‘winner takes all’ with the victors set to progress to the knockout stage.
France are hot favourites to win group E at odds of 4/5 with Betfred but look out for a Swiss side who were undefeated in the qualifying stages. The Swiss came top of UEFA’s section E with a seven point gap over Iceland and they will be confident of providing a tangible challenge to the French.
Switzerland start their campaign against an Ecuador team who are likely to provide their biggest threat to a second place finish but if Ottmar Hitzfeld’s men can carry over their form from qualifying, this should be a relatively comfortable match.
The bookies are certainly expecting a Swiss victory with Hitzfeld’s men favourites at 13/10 with Winner Sports to claim three points and that would set up the most crucial tie of this group.
France take on Switzerland in Salvador on June 20th and the winner of that game is likely to finish at the top of this section. With the unfancied Hondurans completing the group, anyone taking three points in this match should face an easier tie in the knockout stage and it could be an entertaining match between two very open sides.
The French are favourites for the win against their toughest opponents at 13/10 with Stan James but the head to head record between these two sides certainly gives Switzerland some hope. The two teams faced each other in the qualifying rounds for the 2006 World Cup in Germany and both games ended in draws. France and Switzerland qualified for the finals where they were drawn together in group G and once again, we saw a share of the points thanks to a 0-0 final scoreline.
In contrast to all the groups that we have seen so far, this section really only has one likely winner. Argentina are odds on to come top of Group F and leading up to the tournament, Alex Sabella’s men are available at a best of 1/4 with Winner Sports.
The South Americans have the benefit of being able to play in familiar conditions but their group stage opponents are not expected to cause too many problems. The Argentines open with a clash against Bosnia and Herzegovina before finishing their campaign with games against lowly Iran and Nigeria and the bookies aren’t expecting any shocks.
The real battle is for second place so arguably, the hardest tie in this section is between Bosnia and Nigeria in Cuiaba on 21st of June. The African side are narrow favourites for that game but the Bosnians have some dangerous players including Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko and this could prove to be an absolute thriller.
Group G is another section where at least three countries will be hopeful of making it through to the next phase of the competition. Germany and Portugal are the obvious favourites to head to the round of sixteen but it won’t be easy against tricky teams from Ghana and the United States.
The Ghanaians made it to the quarter finals in South Africa four years ago and were only narrowly beaten by a single German goal during the group phase. The Africans went on to defeat the US in the first of the knockout rounds before losing to Uruguay in controversial circumstances.
Jurgen Klinsmann’s American side also have experience of the knockouts and after a strong qualifying phase they will be nobody’s pushover.
However, the bookies have the Germans installed at favourites to win the group at 4/7 with Coral while Portugal are close behind at 11/4 with Winner Sports. USA and Ghana just aren’t fancied at all and they come in at 14/1 and 16/1 respectively.
Therefore, in all probability, the most crucial game in this section will see Germany and Portugal meet in Salvador on the 16th of June. Once again, the fixture schedule has pitted the two strongest teams together on the opening day and this could lead to another tense fixture where both sides are desperate not to lose.
As favourites to win the group outright, Joachim Low’s German side are naturally at the head of the betting at 19/20 with Winner Sports but if you subscribe to the theory that this will be a tense encounter, the draw is a great option at 23/10 with William Hill.
The final group contains Belgium who many people are getting excited about ahead of this tournament. This is a side that contains some of the best players in Europe including Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois and Romelu Lukaku.
The Belgians will have to face South Korea and Algeria and while they could be tricky ties, it does indicate that the crucial game for Marc Wilmots’ side will come against the Russians in Rio de Janeiro on 22nd of June.
Russia under Fabio Capello made a strong start to their qualifying campaign and although their form dipped a little towards the end of their ten matches, they still topped the group by one point ahead of Portugal. Belgium and Russia are the likely qualifiers from Group H but their head to head is set to decide who tops the section and who comes home in second place.
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These appear to be the vital ties in the opening group phase of the 2014 World Cup but to use an old cliché, there is no easy game in World Football. Shocks have happened in previous finals and even the so called superpowers have been on the receiving end of some unforgettable upsets.
In 1982, West Germany lost their opening game of the tournament to Algeria by two goals to one. Could the current German side suffer against Ghana or the USA?
In 1990, Argentina travelled to Italy as the defending champions but they were shocked by Cameroon who used robust tactics to take the points by a single goal. 2014’s Argentina also have to face African opposition in the shape of Nigeria and will doubtless be reminded of that surprise defeat 24 years ago. There may well be some surprises along the way but the games outlined above should prove to be the ones that shape the destiny of this summer’s tournament.