- Russia 2018 set to serve up group games with an added narrative
- Japan, Mexico and Nigeria all out to avenge fresh defeats
- Croatia and Iceland set to rekindle their recent rivalry
We’re less than a month from kick off at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, with expectations beginning to simmer. While 64 games presents a mouth-watering array of possibilities for any fan to ponder, a few meetings will have something of a fresh narrative to continue when the sides come together.
Be it fresh scars from Brazil 2014, sparring on the road to the finals themselves or recent tussles on Russian soil, some of the upcoming group games will have a bit of added spark to them. We take a closer look at four which will certainly have a feeling of unfinished business when the two teams line up in the tunnel.
17 June, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
Following the opening-day jamboree three days earlier, the Luzhniki will see Mexico stepping out with payback on their mind. While El Tri will be a 20-hour drive north of Sochi, less than a year since a chastening 4-1 defeat ended their FIFA Confederation Cup Russia 2017 hopes in the semi-final that night in the Fisht Stadium will likely feel close to home.
“We didn’t achieve our objective of winning the competition, but I think we learned a lot for the World Cup,” explained Marco Fabian, whose 89th minute consolation screamer was voted Goal of the Tournament. “We switched off a couple of times and got knocked out as a result.”
Brazil are the only reigning champions to win their opening game at a World Cup in the last 20 years, so can Mexico take what they learned and serve another rude welcome for the title holders?
19 June, Mordovia Arena, Saransk
While many will remember James Rodriguez’s ferocious volley against Uruguay as the standout strike of Brazil 2014, the man himself remembers differently. “Personally, I preferred the one against Japan.”
His dinked finish was the elegant nail in Japan’s World Cup coffin, with the clash in Cuiaba their final action on South American soil. A win that day would have taken them into the knockout stages. “I cannot face the fact that we lost with a score of 4-1,” a dejected Shinji Okazaki said at full time.
No doubt that defeat will be in the minds of Okazaki, Shinji Kagawa and captain Makoto Hasebe when they kick off in just over a month’s time.
26 June, Saint Petersburg Stadium, Saint Petersburg
There was a collective groan from Super Eagles fans when they saw their name paired with South American big shots Argentina. Their meeting will mark a fifth crossing of paths in six trips to the finals for Nigeria since making their debut in 1994.
So far those encounters haven’t brought so much as a point for the west Africans, though they ended their Brazil 2014 trip four years ago with a thrilling 3-2 defeat which saw them run Lionel Messi et al close. It contained lessons they will look to execute in the hope of making it fifth time lucky.
“What cannot kill you makes you stronger,” Ogenyi Onazi said, looking back on the defeat. “The true Argentina is one of the best in the world and it’s not going to be easy. We’ve learned from our mistakes in Brazil and now it’s time for us to correct them.”
26 June, Rostov Arena, Rostov-On-Don
The final day of Group D action is going to be laced with plenty of subtext. At the same time as Nigeria look to end their Argentinian hoodoo, Croatia and Iceland will renew their recent rivalry.
Four years ago, Iceland were denied earning their title of the World Cup’s smallest ever nation by Croatia in their European qualifying play-off, with the islanders suffering a 2-0 defeat in Zagreb to put their dreams on hold.
"Probably looking back, [losing in the World Cup play-offs] was very important for us,” Gylfi Sigurdsson reflected, “because we knew how bad that felt and how disappointed you are when you’re so close and you miss out on it.”
It will have no doubt been particularly sweet for them to get their revenge on the road to Russia, topping their group after two dropped points in Finland sent Croatia into the play-offs. Now they will get to see who has the last laugh.