SAMARA, July 2: There are not many teams in world football who boast an even moderately successful record against five-time World Cup winners Brazil but in recent years Mexico has proved it has what it takes to upstage the yellow-shirted powerhouse.
For teams and fans alike, Saturday 30 June is when things get serious in Russia. And by the time the whistle goes to start the Round of 16 fixture between Uruguay and Portugal, the teams will already be aware of who lies in wait for the victors in the quarter-finals.
The knockout stages of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia begin on Saturday, with France and Argentina set to meet in Kazan for the first Round of 16 encounter. These two heavyweights of international football are always among the favourites to lift the Trophy, and boast of some of the game’s biggest superstars, from Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann to Lionel Messi and Angel Di Maria. It is a duel to warm the hearts of every devotee of the beautiful game.
The group stage draws to a close on Thursday with one of its most eagerly anticipated games, the calendar serving up a delicious showdown between England and Belgium. Both will be vying for top spot in Group G as they lock horns in Kaliningrad.
With Belgium and England now officially through to the Round of 16, all that remains for Tunisia and Panama, the other two nations in Group G at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia, is to try to bow out with a bang. Both teams will be intent on putting on a good show, serving up goals and securing a victory that would allow them to head home with their heads held high.
Japan are within touching distance of reaching the knockout phase of the FIFA World Cup for the third time in their history. A draw against Poland will guarantee the Samurai Blue qualification from the group stage, while depending on other results, even defeat at the Volgograd Arena could grant the Japanese a spot in the Round of 16. However, both players and coach alike are united in their conviction not to set out for a draw.
Senegal head coach Aliou Cisse and Colombia head coach Jose Pekerman won't be needing to write inspiring pre-match team talks for their next game. The significance of this encounter speaks for itself and the importance of the match will not be lost on a single Senegalese or Colombian player, with a spot in the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Round of 16 at stake.
If there is one thing that Switzerland have demonstrated at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia, it is exceptional resilience. In both fixtures to date, comprising their draw against Brazil and a last-gasp victory over Serbia, Die Nati have managed to find a way back into the match despite having gone a goal down.
Argentina will be firmly hoping history is on their side in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday. Having been backed into a corner after dropping points in their first two games, their FIFA World Cup record against Nigeria may be their last remaining crumb of comfort.
The pressure is off France in their final Group C fixture, since they have already reached the Round of 16, and Denmark very much have the advantage in their quest to join Les Bleus in the knockout stages.
Spain and Morocco will have different aims when they meet in Kaliningrad on Monday 25 June, in what will be each team's final Group B fixture. La Roja are intent on getting a result to seal a spot in the Round of 16 without depending on the outcome of the other game between IR Iran and Portugal, while the already-eliminated Atlas Lions are out to salvage some pride.
Although neither of Saudi Arabia or Egypt can now make it to the Round of 16 at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia, fans can nevertheless expect a competitive contest between the two. Both want to end their campaigns on a positive note and make up for their disappointing results in the first two games.
Both Poland and Colombia started the 2018 FIFA World Cup with painful defeats, losing to Senegal and Japan respectively in Group H. Now they meet for the first time ever at a global showpiece and go into their Matchday 11 clash in Kazan with their backs to the walls.
Japan and Senegal head into a decisive encounter in Ekaterinburg which is key to not just their own Russia 2018 ambitions, but for the final outcome of Group H. For many, the pair’s shared grip on top spot is a surprise with both Colombia and Poland now having very little room for error.
No -one can take anything for granted at this FIFA World Cup, not even the reigning champions. Shocked by a skilful, combative Mexico side last time out, Germany – who dazzled en route to winning last year's FIFA Confederations Cup with a youthful side – have it all to do.
Two enticing and confident teams are set to go head-to-head in Kaliningrad on 22 June in an all-European clash. Fresh from a 1-0 win over Costa Rica in their opening game, Serbia now face a Switzerland team that held group favourites Brazil to a 1-1 draw.
La Albiceleste are in an entirely different situation. The unexpected draw with tournament debutants Iceland has left Jorge Sampaoli's side with much to do ahead of what looks to be their toughest assignment in the section. A win is vital if they are to avoid a nerve-wracking final match. Yet if there is one thing that Argentina proved on their tortuous journey to Russia it is that they can respond when under pressure.
France and Peru head into an encounter that is set to be a decisive one, not just for their own fortunes, but for the overall outcome of Group C. France can potentially book passage to the knockout stage with a win, while Peru likely need at least a point to avoid suffering an painful early exit on their FIFA World Cup return.
The consensus going into this vital Group C contest is that Denmark are the favourites, but not overwhelmingly so. Everything points to a highly competitive match-up between nations with respectable FIFA World Cup traditions, desperate to write new and successful chapters in their world finals history books.
Iran’s last-gasp victory over Morocco brought two unwanted streaks to an end for them. It marked Team Melli’s first World Cup win since they beat USA 2-1 at France 1998, after a run of seven matches that included five draws and two defeats.
Having experienced starkly contrasting fortunes in their respective 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia openers, Uruguay and Saudi Arabia return to Group A action with a potentially make-or-break meeting in Rostov.
There are wildly contrasting feelings in the respective team camps heading into the first fixture of Group B's second round. Portugal will be riding the crest of a Cristiano-shaped wave, after their talismanic captain grabbed a historic hat-trick to help his side claim a 3-3 draw against their Iberian neighbours Spain.
Russia and Egypt could not arrive in Saint Petersburg with more disparate emotions following their opening games at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia. The hosts dealt with the pressure of the curtain-raiser in staggering style, while Egypt saw their long-awaited return start off with a last-gasp, gut-wrenching defeat.
At their first ever FIFA World Cup in 2002, Senegal defeated defending champions France in their opening match and went on to make the quarter-finals, before going down to a golden goal against Turkey.
Four years on, Colombia and Japan are gearing up for another showdown at the global extravaganza. On 24 June 2014, Los Cafeteros came out firing on all cylinders to claim an impressive 4-1 victory over the Japanese in Brazil.
England last win in a FIFA World Cup game is already something of a distant memory, so much so that many would struggle to remember the 1-0 victory against Slovenia almost eight years ago at South Africa 2010. Indeed, not a single player involved in that game in Port Elizabeth was named in the squad for Russia 2018.
Brazil have won 16 of their 20 opening matches at the World Cup. The only two they have lost came at the first two world finals, back in the days when they played in white. The Brazilians went down 2-1 to Yugoslavia at Uruguay 1930 and 3-1 to Spain at Italy 1934.
A veritable clash of the titans, this match pits two FIFA World Cup title pretenders against each other right from the outset. Although the neighbouring nations are old foes, this will be only their second-ever meeting on football’s greatest stage, after a tense Round-of-16 duel in South Africa from which the Spaniards emerged victorious (1-0).
This is the first Russia 2018 outing for both teams and just the second match in the tournament, being the opening action on Day 2. Both sides will be desperate to begin Group A in positive style, following the Opening Match between Russia and Saudi Arabia.