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Five key first-round matches

Russia-Saudi Arabia

June 14

This won’t be a good game. Aesthetically, it may be a terrible game. But the opener could also be the game that turns the tournament sideways. By consensus, Saudi Arabia is the worst team to qualify for this World Cup. Russia isn’t much better. If you are in Moscow if and when Russia loses this one, perhaps best to move the party indoors. Maybe to a bunker.

Portugal-Spain

June 15

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Two aging powerhouses trying to squeeze through their closing talent window. The best players on either squad (Ronaldo, Pepe, Silva, Iniesta, et al) are on the wrong side of 30. Best to enjoy them when the tournament is young and they’re still fresh.

Brazil-Switzerland

June 17

You may have forgotten the humiliating fashion in which the last World Cup ended for Brazil. Brazil certainly hasn’t. As such, it doesn’t need to win its first game. The Brazilians need to win it by a half-dozen goals. Otherwise, the second-guessing starts back home.

Argentina-Croatia

June 21

Among many possible themes to this World Cup – “Lionel’s Last Chance.” If Argentina’s Messi wants to be considered the greatest player ever, he has to win this right now. This match will be the tone-setter that lets us know which Argentina has shown up – the as-great-as-the-sum-of-its-considerable-parts squad; or the dreary Red Rover team the Argentines often swap in for World Cups.

England-Belgium

June 28

It’s tricky looking forward to any third match at the group stage. By this point, both teams may be cruising toward the knockout rounds and decide to rope-a-dope for 90 minutes. But that sort of gamesmanship is going out of fashion. If both squads are up for it, this could be a minor classic. If England is Englanding, this might also be enjoyable purely in schadenfreude terms.

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Five sleeper nations

Croatia

If England ever overcomes its sad-sack reputation, Croatia will assume its spot as the team that really should, but never quite can. The memories of France ’98 are growing dim. Now it’s time to get something accomplished.

Uruguay

Another team that has trouble translating huge on-paper talent (Suarez, Edinson Cavani, Diego Godin, et al) into real-life results. Uruguay has the luxury of a running start into the knockout rounds, since Group A is the weakest of the eight.

Portugal

Well, why not? It won Euro 2016 with Cristiano Ronaldo cheerleading from the sidelines. Anything’s possible. It has a nice blend of innocence and experience. And Ronaldo is one of two players on Earth capable of Diego Maradona-ing his way through a World Cup.

Colombia

When last we thought hard about James Rodriguez, he was scoring one of the great goals in World Cup history, his team was falling just short of the semis and your most annoying friend kept correcting your pronunciation of his first name (HAM-ez). Now that we’ve got that sorted, Colombia can’t surprise us.

Iceland

This ‘plucky underdog’ thing Iceland has got going doesn’t work quite so well if it is consistently good. And it is. On the plus side, the team is fun to watch. On the down side, that means more of that wretched “Viking clap,” which proves most people, including Icelanders, have no natural rhythm.

Five breakout stars

Spain’s midfielder Isco runs with the ball during the international friendly football match of Germany vs Spain in Duesseldorf, western Germany, on March 23, 2018, in preparation of the 2018 Fifa World Cup.

PATRIK STOLLARZ/Getty Images

Isco

Spain

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The guy on Real Madrid with the great beard whose name you have trouble remembering. If the Spanish national team has an elite future beyond this tournament, Isco must prove here that he is its flag-bearer.

Timo Werner

Germany

Germany makes great players, but not great strikers. Werner gets the job by default. But as Miroslav Klose proved, the key to scoring up front for Germany is standing very still while your teammates knock the ball in off your head.

Goncalo Guedes

Portugal

Portugal enters every big tournament with the world’s next great player hidden somewhere in its midfield. It often doesn’t work out (e.g. Renato Sanches). Guedes is young, slick and technically gifted. But does he know to pass it to Ronaldo every time, even if Ronaldo is sitting on the bench? That’s how you make it in Portugal.

Hirving Lozano

Mexico

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The best Dutch player in the tournament (well, he plays in Eindhoven, so beggars and choosers and all that). Once upon a time, the Eredivisie was the entry point to European stardom. Lozano is rumoured to be headed to Everton (hmmm …) this summer. So he will not lack for motivation in terms of improving his professional prospects.

Kylian Mbappé

France

Ten months ago, Mbappé, 19, was moved for the second-highest transfer fee in history (US$275-million). Then he functionally disappeared. It’s an odd thing to say about so expensive and talented a player, but this World Cup will be a sort of international coming out for Mbappé. If France goes well, so will he.

Five players to watch

Uruguay's Luis Suarez celebrates his penalty shot against Uzbekistan during a friendly soccer match in preparation for the 2018 Russia World Cup in Montevideo, Uruguay, on June 7, 2018.

Matilde Campodonico/The Associated Press

Luis Suarez

Uruguay/Barcelona

Will he score? In all likelihood. Will he bite someone again; or begin beating an opponent with a corner stick; or pretend his fingers have been shattered during the pregame handshakes? Oh God, let’s hope so. Any of those would be great.

Harry Kane

England/Tottenham

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The man who occupies the least desirable role in world sport – England’s great hope. Best-case scenario – he scores 10 goals and joins Real Madrid two days after the final. Another possible scenario – he misses a penalty against Germany and moves to Preston North End for “personal reasons.”

Gabriel Jesus

Brazil/Manchester City

This self-deprecating starlet is Brazil’s anti-Neymar. He brings the same level of offensive talent, without the annoying fakery, the look-at-me-ism or the martyr complex. At 14-to-1 odds, a good-value proposition to win the Golden Boot.

Mohamed Salah

Egypt/Liverpool

It’s almost certain world soccer’s 2018 breakout star will start the World Cup. But after suffering a dislocated shoulder in the Champions’ League final, will he be anywhere near his best? Somewhere in Cairo, someone is already writing the triumph-over-adversity screenplay.

Robert Lewandowski

Poland/Bayern Munich

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The top scorer in European qualifying, he is always overlooked in listings of the world’s best two or three strikers. This is Lewandowski’s chance to prove he’s in the Cristiano Ronaldo echelon (and not just by demanding to be transferred whenever he feels insufficiently feted).

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