This is exactly why we all could not wait for the start of the Qatar World Cup. It is about the dazzling upsets, the raw emotions, the sense of nullification of invincibility. The heart. And most importantly, the sheer appetite of a united team wheeled by millions of compatriots. Those are the unique features of the biggest football competition on the planet.
As the clock ticked towards the 13th minute of stoppage time on Tuesday afternoon, it had become clear that Saudi Arabia had pulled off the greatest shock of the 21st century. Herve Renard’s men had defeated one of the tournament’s favourites, Argentina. Indeed, the odds for a Saudi Arabia win was 79.
And if that felt like one of those games that had to happen, Germany suffered the same fate against an organised Japanese team. After going one down in the first half, Hajime Moriyasu rang some changes, which ended up being the difference.
Still, there were some expected yet astonishing results in the other matches. Spain earned their biggest World Cup win ever with a 7-0 drubbing of Costa Rica, and the defending champions, France, outclassed Australia 4-1.
Some cracking fixtures are set to happen this Thursday in Groups G and H, with two more African sides and the tournament’s most successful team, Brazil, on the bill.
Switzerland vs Cameroon
The outcome of this fixture could yet have dire implications for one of the trickiest groups at this World Cup.
Switzerland have been on the rise for more than a decade. Since the young Swiss defeated Nigeria at the U-17 competition in 2009, there has been a conscious effort to identify and nurture young prospects from the academies.
The Red Crosses went as far as the quarterfinals in the last Euros, defeating France in dramatic fashion on penalties. They also finished top of their qualifying group with 18 points ahead of Italy.
And even with the replacement of Vladimir Petkovic with Murat Yakin, Switzerland have continued to make progress. Yakin’s men earned superb wins against Spain and Portugal to retain their Nations League status in September.
For the former Basel player, the objective will be to control the game against a quick and aggressive Cameroon team. If anything, the loss to Ghana in the warm-up game will have given him an idea of how the African team might set up.
Granit Xhaka, who has been impeccable for the Premier League leaders, Arsenal, will be crucial to the setup. Breel Embolo will need to be clinical against the nation where he was born.
Their opponents will be counting on the pace of the wingers and full-backs to create chances for Vincent Aboubakar. Eric Choupo-Moting has also chosen the right time to be in form, scoring goals in the final weeks leading up to the competition for Bayern Munich.
In midfield, Napoli’s Zambo Anguissa has his work cut out for him in closing the spaces.
This encounter will be end-to-end, with either team only able to win by the odd goal.
Prediction: Under 3.5 at 1.23 odds
Uruguay vs South Korea
Uruguay will begin their campaign against a swift and skilful South Korean team. The appointment of Diego Alonso at the expense of Oscar Tabarez, who had spent 15 years there, has given the side a new lease on life.
After a streak of poor results, the South Americans needed to win four consecutive matches to qualify for the World Cup. They did.
And now, there is plenty to prove for this team since they made it to the semifinals of the 2010 edition.
Alonso has a cocktail of youth and experience to call on. Edison Cavani, Luis Suarez, and Darwin Nunez will fancy their chances against their Asian counterparts.
In midfield, where the manager will be requesting control and quick-paced passing, Rodrigo Bentacur and Federico Bentacur are his trusted soldiers. Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez will renew their partnership in the soul of the defence.
On the other hand, South Korea have recorded some poor performances and results in the build-up to this encounter. To make matters worse, Son Heung-Min is struggling to recover from an eye injury.
Paul Bento will need his team to be perfect. Kim Min-Jae will need to keep his concentration against a ruthless Uruguayan attack. Mallorca’s Kang-In Lee might yet start midfield, with many advocating for his start.
Uruguay might just be too much for South Korea, who are struggling for stability.
Prediction: Uruguay win at 1.73 odds
Portugal vs Ghana
Portugal are the favourites to win this encounter on account of quality and pedigree. Fernando Santos will be keen to see his team advance past the second round for the second time in six tournaments.
The Selecao have huffed and puffed in the last year, needing playoffs to qualify. Even more, the past few weeks have been about dealing with the distractions of Cristiano Ronaldo and his Manchester United issues.
Against Ghana, Santos will need to dictate the play and take the initiative. His side has been particularly pragmatic in the last few competitions, a style that won them the 2016 Euros. And yet, the Europeans will readily have more of the possession.
The industry and creativity of Bernardo Silva will play a big part in how they perform. Rafael Leao might get the nod to start on the wings. Bruno Fernandes will need to drop into offensive pockets to receive the ball and find Ronaldo. Rafael Guerrero will also be afforded the freedom to bump forward from left full-back.
After a disappointing outing at the Nations Cup in February, Ghana appointed Otto Oddo, and there has been a change in fortune. The Black Stars did enough to advance from the playoffs ahead of Nigeria.
The quality of the competition becomes even higher. Addo will count on Thomas Partey to give the side the needed impetus. Andre Ayew and Jordan Ayew will have a lot on their plates offensively.
It is difficult to see anything but a Portugal win in this encounter.
Prediction: Portugal win at 1.38 odds
Brazil vs Serbia
Indeed, the world has been waiting to experience the feel and razzmatazz of the Samba boys. A Neymar-led team will hope to get their campaign off to a brilliant start. And yet, Serbia have shown exactly what they are about and will certainly not go down without a fight.
This is a repeat of the 2018 group stage encounter, which the Selecao shaded by two goals. Tite’s men were dominant in qualifiers, winning 14 out of 17 matches.
The Brazil manager will be desperate to see his number-one-ranked team progress past their 2018 quarterfinal hurdle. These South Americans are brimming with confidence, having won their last seven matches and holding a 15-game unbeaten record.
Still, they will need to avoid complacency after seeing how their fellow CONMEBOL team succumbed to Saudi Arabia.
Neymar will get the freedom to float around in the final third and fashion out spaces. On the flanks, Vinicius and Raphina will get the task of taking the full-backs on and combining with Richarlison. Lucas Pacqueta always seems to get under the radar in this team, yet his influence is conspicuous.
Serbia have a more than decent core to test the resolve of their opponents. After six wins in eight qualifying matches, they will back themselves to wipe the floor with any team, even if they are Brazil.
Fulham’s Aleksandar will look to isolate himself with Thiago Silva. Juventus’ Dusan Vlahovic will hope to profit from the spaces afforded him. Sergej Milinko-Savic can be the X-factor on his day from midfield, alongside the experienced Dusan Tadic.
The stakes are high for this one, and Brazil may not find things as easy.
Prediction: Over 2.5 goals at 1.68