NZME's award winning* football blog Goalmouth Scramble is back. Our rotating stable of football writers will offer daily hot takes on all the action from the World Cup in Russia. Today, Niall Anderson provides an undeniable list of the best and worst games coming your way over the next month.
The Best Games of the World Cup
Spain v Portugal
Oh, we have to start here, don't we? What already looked to be a juicy encounter has turned into a dramatic opening act after news last night that Spain have fired manager Julen Lopetegui, just two days out from their opener. This would have been one of the games of the group stage regardless of Spain's chaotic decision, but now, it's completely up in the air as to how Spain will respond. Good thing there wasn't an idiot who picked them to win it all, right?
Groups C and D
There's no real Group of Death at this World Cup (Group A is absolutely the Group of Life), but the highest quality of football is likely to be on display in Groups C and D. In Group C, France are the favourites to advance but have a touch of their usual flakiness, with Peru and Denmark likely fighting it out for second spot. Australia seem a bit overmatched, so if you're a fan of watching the Aussies lose on the big stage, Group C might be for you.
In Group D, Argentina could get a stern test from the exciting Croatian and Nigerian squads, while everyone's favourite Euro 2016 darling is back - Iceland, who have the added bonus of now being the focal point of a whole bunch of bad arguments involving New Zealand football. Make sure to catch plenty of the games from these groups.
Belgium v England
This will be one for everyone, with a slew of English Premier League players on show to rope in the casual fans. To be honest, I largely included this game just for my Belgium take, which is that the prevailing level of confidence in Belgium is way too high. For instance, three of my colleagues picked them to make the final - probably now a better bet than mine, to be fair - but I think the strength of their team is being overstated based simply on the English Premier League effect.
It's pretty simple - if a team has plenty of EPL players in it, the masses get behind them due to name recognition, when other teams have players who are just as good, but are lesser known simply by playing in Italy, Germany or France. Don't get me wrong, Belgium could go far, but they are definitely a tier below the favourites for the title.
England's inevitable exit
Ah, how we will all gather around and laugh. While I feel that the English fans are more realistic about their side with each passing World Cup - they're comfortably in the second tier of favourites in Russia - there's always a bit of schadenfreude to go around when they get knocked out. They do have a fairly easy path to the quarterfinals this time around, but that hasn't stopped them from glorious collapses in the past. God, let's just hope Raheem Sterling isn't in any way involved.
Oh, what a doozy when Group G Winner takes on Group H Runners-Up. A history of heavyweight battles between these two World Cup powerhouses - there's simply no love lost between these two sides.
The one with the VAR controversy
Bound to be a classic moment. Whether it's the referee still making a wrong decision after checking the video replay, or my personal favourite of the technology not working and letting an illegitimate goal stand, there will surely be one match-turning moment which will turn a whole country against the idea of video replay in sports.
Here's a quick power rankings of "Countries It Would Be Funniest For VAR To Screw Over".
Probably not the final
The incredible stakes involved make every final a gripping affair to watch, but they also probably cause the football played to be cautious and comparatively unexciting.
Since 1990, here are the final scores of World Cup finals: 0-0, 3-0, 2-0, 1-1, 1-0, 1-0. Barnburners, they are not.
The Worst Games of the World Cup
Tunisia v Panama
This will probably be a dead rubber, with these two teams meeting in their final group game after already both having faced Belgium and England. However, steal a point or three early on, and maybe my cockamamie hot take of England bowing out in the group stage can be proven correct.
The games at 3.00am
I am a nocturnal being who prefers to watch obscure cycling races instead of sleeping at normal hours, but my long-standing theory of 3.00am being the worst time to consume sport (or, let's be frank - consume anything) again applies to this World Cup. Most people who work normal hours could fairly comfortably either stay up for the midnight game or rise early for the 6am contest, but the 3.00am games are smack bang in the middle of unproducitivity - too late to stay up for, but finish too early to stay awake before work. Banish these games to hell.
Brazil v Germany
The famous rematch of the 7-1 drubbing could come as early as the round of 16, which would be fittingly anticlimactic for a game which is impossible to live up to expectations. Unless Brazil get revenge by absoluting battering the Germans, there's no way it will be as good as the 2014 edition, and it will probably end with a dour 1-0 German victory.
(As an aside, "Watching a Replay of The 7-1 Game" would rank ahead a good 75 per cent of these group games in terms of watchability.)
The third place playoff match
In pretty much every way, the third place playoff match is the opposite of the final. There are no stakes, so the reserves get a run, and nobody is too interested in defending. Since 1974, all the games have had three or more goals, but with nothing to play for bar an extra $2 million for the federation, it does have the feel of a glorified friendly.
Russia v Saudi Arabia
What a way to open the World Cup! Yury Gazinsky going head to head against Housain Al-Mogahwi! Two teams with a career World Cup winning percentage of... 18 per cent! And at the most convenient time of... 3.00am!
So, in the words of World Cup opening act Robbie Williams...
*Goalmouth Scramble's 'award' was more of an inter-company acknowledgement in an email from 2012.