With qualifying and now the draw behind us, it's time to focus on the best part of the World Cup: the games.
Another benchmark on the road to World Cup 2018 was reached today, as the draw was released in what was a bizarre ceremony at the Kremlin. We're another step closer to the best part of the World Cup process, which, of course, is the actual soccer games.
Now that we know which teams will be playing one another in those games, let's take a look at the ten best matches of the group stage, in no particular order. It's also worth noting that some of these matches will be each team's third of the group stage, meaning some teams might have already clinched a spot in the Round of 16 by then. That might affect their strategy and thus the quality of the game. But it's too tough to predict what the standings will look like at that point, so we'll view each game on its own merits.
Group B: Portugal vs. Spain, June 20, 1:00 p.m. EST
This meeting of Iberian Peninsula rivals pits Cristiano Ronaldo and the defending European champions against new-look Spain, a team that cruised through qualifying. The winner of this game will be in pole position to take Group B—can Spain rebound from a disastrous 2014 tournament?
Group F: Germany vs. Mexico, June 17, 10:00 a.m. EST
Germany is the defending champion and was absolutely perfect through qualifying, winning all ten games and accruing a +30 goal differential. El Tri was similarly dominant in CONCACAF and has its best team in years. Something's gotta give.
Group G: England vs. Belgium, June 28, 1:00 p.m. EST
Eden Hazard. Romelu Lukaku. Harry Kane. Marcus Rashford. This matchup features a healthy dose of Premier League stars. Plus, it's the last game of the group stage, meaning this could well decide who wins Group G.
Group E: Serbia vs. Brazil, June 27, 1:00 p.m. EST
A true clash of styles. Led by Neymar, Brazil is filled with creative players that favor a fluid style. What resulted in qualifying was goals—many, many goals. On the contrary, Serbia will be disciplined and defensive.
Group C: France vs. Peru, June 21, 7:00 a.m. EST
France might be the most talented team in the tournament from top-to-bottom and Les Blues fancy its chances to make a deep run. Peru got past New Zealand in a playoff to book its first World Cup berth since 1982.
Group H: Poland vs. Colombia, June 24, 1:00 p.m. EST
Robert Lewandowski will captain the Poland side against Colombia and his Bayern Munich teammate James Rodriguez. This is one of the more even matches of the group stage.
Group D: Argentina vs. Iceland, June 16, 8:00 a.m. EST
What a tough opening match for Argentina—Lionel Messi's side start the tournament with Iceland, the smallest-ever nation (population:330,000) to qualify for the World Cup finals. A solid 10% of the country could be in Russia, and those Viking Claps will be seen early and often. Those fans have reasons to celebrate. Also, it's an absolute joy to watch Lionel Messi anytime, anywhere.
Group F: Sweden vs. South Korea, June 18, 7:00 a.m. EST
All eyes will be on Germany and Mexico in this group, but this match will surely reward those who rise early to watch it. Sweden is coming off a huge upset of Italy in the UEFA playoffs, while South Korea is headlined by Tottenham's Son Heung-Min.
Group E: Switzerland vs. Costa Rica, June 17, 1:00 p.m. EST
Switzerland had some trouble with Northern Ireland in the playoff, but they're in the field nonetheless. Costa Rica will certainly not be nervous on the big stage, as the Ticos escaped the Group of Death to make an improbable run to the quarterfinals in 2014.
Group D: Croatia vs. Nigeria, June 16, 3:00 p.m. EST
Croatia is led by its world-class veterans who ply their crafts in Spain: Luka Modric of Real Madrid and Ivan Rakitic of Barcelona. Nigeria recently beat Argentina 4-2 in a friendly behind goals from Kelechi Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi, two 21-year-olds who play in the Premier League.