By Andrew Downie, Andrew Cawthorne and Peter Rutherford
World Cup favourites Brazil will be expected to defeat Mexico in the second round of Group A matches in Fortaleza on Tuesday but their Latin neighbours have no reason to feel overawed.
The Mexicans have won big matches against Brazil before, beating them 4-3 in the final of the Confederations Cup in 1999 and more recently in the Olympic final in London.
Although that game was not a full international, the match featured several players expected to line up in Fortaleza including Neymar, Oscar and Thiago Silva for Brazil, and Oribe Peralta, the striker whose brace gave Mexico a 2-1 victory.
It gives Brazil pause for thought as they seek their 11th consecutive win.
“We know that Mexico are a good team, they always give Brazil a hard time and it won’t be any different when we play in the next match,” Oscar, one of the stars of the 3-1 opening day win over Croatia, said at the team’s base camp.
Mexico will also be encouraged by a rain-sodden 1-0 win over Cameroon on Friday when they received fantastic support from their travelling fans.
The home side, however, have won 22 of the 38 previous encounters including the most recent match almost exactly a year ago in the same stadium in the Confederations Cup when Brazil romped home more comfortably than the 2-0 scoreline suggests.
Both teams – and fans the world over – will also be watching the referee almost as closely as the players.
Brazil were given a contentious penalty at a crucial moment of the Croatia match, prompting talk about home field bias. And TV replays showed Mexico had two good goals disallowed before they finally got the winner in their opener against Cameroon.
In the day’s opening match and with a star-studded squad that makes a mockery of the old joke ‘who can name a famous Belgian?’, young and talented Belgium should breeze past Algeria in the Group H opener.
Maligned as a non-entity in the past their nation may have been, but now the team trips off everyone’s tongues: Thibault Courtois in goal, Vincent Kompany marshalling the back, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku terrorising defences.
Easy qualification, and a pool of thrilling young talent that is the envy of Europe, have made Belgium the bookmakers’ pre-tournament fifth favourites behind heavyweights Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Germany.
Yet it is their first World Cup since 2002, meaning the team lack experience on the big stage. And they have some frailties, such as erratic finishing and a lack of flying full backs.
Algeria come into the tournament looking underrated – who knew they were the highest-ranked African team? – and are probably happy all the pre-match hype is on their rivals.
Looking stronger than 2010, Algeria have constructed their side around French-born players drawn from the massive migrant population in Europe. Many of them switched allegiance after playing for France at junior level.
Group H is the last to get into action in Brazil, leaving both sides anxious as the goals fly elsewhere.
“We are not really feeling the World Cup fever yet,” said Belgian defender Jan Vertonghen.
“But after the opening game I’m sure it will be different.”
Minus creative midfielder Roman Shirokov due to injury, Russia are unlikely to play an expansive, attack-minded game against South Korea in their World Cup Group H opener on Tuesday, focusing instead on rigid discipline.
Just the way conservative coach Fabio Capello likes it.
Russia, who since the break-up of the Soviet Union have failed to progress to the knockout rounds of the World Cup, are in fine fettle after an impressive 2014 qualifying campaign in which they pipped Portugal to top their group.
Winners of four of their last five games, conceding just two goals, the Russians are making their first appearance at the World Cup since 2002 when the finals were co-hosted by South Korea and Japan.
While Russia have enjoyed a seamless buildup to Tuesday’s match at the Pantanal arena in Cuiaba, it would be no stretch to say the Koreans are in disarray.
Losers of four of their last five, including a 4-0 hammering by Ghana in their final warm-up on Monday, South Korea can only cast envious glances at their opponent’s defensive solidity having shipped 11 goals during the horror run.
Coach Hong Myung-bo, who skippered the Koreans on their magical run to the semi-finals on home soil 12 years ago, has his work cut out to rebuild their shattered confidence, but there is no doubt the team have been playing well within themselves.