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The World Cup trophy is displayed during the draw ceremony for the 2014 soccer World Cup in Costa do Sauipe near Salvador, Brazil, Friday, Dec. 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

Victor R. Caivano/Associated Press

A festival of football is nearly upon us, with the FIFA World Cup in Russia poised to get under way on Thursday.

The hosts take on Saudi Arabia in the tournament opener, triggering a month of action on the biggest stage in the sport.

The group stage of the competition, where the games come thick and fast, gives fans the chance to indulge.

And there’s always drama at this point in the World Cupwhether that be in the form of underperforming favourites, overachieving minnows or just enthralling matches.

Here’s a prediction for each group, the tournament odds and a closer look at a couple of standout pools.

World Cup Groups (In Order of Predicted Finish)

Group A

Uruguay

Egypt

Russia

Saudi Arabia

Group B

Spain

Portugal

Morocco

Iran

Group C

France

Denmark

Peru

Australia

Group D

Argentina

Croatia

Nigeria

Iceland

Group E

Brazil

Serbia

Switzerland

Costa Rica

Group F

Germany

Mexico

Sweden

South Korea

Group G

Belgium

England

Tunisia

Panama

Group H

Colombia

Poland

Senegal

Japan

World Cup Outright Odds

Germany: 9-2

Brazil: 19-4

Spain: 6-1

France: 13-2

Argentina: 19-2

Belgium: 12-1

England: 18-1

Uruguay: 25-1

Tournament odds available in full courtesy of OddsShark

Live Stream

In the United Kingdom, the action will be streamed via BBC Sport website or ITV Hub.

In the United States, the action will be streamed via Fox Soccer 2GO.

Selected Groups

Group D

Fernando Vergara/Associated Press

Having only just scraped into the tournament, there will be a lot of focus on Argentina and particularly Lionel Messi.

The Barcelona man has been criticised for his performances for La Albiceleste in recent years, as they’ve lost three major finals in recent summers: twice at the Copa America and in the 2014 World Cup. Without him, though, Argentina might not have even been involved in the finals.

In a must-win qualifying game, Messi netted a hat-trick in Ecuador to book Argentina’s place in Russia.

Per Rafael Hernandez of Grup14, the 30-year-old is capable of dragging any side to big results:

La Albiceleste will be favourites to win Group D, although the three other sides involved have the potential to cause problems for them.

Croatia have talent in abundance, especially in midfield, where Mateo Kovacic, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic can all boss matches. However, they’ve underwhelmed at the World Cup since finishing third in 1998.

As noted by Philip Blundell of The Anfield Wrap, Croatia always seem to be tipped to do well:

Nigeria and Iceland will be hoping to capitalise if either of the big names fails to perform. And they each have reason to believe they can progress.

The Super Eagles have plenty of attacking talent to call upon, and they beat Argentina 4-2 in a November friendly, with Alex Iwobi netting twice.

Meanwhile, Iceland showed at the 2016 European Championship they can upset the odds, after knocking out England in the last 16.

Group E

Andre Penner/Associated Press

One of the highlights of any World Cup is watching Brazil.

The nation will feel this team owes them, too, after they were embarrassed as the host nation four years ago. The 7-1 semi-final loss to Germany will live long in the memory, and those representing the Selecao will be doing their utmost to banish that nightmare.

The potential is there for them to do so. Unsurprisingly, this Brazil team is packed with wonderful attacking talent. Per the Selecao Brasileira Twitter account, manager Tite has several excellent options up top:

As noted by journalist Joe Crann, the Selecao have a tradition for excelling on the grandest stage:

They are the clear favourites to win the group, but the battle for the second qualifying spot should be fascinating. Serbia and Switzerland appear evenly matched on paper, and both fall comfortably into the dark-horse category.

Costa Rica shouldn’t be dismissed, either. In terms of individuals, they are the weakest side in the group; four years ago, though, they were outstanding and surprised plenty with a run to the quarter-finals.

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