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Drawing up grudge matches

China Daily | Updated: 2017-12-03 07:49

World Cup group stage schedule highlighted by Spain vs Portugal, England against Belgium

MOSCOW - Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal will take on Spain in the standout match of the 2018 World Cup group stage, while England will face a dangerous Belgium.

The draw, televised worldwide, was made on Friday at the State Kremlin Palace.

Spain, the 2010 World Cup winner, has been revitalized under Julen Lopetegui after underperforming in recent years and was seen as the team to avoid after missing out on a place among the top seeds.

 Drawing up grudge matches

Diego Maradona pulls England in Friday's draw for the 2018 World Cup in Moscow. Maradona was the man who led Argentina to knock England out of the 1986 World Cup with his famous 'Hand of God' goal. Reuters

It was reigning European champion Portugal that was handed an Iberian derby in a glitzy draw ceremony that featured an appearance by Russian President Vladimir Putin alongside FIFA president Gianni Infantino.

The draw also laid out all sides' potential routes to the final, and revealed such tantalizing prospects as a quarterfinal between Spain and Argentina, and possible semifinals of Spain against Germany or France versus Brazil.

Spain's match against Portugal is a mouthwatering early clash set for the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Friday, June 15.

"They are the champions of Europe, they have fantastic players and we are talking about the highest level," coach Lopetegui told Spanish TV station Cuatro.

Real Madrid star Ronaldo turns 33 in February, meaning this will probably be his last shot at World Cup glory.

Messi vs Iceland

Meanwhile, reigning world champion Germany, Brazil and France will all be pleased with their draws, but the prospects appear tougher for Argentina, which will come up against Croatia, Nigeria and tournament debutant Iceland as Lionel Messi looks to make up for losing the 2014 final to Germany.

Messi turns 31 during the tournament, meaning this is also probably the last chance for the Barcelona superstar to win the World Cup.

Germany is paired with Mexico, Sweden and South Korea in Group F as Joachim Loew's men try to become the first nation to retain the title since Brazil in 1962.

"I am certainly not scared," Loew told ZDF television.

Five-time champion Brazil, eager to exorcise the demons of 2014 and its 7-1 semifinal humiliation against Germany, drew Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia in Group E.

It has been said before that France coach Didier Deschamps has a lucky star over his head when it comes to these draws, and his side will be confident of emerging from Group C ahead of Australia, Peru and Denmark.

"Whatever the group, the French team has to qualify for the knockout round and finish first in the group," the 1998 World Cup-winning captain Deschamps told BeIN Sport.

England wary

Former England striker-turned television commentator Gary Lineker oversaw the draw and his nation will be pleased after Diego Maradona, who knocked Lineker's England out of the 1986 World Cup with his infamous 'Hand of God' goal, drew Gareth Southgate's men in Group G with Belgium, Tunisia and debutant Panama.

England manager Southgate was wary, however, considering his country's recent disappointments.

"We've been good at writing teams off and then getting beat," Southgate said. "We've got to be prepared for every game."

If England fails to win its group, it could in theory find itself on a collision course with Germany and Spain later on.

England opens the tournament against Tunisia in Volgograd - in a stadium built on one of the main sites of the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the bloodiest episodes of World War II - on Monday, June 18.

Meanwhile, Japan will face a tough task to finish in the top two of Group H, which also features Robert Lewandowski's Poland, Sadio Mane's Senegal and Colombia.

The tournament that spans 11 cities and 12 stadiums kicks off on June 14 when host Russia takes on Saudi Arabiain Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium, which will also host the final on July 15.

Agence France-presse

(China Daily 12/03/2017 page12)

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