So World Cup 2018 is exactly half over. Of a total of 64 matches, 32 have now been played. Teams have played 2 matches each, following which some have already confirmed qualification to the knock-out stage, while some others are already eliminated, and will be playing their last matches only for pride. The last 16 matches of the group stage begin from today.

[A note from FIFA Organising Committee on the determination of positions in the groups:

The top two teams after the round-robin is completed in each group are determined as follows (regulations Article 32.5):
1. points obtained;
2. goal difference;
3. number of scored goals;
• If two or more teams are equal on the basis of the above three criteria, the following rules apply:
4. points obtained in all matches between the tied teams;
5. goal difference in all matches between the tied teams;
6. number of goals scored in all matches between the tied teams;
7. fair play points across all group matches (only one of the following deductions applies to each player per match)
• one yellow card: −1;
• two yellow cards resulting in an indirect red card: −3;
• direct red card: −4;
• one yellow card followed by a direct red card: −5;
8. drawing of lots by the FIFA Organising Committee.]

In Group A, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are already out, and they play each other for 3rd and 4th places in the group, in Volgograd today (25th). Egypt require a draw to finish 3rd, but both teams, I’m sure, will play for a win to finish the campaign on a bright note. Hosts Russia and Uruguay face each other in Samara at the same time. Russia and Uruguay are both through to the knockout stage. Russia, who have surprised many with their two impressive wins, need a draw to finish top of the group. Uruguay, also with two wins, albeit by the slenderest of margins, must win if they want to finish 1st. It would be interesting to see how these teams approach this game. Both matches begin at 7-30 pm IST.

Group B is more open, with three of the four teams still in with a chance to qualify. Morocco are already out of contention, and they play Spain in Kaliningrad, also today. Morocco might play the spoilers here with a shock win; they did enough in both their matches to suggest that they can. However, the mood of the team can play a big part here – they can either come to the park with free minds, with nothing to lose, to enjoy a last hurrah in the competition. Or they might very well play mechanically – to get it over with, and go home. Spain, on 4 points, need a draw to confirm qualification to the pre-quarter finals. They looked brilliant at times in both their matches, but also showed frailties that they have to iron out if they are to make a mark in the next stage. This game could well give them an opportunity to confirm their status as a title contender.

At the same time, Portugal play Iran in Saransk. They, like Spain, have 4 points from 2 games, and have so far scored 4 goals – all by their mercurial captain Cristiano Ronaldo. They, too, need just a draw to confirm qualification. Iran, on 3 points, have to win to qualify. Both matches begin at 11-30 pm, IST, and both should be very interesting.

In Group C, France, with two wins, are already through, while Peru, with two defeats, are eliminated. France play Denmark in Moscow tomorrow (26th), where Denmark, with 4 points, need a draw to confirm their qualification. A win will take them above France in the group. Simultaneously, Australia, with 1 point, play Peru in Sochi. They have to win to have a chance to stay in this competition. If they do manage a win, and France defeat Denmark, then goal difference, or other factors as mentioned above, will decide which team finishes 2nd behind France. Both matches begin at 7-30 pm IST.

Group D is rather interesting. Croatia, after two fluent wins, are certain to go through, and are almost certain to finish top of the group. Any one of the other three teams can join them in the knockout stage. Croatia play Iceland in Rostov, while at the same time Argentina play Nigeria in Saint Petersburg.

Nigeria, with 3 points, can join Croatia with a draw against Argentina, provided Iceland do not beat Croatia by a wide margin. A win for Nigeria will take them through irrespective of the result in the other match. Argentina have to win against Nigeria, and hope that Iceland do not win their game. Iceland, can also qualify by beating Croatia, provided Argentina beat Nigeria by a similar or lesser margin. All in all, this group is in a really fascinating state. Both matches begin at 11-30 pm, IST.

Group F saw Germany keep their fortune in their own hands, almost, with a last gasp win over Sweden. Theoretically, all four teams can still qualify from this group; any two can still be eliminated. Germany now play South Korea at Kazan, where a win will take them to 6 points and eliminate Korea. Mexico play Sweden at the same time, in Yekaterinburg, and a draw will confirm Mexico as group winners. A win for Sweden, if Germany also win, will leave all three teams on 6 points, and then tie-breaking rules will decide the qualification.

Korea will have to win to keep their slim chances of qualification alive. If they do, and Mexico beat Sweden, then Mexico qualify as group winners while the other three all finish with three points. Once again, goal difference or other tie-breaking rules shall be applied. Both matches start at 7-30 pm IST, June 27th.

In Group E, Costa Rica are already out. They play Switzerland in Nizhny Novgorod. Switzerland will confirm qualification with a win. A draw may also be enough for them, if Serbia fail to beat Brazil in Moscow. Brazil need at least a draw to confirm qualification. Even a loss may be enough, if Switzerland are surprised by Costa Rica and are beaten by a similar or worse margin. Serbia must win to qualify. Both matches begin at 11-30 pm, IST.

In Group H, there are fascinating possibilities. The top ranked team in this group, Poland, are already eliminated, but any two of the other three can qualify. Poland play for pride against Japan in Volgograd, where Japan need at least a draw for certain qualification (for then they will have 5 points, which can be equalled or overtaken by only one of the other two teams). Even a loss may be enough for Japan, depending on the result in the other game, which sees Senegal play Colombia in Samara. Here a draw will take take Senegal through. Colombia need a win for assured qualification. A draw may also be enough for Colombia, if Poland beat Japan. A loss for Colombia will take Japan through even if they lose to Poland. These matches start at 7-30 pm IST, June 28th.

Group G is more clear-cut. Panama and Tunisia are out, and they meet in Saransk for pride. Belgium and England play for 1st and 2nd place in the group at Kaliningrad. Both have identical scoring records, so a draw will require the aforementioned tie-breaking rules to be applied. How these two teams approach their team selection may be the most interesting aspect of this mtch. Both matches begin at 11-30 pm, IST.

~From the desk of  Rajat Subhra Banerjee