Nothing beats a good start at the World Cup, writes Andy Brassell, even for the big guns like Spain, Germany and Argentina...
The old cliché about the importance of getting off to a good start at a World Cup is perhaps truer in modern international football than it ever was. Most of Europe's top players have been through a gruelling domestic season, and the fillip of getting off to a flyer could have a big psychological effect - even for the favourites.
Recent precedents point clearly in this direction. In three of the last World Cups, the holders have stuttered in the starting blocks, with France beaten by Senegal in 2002, Italy held by Paraguay in 2010 and Spain spectacularly put to the sword by the Netherlands in Brazil in 2014. None of the trio so much as made it out of their groups. So, it really is a big deal.
Ronaldo in fine fettle
The pick of the opening games in Russia isn't really up for debate - the meeting between Portugal and Spain, which takes place on the tournament's second day, June 15, in Sochi. The 2010 winners are the clear favourites at 1.93, with Portugal out at[4.6]. Julen Lopetegui's side deserve to be counted among the favourites for the competition, having evolved so much under the former Porto coach's stewardship.
But despite La Roja's enviable artillery - and with Antoine Griezmann's splendid 2018 for Atlético underlining just how good Diego Costa (pictured below) is at creating room for teammates - Portugal shouldn't be written off.
Despite his recent injury scare, Cristiano Ronaldo will arrive in Russia in much better form than the last two tournaments.
Portugal also must be keen to slay opening game ghosts, with their disappointing showing in 2014 conditioned by a defeat as harsh as Spain's - 4-0 to Germany. With both sides knowing how high the stakes are the draw, at 3.55, is an interesting prospect.
Argentina looking creaky
Many would consider Argentina's match with Iceland the following day (June 16) as far more of an open-and-shut case. The Albiceleste are priced at 1.37and the World Cup first-timers are all the way out at [14.0], with the draw at 4.60.
For this column's tastes, this rather overestimates the current state of Jorge Sampaoli's side, and the famously labour-intensive coach has had little time to work with his players. Given the difficulty waiting in the rest of the group, with Croatia and Nigeria to come, Argentina desperately need to get maximum points from the opener (even if they famously lost their own first game as defending champions, in 1990, to Cameroon before going onto reach the final).
Possible defensive issues for Germany
Equally, Germany are assumed to be a shoo-in for an opening match win against Mexico on June 17, priced at 1.44to win, with Mexico at [8.4] and the draw priced at 4.30. Joachim Löw's side should coast to victory in the group but have their issues, with Manuel Neuer in cold storage since September and one of their defensive lynchpins, Jérôme Boateng, just returning from injury himself.
The defensive side of Germany's make-up is important given Mexico's strengths, with PSV forward Hirving 'Chucky' Lozano one to watch in the tournament, and Héctor Herrera behind him coming off his best-ever season in Europe for Porto. Juan Carlos Osorio's side may not be El Tri's best-ever but could make it tough for Germany.
It still looks most likely that Portugal and Spain's second-day meeting will have the biggest ripple effect, but no team will need reminding just how important putting one's best foot forward will be.