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2014 World Cup: The best matchups, players and the U.S. vs. Ghana situation

Eddie Johnson

Eddie Johnson

The World Cup kicks off on Thursday and here’s who and what to keep an eye on when the action starts.

BEST FIRST-ROUND MATCHES

SPAIN vs. NETHERLANDS

Friday: Repeat of last World Cup final.

ENGLAND vs. ITALY

Saturday: Two former champions trying to find old form.

GERMANY vs. PORTUGAL

June 16: Marquee matchup with important result for U.S., too.

BRAZIL vs. MEXICO

June 17: Mexico always seems to advance from the first stage, but this is a very tough group.

ENGLAND vs. URUGUAY

June 19: Luis Suarez vs. Wayne Rooney.

BRAZIL vs. CAMEROON

June 23: The Indomitable Lions always play an open game with fun flair, so this matchup should be a wild, high-scoring spectacle.

HOW THE U.S. CAN ADAVANCE WITHOUT BEATING GHANA

-        Draw with Ghana, draw with Portugal, draw with Germany (which should have already clinched at this point with two victories). This looks like a group of many draws, so put Ghana-Portugal down as another one.

-        Draw with Ghana, beat Portugal, lose to Germany. Everybody expects the U.S. to have more trouble with Portugal than with Ghana, but the Americans traditionally play well against technically skilled, Western European sides like Spain, Italy and Portugal. Just pack the box, force them outside to the wings and look for the counter.

THE FIVE BEST PLAYERS AT THE WORLD CUP

LIONEL MESSI

Maybe this hasn’t been the Argentine’s best season, but the little fellow is relatively healthy, still magical and due for a breakout tournament.

NEYMAR

Pele calls him the best player in the world, “a genius.” At age 22, before his home fans at a Brazil World Cup, this is his chance to prove the hype.

LUIS SUAREZ

He was the most in-form player of all the stars this season, the new cover boy, then required surgery on his left knee in late May after feeling pain while training. Nobody knows what to expect now from the volatile Uruguayan.

CRISTIANO RONALDO

Working on a thigh injury and may not be in top form. At 80%, however, still one of the flashiest talents in the world.

MESUT ÖZIL

The inventive, attacking midfielder who makes the Germans go — and they always go far.

THE FIVE BEST PLAYERS WHO WON’T BE THERE

GARETH BALE

The Real Madrid star plays for Wales, because Britain is the only nation to be divvied up into little soccer fiefdoms. So, no World Cup. He’d be great on the wing next to Wayne Rooney.

ZLATAN IBRAHIMOVIC

Captain of the Swedish team that got knocked out of the World Cup in the 11th hour by Portugal.

RADAMEL FALCAO

Star Colombian striker kept nation’s hope alive he might come back in time from knee ligament surgery, but he’s a no-go.

FRANCK RIBERY

Dangerous left winger for France and Bayern Munich couldn’t beat back problems and dropped out last week.

LANDON DONOVAN

Maybe not in category of these other stars, but he’s scored five goals in the World Cup and we’re still trying to figure out why he’s not on the U.S. roster.

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