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Tuesday, March 2, 2010
Updated: March 3, 10:35 AM ET
Top 10 games of the group stage

By Jeff Carlisle
Special to ESPN.com

While heroes, villains and legendary teams are made in the knockout stages of the World Cup, that doesn't stop the group phase from having its own set of endearing qualities. It's a period when even the wildest dreams seem possible, even for the tiniest of minnows. And there have been plenty of occasions when these supposed little fish have feasted on some of the bigger names.

It is this prospect of the unexpected that gives the tournament a different, though no less enticing, cadence in its early days. The lack of pressure on some of the participants can also serve to make the games more open, as opposed to the drab tactical chess matches that often ensue when the noose of increased expectations begins to tighten in the later rounds.

With that in mind, here are the matches to keep an eye on in the group stage.

1. South Africa versus Mexico -- June 11

Looking only at the teams involved, this fixture isn't one that catches the eye. But the opening match to the tournament is one for which the entire continent of Africa has waited too long, especially after narrowly missing out on hosting the 2006 edition.

There figures to be some captivating players on display as well, with South Africa's Steven Pienaar and Mexico's Giovani Dos Santos expected to grace the stage. But most eyes will be on the hosts. No host country has ever failed to make it out of the first round, and South Africa will be keen to get off to a good start.

2. Argentina versus Nigeria -- June 12

Reigning FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi has conquered all before him at club level with Barcelona, but he and Argentina struggled mightily during qualifying. That doesn't mean the expectations for both player and country will be any less, with Messi expected to drive the Albiceleste deep into the tournament.

Argentina's first test comes against a Nigeria side that has struggled for consistency, a trait that cost manager Shaibu Amodu his job. But with talented players like Chelsea midfielder John Mikel Obi in their ranks, the Super Eagles are still capable of pulling off a victory.

Landon Donovan
Landon Donovan and the U.S. hope to be celebrating after their big game against England.

3. England versus United States -- June 12

There is a mountain of intrigue heading into this first-round match. Sixty years after the Americans pulled of the biggest upset in World Cup history with their 1-0 defeat of England, the two sides at last meet up again in the opening game for both teams.

Los Angeles Galaxy teammates David Beckham and Landon Donovan, the latter of whom has enjoyed a successful loan spell with EPL side Everton, could also square off while other England-based Americans such as Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Jonathan Spector will also be looking to pull off another upset. Given the form that England has shown under manager Fabio Capello, that will be a tall order indeed.

4. Italy versus Paraguay -- June 14

The Azzurri's defense of its 2006 World Cup title begins with its toughest match of the opening round, a date with a Paraguay side that has now qualified for four consecutive World Cups.

With striker Salvador Cabañas still recovering from a head wound sustained in a night club shooting, Paraguay may be shorn of one of its finest attacking players. But with the likes of Nelson Valdez still in the mix, La Albirroja should still do plenty to threaten an aging Italian side still dependent on the likes of Andrea Pirlo and Fabio Cannavaro.

5. Ivory Coast versus Portugal -- June 15

In a group that also contains tournament co-favorite Brazil, this match will have a massive impact on who progresses to the knockout stages from Group G. The Ivorians, with striker Didier Drogba in imperious form, and possessing a nice balance from front to back, are looked upon by many as the African team most capable of a deep run, although they, too, recently fired their head coach.

Portugal looked every bit like an underachieving side during qualifying, but any team with Cristiano Ronaldo in its lineup is capable of righting itself.

6. Cameroon versus Denmark -- June 19

With the Netherlands clearly the class of Group E, the game between the Indomitable Lions and the Danes will loom large in the fight for second place. Cameroon is highly dependent on Samuel Eto'o for goals, and he'll face a stiff challenge in the form of up-and-coming Danish defender Simon Kjaer. At the other end of the field, Cameroon's defense, which looked downright creaky at the African Cup of Nations in January, will try to keep Denmark's attack at bay.

7. Brazil versus Ivory Coast -- June 20

Every so often, the first round will contain a matchup fit for a final. This is precisely the case in this contest between the five-time champions and arguably the top African qualifier. Several of the combatants will be quite familiar with one another, with Ivorians Yaya Toure and Didier Zokora along with Brazilians Luis Fabiano, Dani Alves and Kaka all plying their trade in Spain's La Liga.

8. Ghana versus Germany -- June 23

Group G was the popular pick to earn the Group of Death moniker. But Group D, comprised of Ghana, Germany, Serbia and Australia, may be the deepest from top to bottom. And the pick of this group's matches will see the Black Stars taking on the Euro 2008 finalists.

Ghana, despite fielding a youthful lineup that was missing midfield linchpins Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari and Stephen Appiah, made an inspired run to the final of the Africa Cup of Nations. Germany looks to be a team in transition, but in Mesut Ozil and Toni Kroos, the three-time World Cup champion has two emerging talents of its own.

9. Portugal versus Brazil -- June 25

These two countries separated by a common language -- as well as five World Cup titles -- will square off in Durban, in a tilt that will see club teammates Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo on opposite sides of the field. And while Brazil will likely have already clinched its passage to the round of 16, the Seleção will be keen to finish as group winners. Anything less and Brazil could find itself facing fellow favorite Spain in the second round.

10. Chile versus Spain -- June 25

For pure entertainment value, the match between the South Americans and the reigning European champions will be hard to beat. The Chileans, led by forward Humberto Suazo, love to press forward, while Spain has an embarrassment of attacking riches, with otherworldly striker Fernando Torres being fed by the midfield duo of Xavi and Andres Iniesta.

The game will likely mean everything to Chile, so expect La Roja to get forward at every opportunity.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.