The Premier League season has drawn to a close and, typically, attention would be turning to a summer feast of football.
While the wait for the World Cup is a little longer than usual, the build-up to this year’s tournament in Qatar has nonetheless begun in earnest.
By the time the new domestic campaign kicks-off on August 6, there will be just over three months to go before the talking stops and the action on the pitch begins.
For fans of the global showpiece, there will be plenty to tuck in to in the group stage, which gets underway on November 21. Four matches are due to be played each day – at 10am, 1pm, 4pm and 7pm here in Britain – through to December 2.
Excitement for the start of the World Cup in Qatar has grown since the draw was made in April
With the draw having been done to much fanfare in Doha in April, we now know who will be playing who. And when.
So what are the matches to look out for over the 12 days of group stage action? Here, Sportsmail runs the rule over the games you simply cannot miss.
Senegal v The Netherlands – Monday November 21, 10am BST
The two sides meet in a fascinating contest to open this year’s World Cup, which often sets the tone for the rest of the tournament.
And who doesn’t love the weird and wonderful opening ceremony, which will take place before this fixture?
Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk and Sadio Mane will be on opposing sides in the World Cup opener
The last time Senegal featured in the opening match was when they beat France in 2002
The game itself pits two Liverpool stars against each other as Sadio Mane is expected to line up for African champions Senegal, while Virgil van Dijk is set to marshal the Dutch defence.
Senegal will be hoping for a repeat of the last time they featured in the World Cup curtain-raiser, when they stunned then defending champions France 1-0 in 2002.
A similar result would not be as much of a surprise. At the time of writing, The Netherlands are just 10 places ahead of Senegal, who lifted the Africa Cup of Nations trophy in February, in the FIFA rankings, making for what promises to be an intriguing game.
France v qualifier (Australia/UAE/Peru) – Tuesday November 22, 7pm
While all of France’s opponents are not yet known, their opening fixture in Group D will provide the opportunity to get an early look at the defending champions and one of the pre-tournament favourites.
Defending champions France will play in their first group match on day two of the tournament
France will arrive in Qatar under serious pressure back home to become the first team to retain the famous trophy since Brazil clinched consecutive World Cups in 1958 and 1962.
All eyes will be on the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Karim Benzema and Paul Pogba as they make their entrance onto the Qatar 2022 stage.
It will also be their first appearance at a major tournament since their dreams of adding the European title to their World Cup came crashing down at the hands of Switzerland at Euro 2020 last year.
Kylian Mbappe will be hoping to light up for the tournament for defending champions France
The defeat sparked an inquest in the country and triggered drama involving some players’ wives, while there were reports of serious unrest in the dressing room.
France are always one to look out for at these tournaments – on and off the field – and that is unlikely to change in Qatar.
Brazil v Serbia – Thursday November 24, 7pm
There are fewer countries on the planet who take the World Cup as seriously as Brazil.
Their first outing in Qatar will no doubt be watched by tens of millions in the feverish South American country, all of whom will be dreaming of a first World Cup triumph in two decades.
Five-times world champions Brazil will be seeking a sixth crown in Qatar later this year
Brazil’s first opponents will be Serbia, who boast Sergej Milinkovic-Savic in their ranks
Serbia represent tricky opponents for Brazil. They topped their qualification group, with six wins and two defeats from their eight matches, and sealed their spot in style, beating Portugal to secure an automatic berth and consign Cristiano Ronaldo’s side to the dreaded play-offs.
The Serbians, who have failed to get out of their group on their last three World Cup appearances, boast the likes of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic in their ranks. The Lazio midfielder could be a Premier League player by the time competition in Qatar kicks-off.
For Brazil, who also went unbeaten in qualifying, Neymar will spearhead the front-line, with Liverpool’s Alisson, regarded as one of the best goalkeepers in the world, leading the rearguard action for the five-time world champions.
Spain v Germany – Sunday November 27, 7pm
This titanic clash between two footballing powerhouses is arguably the biggest in the entire group stage and needs little introduction. Put simply, 2010 winners Spain will take on the team who took their crown four years later.
Germany were beaten by Spain in the final of the 2008 European Championship in Austria
It is a repeat of the 2010 semi-final, which Spain won 1-0, and the final of the 2008 European Championship, where the Spaniards triumphed by the same scoreline. The match in Qatar will be their third World Cup meeting.
Germany will be out to avenge the 6-0 hammering they suffered at the hands of Spain in the Nations League in their last encounter in 2020, a result which will no doubt be on the minds of the players when they face off in the Gulf nation.
The Germans have won eight of their last nine games since the thrashing by Spain, who, at the time of writing, are fourth favourites with the bookies behind England, France and Brazil.
The game could go some way to determine who will top Group E and, in theory, get a kinder draw in the round-of-16.
Spain thrashed Germany 6-0 in the UEFA Nations League in November 2020, their last competitive meeting
Cristiano Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani could go head-to-head at the World Cup in Qatar
The World Cup in Qatar is expected to be Ronaldo’s last major tournament for Portugal
Portugal v Uruguay – Monday November 28, 7pm
While Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani will almost certainly not be Manchester United team-mates by the time of this crunch Group H contest, it will nonetheless see two greats of the game go head-to-head on the grandest stage.
The fact both Portugal and Uruguay’s lines will be led by players with a combined age of 72 says more about Ronaldo and Cavani’s longevity, and ability to perform at the highest level, than a lack of depth within the two nations.
It will be fascinating to see if they can both return to the peak of their powers one last time in the often dreary world of international football when they meet in the second round of matches. It is also likely to be both Ronaldo and Cavani’s last appearance at the World Cup.
Cavani and Uruguay remain key players for their respective countries despite their age
Also in their group are Ghana – more on them later – and South Korea, so this game will have considerable influence on who finishes where in one of the harder sections of the competition to call.
Bruno Fernandes is also set to line up against Cavani, who scored both goals when his side knocked Portugal out in the round-of-16 four years ago, in another United reunion.
Wales v England – Tuesday November 29, 7pm
After Wales sealed the last remaining place in Qatar from the European qualification route, they will take on their UK rivals once more at a major tournament.
Rob Page’s men got past Ukraine to make their first World Cup since 1958. A chance to duel with Gareth Southgate’s men is the cherry on the cake.
Harry Kane’s England are among the favourites to lift the World Cup trophy on December 18
England, on paper, should be able to see off Wales but this match has an extra bite and is akin to a derby game in the Premier League, where form, largely, goes out of the window.
The last meeting between the pair was a memorable affair at the 2016 Euros, where a late Daniel Sturridge strike sealed a remarkable second-half comeback for Roy Hodgson’s men, though it would be Chris Coleman’s side that would make greater waves in the tournament, reaching the semi-finals in France.
England arrive in Qatar as one of the favourites to lift the trophy on December 18 and Wales would no doubt love to deal their hopes a significant blow by winning this group-stage battle.
Daniel Sturridge’s strike sealed a remarkable second-half comeback for England in 2016
Iran v USA – Tuesday November 29, 7pm
To say their last World Cup meeting was politically-charged would be an understatement.
When the two nations were drawn against one another for the 1998 World Cup in France, there were all sorts of fears and concerns over the fixture due to the enmity between them.
Iran won 2-1 but the result, for some, was irrelevant. The match itself was a diplomatic triumph that facilitated a second game, a friendly in California 18 months later which ended in a 0-0 draw.
Iran and the United States met in a politically-charged match at the 1998 World Cup in France
Iran won the game 2-1 but it took on far greater global political significance at the time
This will be just the third time the two countries, whose relations soured again under former US President Donald Trump, have shared a football pitch.
Expect FIFA to make the most of a public relations opportunity to portray football as a tool to bring people together when they clash for the first time in 22 years at the Al Thumama Stadium.
On the pitch, the US will be seeking their first win over Iran. The Iranians have only ever beaten one other team at the World Cup – Morocco in 2018 – and will be aiming for another victory against the Americans.
Poland v Argentina – Wednesday November 30, 7pm
Perhaps not the most glamorous of ties on this list but it will involve two of the world’s best – Poland’s Robert Lewandowski and Argentina star Lionel Messi.
Robert Lewandowski is set to be Poland’s main marksman at the World Cup in Qatar
The two players, who have scored a staggering 1,189 combined club goals in their glittering careers to date, have been jostling for the world’s top individual honours in recent years.
Messi pipped Lewandowski – who has been linked with a move to Messi’s boyhood club Barcelona in recent weeks – to the Ballon d’Or last year before the Polish striker beat the Argentinian to the FIFA Best award for 2021.
The World Cup encounter will be the continuation of their individual rivalry on the pitch, with Lewandowski on the winning side the last time they were on the field together – Bayern Munich’s crushing 8-2 win over Barcelona in the quarter-finals of the 2019-2020 Champions League.
Lionel Messi’s Argentina are favourites to go through their group, which also includes Poland
Away from the Messi-Lewandowski plot, Argentina will go into the match as favourites and could clinch top spot in the group by beating Poland, who are likely to be contesting second place with Mexico.
Croatia v Belgium – Thursday December 1, 3pm
This Group F encounter sees 2018 runners-up Croatia take on – according to FIFA at least – the second best team in the world.
Few would argue that the group stage draw did not throw up too many matches of this stature and fans will have to wait until the penultimate day of the group stage for these European heavyweights to go toe-to-toe.
While both teams should have qualified for the knockout rounds by the time they meet at the Ahmed bin Ali Stadium, it will nevertheless be an intriguing contest involving the likes of Luka Modric and Kevin de Bruyne.
Croatia were beaten in the final of the 2018 World Cup by France in a thrilling contest
Croatia’s best days are perhaps behind them, while there is a belief among some fans that maybe – just maybe – that it might be the year Belgium’s golden generation turn their undeniable quality into world glory.
The match at the Ahmed bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan will be the first fixture between these two sides at a major tournament, incidentally.
Ghana v Uruguay – Friday December 2, 3pm
The draw has perhaps saved the most fascinating contest until last.
The African outfit will have extra motivation for victory on the final day of group action as they take on a team who ended their World Cup dreams in such dramatic, controversial circumstances back in 2010.
We all remember the quarter-final in South Africa 12 years ago but, as a refresher, Luis Suarez turned goalkeeper to prevent a Ghanaian goal in extra-time before Asamoah Gyan missed the resulting spot-kick, with Suarez celebrating as he headed down the tunnel after being dismissed for deliberate handball.
Uruguay then prevailed on penalties, leaving Ghana shellshocked and stunned.
Ghana will have the chance for revenge when they play Uruguay in the group stage in Qatar
Asamoah Gyan missed the resulting penalty and Uruguay went on to win in a shootout
The image of a beaming Suarez, who could feature against the same opponents he helped to send crashing out of the tournament more than a decade ago, will be on the minds of the Ghana players when they meet for the first time since that famous game in Johannesburg.
‘We believe that it will be revenge time,’ Ghana FA president Kurt Okraku told BBC Sport Africa after the draw was made in April.
‘It is important that we all set the record straight.’ Quite.