Well, yesterday’s matches brought the group stage to its conclusion. In those two weeks the world witnessed some shocking results and some beautiful goals. We’ve also perhaps got a little taste of what football’s future has in store for leagues all around the world with the use of video replay.
Biggest surprise: Germany’s not one, but TWO defeats in the group stage, signaling the reigning champion’s exit from the tournament. Were it not for some questionable refereeing in their game against Sweden, it is very possible that die Mannschaft would have lost all three! However, while that exit is a shock, it is eerily fascinating that four out of the last five reigning champions in a World Cup tournament failed to progress to the knock out stages.
Strongest performer thus far: Croatia. My dark horse pick before the tournament started has been consistent in all three of its group matches, picking up 9 points out of a possible 9. One of these wins included a 3-0 hammering of Lionel Messi’s Argentina. Considering the seven other sides that make up their half of the bracket, there is a VERY strong chance that they will make the final.
Round of 16 (All matches EST)
France vs. Argentina (6/30 10:00 am)
How much longer can he do it for? Time and time again, when Argentina find themselves in dire straits, Lionel Messi has come to their rescue. Argentina were absolutely horrible in the group stage, picking up only 4 points, and needing a win in their final match against Nigeria to advance. Sure enough, it was their number 10 that got the scoring started. Their defensive situation is still very much a mess (see goalkeeper Willy Caballero’s gaffe against Croatia which saw him benched the following match) and their strikers are also not exactly alleviating the pressure on manager Jorge Sampaoli. Conversely, France hasn’t looked their best, but they still topped their group and (on paper…and television…) certainly look the better of the two sides. While much of the world wants to see Messi crowned champion at least once before he retires, I just can’t see it happening this tournament. Allez les Bleus. France to win.
Uruguay vs. Portugal (6/30 2:00 pm)
Let’s be honest – Uruguayans everywhere were surely dancing in the streets back in December when the World Cup groups were drawn. While having to play the host is no easy task, Russia is not exactly a powerhouse, and the South Americans easily dispatched them 3-0 when the sides met. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are both equally poor and it is of no surprise that Uruguay topped the group. Portugal had to work a little harder considering they had to play Spain, but their group was essentially straightforward after that. Three of football’s stars will be featured in this match up (Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Uruguay’s Edison Cavani and Luis Suarez) which should make for a great watch. It will therefore come down to what their teammates can accomplish and it certainly seems Portugal has a little more talent evenly distributed among the rest of the starting 11. However, I think this match will be decided on penalties, with Portugal the eventual winner.
Russia vs. Spain (7/1 10:00 am)
Had Egypt’s Mohamed Salah fully recovered in time for this tournament, I had the Pharaohs advancing from Russia’s group. Clearly he had not (sat out the first game and did not look his best in the other two) and so it was the hosts that progressed in place of the North Africans. However, their runner-up spot in Group A means a match with Spain – a country that won the tournament back in 2010. Advancing from the group was deemed good enough by both fans and pundits alike, but it is the end of the road for the host nation. Russia will have its collective hands full dealing with Diego Costa, Spain’s strong striker who has already bagged some goals this World Cup. Factor in a wealth of quality (albeit some aging) and la Roja are sure to win by at least three goals.
Croatia vs. Denmark (7/1 2:00 pm)
Croatia are by no means a one-man team, but midfielder Luka Modric has been playing like a man possessed. His dominance in the center of the park has made it abundantly clear that the Eastern Europeans are a force to be reckoned with. (Their 3-0 dismantling of Argentina is a prime example!) The Real Madrid player scored twice in their three group games and everything flows through the Croatian captain. Denmark on the other hand is led by Tottenham Hotspurs attacking midfielder Christian Eriksen. The Danes did enough to progress from Group C, (a win and two draws) but seem to be missing the quality to take them any farther, despite the efforts of Eriksen. Regardless, while I expect them to put up a fight – Croatia to win this one.
Brazil vs. Mexico (7/2 10:00 am)
Two footballing-mad nations whose respective fans follow their boys to the ends of the earth. Mexico stunned (much of) the world in their opening match against Germany which resulted in a 1-0 victory for the CONCACAF representatives. They then went on to beat South Korea before being humbled in their final game against Sweden. (Which saw the latter top the group, setting up Mexico’s game with the Samba Boys.) Brazil on the other hand got off to a slow start: a 1-1 draw with Switzerland and a “disappointing” win over lowly Costa Rica 2-0 before wrapping up their group with a victory over Serbia. While Mexico can put its collective faith in keeper Guillermo Ochoa and strikers Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Carlos Vela, Brazil are loaded with talent. They also of course feature Neymar, who has yet to look his best and certainly possesses the talent to take things to the next level. Still – Mexico can be a stubborn side for teams to break down, and I also don’t see them sitting back against the five-time champions. This will be a fiercely competitive match but Brazil will take care of business in the end.
Belgium vs. Japan (7/2 2:00 pm)
Thanks to each team’s respective form, I can keep this short. Japan look terrible. They needed a goal with 10 minutes left to beat Colombia in their opening match despite playing a man up for EIGHTY-SIX minutes! Also, considering group rivals Senegal lost to aforementioned Colombia, Japan were happy to lose to Poland in their final match as their disciplinary record ensured their progression. (Watch the last 10 minutes of that Japan/Poland match – neither team even attempted to play football. Thoroughly cringeworthy.) Belgium however look fantastic. They won the group (which while not the toughest, still included England) and even rested stars Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku in their final match! The Blue Samurai are done. Belgium to win by at least four goals.
Sweden vs. Switzerland (7/3 10:00 am)
I think it’s safe to assume that both teams are more than content with this match up. These two European sides are not world-beaters and each will therefore be confident in their chances at progressing to the quarterfinals. Sweden’s 3-0 destruction of Mexico will surely fill them with confidence, but Switzerland possess the better players. Keeper Yann Sommer is having a solid tournament, pulling off some remarkable saves, and attacking midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri is back to scoring goals. Switzerland to win.
England vs. Colombia (7/3 2:00 pm)
Is football coming home? England’s chances for winning the World Cup have not looked this good since their supposed “golden generation” back in 2006. (A tournament they went crashing out of on penalties.) England’s half of the Round of 16 bracket have some of the “weaker” sides in the tournament, and they could very well go on a run. Manager Gareth Southgate however will know they need to take it one step at a time. And lest we forget, the Three Lions haven’t even looked their best! They needed a last-minute winner against Tunisia and lost 1-0 to Belgium (albeit in a dead-rubber match.) Their 6-1 victory over Panama in their second match sent a bit of a statement to the football world, but their Central American debutant opponents were never going to impress. The question for opponents Colombia, is whether James Rodriguez will be fit to play. The playmaker went off injured (he was able to walk off the pitch) in their final group match against Senegal. Juan Cuadrado’s job on the right wing will be that much more difficult should Rodriguez not recover in time. An in-form Harry Kane may be the difference. The Tottenham striker is currently chasing this tournament’s Golden Boot Award, and that, coupled with the possibility of England’s first World Cup since 1966, should be incentive enough. Question is, can he channel his inner Geoff Hurst? I think he can and I think he will. England to win.