The Round of Sixteen
Group play is done and the round of 16 knockout stage is set. Group play went pretty much as expected, except for two major surprises. The top seeds in Groups F (Germany) and H (Poland) were both unexpectedly eliminated. This was particularly startling for defending World Cup champion Germany in Group F, which lost to Mexico in its opening match and then, needing a win to advance in its final group game against South Korea, the third lowest-ranked team in the tournament, not only failed to win the contest, but allowed two late goals to lose 2-0.
The Germans had never before failed to advance out of group play. This was one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history and will surely cause all kinds of changes in Germany’s World Cup management, likely starting with coach Jogi Low’s job. Overall, it should come as no surprise that 10 of 14 European squads and 4 of 5 South American squads advanced. Only Mexico and Japan represent other continents and neither are likely to advance much further.
So what to expect now that the knockout rounds are starting? Here’s a look at the Round of 16 matchups. In each case, the team listed first won their group and the team listed second finished second in another group.
Uruguay vs. Portugal
Uruguay was one of 3 teams to win all three group matches. Of course, this was to be expected given that Group A was statistically the easiest group of all time. Despite the lack of real competition, La Celeste managed just five goals. By way of comparison, Russia in the same group scored 8 goals despite getting none against Uruguay. Strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani have nearly 100 international goals between them, but are both 31 and slowing down. Against tougher defenses in the knockout rounds, Uruguay may be hard pressed to find the back of the net.
Portugal, despite the presence of one of the greatest players of all time in reigning FIFA player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo, is a perennially underachieving World Cup Squad. After an exciting 3-3 draw with Spain in their first group game, Portugal did not inspire in a 1-0 win over Morocco and 1-1 draw with Iran. I can see this match going either way, but give a slight overall advantage to Portugal and I think they will edge Uruguay.
France vs. Argentina
This is a match-up of two former champions who were both the top seed in their group. Neither looked at their best in group play. France managed just three goals in three games, but a stout defense allowed just one goal. Les Bleus beat the teams they were supposed to beat, while finishing in a nil-nil draw against a tough Denmark squad. Argentina also only scored three times, while giving up five goal, including three in a stunning 3-0 loss to Croatia.
The Argentines barely qualified for the tourney and barely made it out of group play. Superstar Lionel Messi was unable to create as brilliantly as he usually does on offense and the defense was overwhelmed at times. I think France prevails in the match-up because their defense will bottle up Messi and their offense will find opportunities against the leaky Argentina defense.
Brazil vs. Mexico
Perennial contender Brazil won their group as expected, but did not look to be at their best. Their star Neymar Jr. found himself getting beat up constantly and he looked the worse for the wear, but he doesn’t do himself any favors by taking dives at every opportunity. Brazil’s chances at contending may depend on Neymar’s health.
Despite winning their first two games, including their startling upset of Germany, Mexico needed help from South Korea in order to advance as Sweden dealt them a crushing 3-0 blow in their final group contest. El Tri found success early in group play with passes down the flanks, letting their wingers outrace defenses to the ball. The Swedes shut that down and Mexico may have to find new ways to score now that Sweden has shown how to defend them. Brazil should easily prevail against Mexico because they know how to win at this level and Mexico does not.
Belgium vs. Japan
Belgium came into the tournament ranked #3 in the world after cruising easily through qualifying. The Red Devils also made quick work of their group, ending with a +7 goal differential, the highest in group play. Japan, on the other hand, was a surprise survivor in Group H. Samurai Blue came in as one of the lowest ranked teams, but managed to beat eventual group champion Colombia in their first game, before drawing against Senegal and losing to Poland.
They advanced over Senegal because they incurred fewer yellow cards. That was the last tiebreaker before drawing lots. This is called the fair play tiebreaker. Yes, advancement to the knockout round was decided by which team was nicer on the field. This game should be an easy win for Belgium. That being said, Belgium showed some lapses in their defense during group play, particularly against Tunisia, and may find difficulty against a good offensive squad later in the knockout rounds.
Spain vs. Russia
Spain won the World Cup in 2010, but like Germany this year, failed to advance out of group play in 2014. They redeemed themselves by winning Group B this year, but it wasn’t pretty with two draws and one win. La Furia Roja found the back of the net often, but gave up almost as many goals, including one caused by an unforgivable error by Spanish goalie Daniel de Gea. The best defenses usually fare well as the Cup goes on, so that does not bode well for the Spanish.
The only reason Russia advanced out of the group stage was the historically bad group that they were in and probably bought. They scored a lot of goals against bad teams before being shut down by Uruguay. Unless the refs throw the game Russia’s way, their tournament ends against Spain.
Croatia vs. Denmark
Croatia was the surprise winner of Group D, but they earned it with their utter domination of Argentina, a balanced scoring attack, and allowance of only one goal in three games. Croatia was the lowest ranked team to win all their group matches and looked far better than their ranking. Manager Zlatko Dalic was brought on late in qualifying and has made a huge positive impact on the squad.
Denmark managed just two goals while only allowing one in their one win and two draws in group play. This is a team that plays a compact defense and waits and waits and waits for opportunities. They are not very creative, preferring to play solid defense and hoping for the best on offense. With Croatia’s far better attack, they should prevail against the Danes.
Sweden vs. Switzerland
Sweden was the one team that the disappointing German team actually beat, when the Swedes allowed a late goal by a man down German squad. Sweden throttled Mexico and South Korea to win the group, but they are not a ball possession squad, instead preferring to hold their ground on defense and finding counterattack opportunities. Their defense will serve them well in the knockout rounds, but they may lack enough offense to go far.
Switzerland scored the same number of goals (5) as Sweden in group matches, but did so in the Group of Death and with an attack that showed greater creativity and ball possession. The Swedes scored three of their five goals in the second half against a Mexican team that was falling apart. Although Sweden is the group winner here, the Swiss should win this matchup by controlling the middle of the field and getting more scoring opportunities.
Colombia vs. England:
Colombia needed a win in their final group match to advance and managed to hold on for a 1-0 win, despite a furious Senegal attack. The Colombians showed inconsistency in the group, losing to the low-ranked Japanese team, while crushing the group favorite Poland. That does not bode well for further advancement. England roughed up Tunisia and Panama in the group stage, as expected, before running into the Belgian juggernaut.
Only the Belgians scored more goals than the English and the English captain, Harry Kane, is currently the Golden Boot leader. Although they lost to Belgium 1-0, it was a hard fought game in which the English acquitted themselves well while playing many reserves. The English look like the better squad here and I expect them to outscore the Colombians.