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FIFA World Cup 2018: Knockout Round of 16 Preview

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.

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FIFA World Cup 2018: Group E and F Third Matches

South Korea 2-0 Germany: South Korea went with a compact, defensive 4-4-2 that could play like a 4-2-2-2 if they wanted to get forward on the flanks. Center-halfs Jung Woo-Young and Jang Hyun-Soo stayed back and protected the four-man backline. Any forays forward were going to happen by getting the ball directly up the flanks to Moon Seon-Min and Lee Jae-Sung. Germany came in with their customary 4-2-3-1 that played like a 4-5-1 if they wanted to get numbers in the box and a 4-3-3 if they needed to close down the middle. Sami Khedira was back in the starting XI to provide cover for the back four, allowing Toni Kroos to push forward in attack. Mesut Oezil was also back as the central talisman, with Marco Reus as the ramsteuder on the left. Germany brought in Leon Goretzka less as an out-and-out striker and more as a rotating midfielder (some teams can make that work, playing six midfielders with no discernable striker and just finding whoever works their way into the box at the moment). Lots of attacking players on the pitch for the Nationalmannschaft, but Korea was up to the task of using their speed to close them down quickly. Fun color contrast in this game; this was one of the few times no side was wearing white.

Early on Jang played more in line with the back four, creating a five-man backline. As expected, Germany ruled the possession and even got some quality chances on goal, but Korea kept their defensive discipline and shape throughout, not letting the Germans put together a concerted attack in the box, which is generally their specialty; every time Germany got the ball in the box there was a Korean player to block it. And Jo Hyeon-Woo was cool and calm and came up big in goal. Korea had to withstand a furious attack by Germany (who knew they had to score once Sweden scored in the other group match) in the second half, but as much as the Korean back line bent, it never broke. You would have thought that giving up a 3-1 advantage to Germany in possession that Germany would have broken through at some point – it never happened. I think Germany waited way too long to get Thomas Mueller in the game on the right flank.

So many chances for Germany to win this game; they didn’t finish so many close chances in the box. In the last 10 minutes plus stoppage time, Germany sent so many players forward – including goalkeeper Manuel Neuer – that they were vastly exposed in the back; that more than anything is what led to both Korean stoppage time goals. In an earth-shattering result, the defending champions crash out of this tournament getting eliminated before the knockout stage for the first time in their history. I’m guessing Nationalmannschaft coach Joachim Low is going to lose his job over this embarrassment.

Mexico 0-3 Sweden: Mexico made no changes to its lineup and maintained a patient, possessive 4-2-3-1 formation, moving the ball from flank to flank. Their best thrust into the attacking end happened on the left wing, when Andrés Guardado and Hirving Lozano brought the inside to a trailing Carlos Vela. Mexico doesn’t have Sweden’s aerial ability, so El Tri was going to get physical at times, not letting them have space. A more conservative 4-4-2 formation by the Swedes, they were going to play a little more direct, sitting back compact and disciplined in their own half, waiting for the Mexicans to bring the ball to them then quickly going over the top to the front, forcing set pieces to take advantage of their size with Sebastian Larsson as the linkup to the front, Emil Forsberg the creative force bringing the ball inside from the left to target man Ola Toivonen up front. Both teams played to their strengths, neither team got taken out of their game by the other. Even though Mexico had most of the possession, Sweden was a lot more dangerous in front of goal.

In the second half, El Tri did a better job of finding channels inside to get players into. Sweden started bringing their fullbacks forward in attack more. Ludwig Augustinsson 50th minute goal for Sweden’s goal was ironically by more of an organized buildup than a counter. Playing too casual and way too high a line, Mexico got caught off guard on a Swedish breakaway, and defender Héctor Moreno brought down Marcus Berg in the box; Andreas Granqvist converts the resulting penalty. Mexico were 6’s & 7’s on a throw-in in the box by Sweden, resulting in an own-goal by Edson Álvarez in the 74th minute. Sweden collapsed into their own end to stave off the furious Mexican attack the last quarter of the game. Since Mexico didn’t have Sweden’s size, they needed to bring numbers in the box. Group F gets turned upside down with this result and the earth-shattering result in the other group game; South Korea’s win in Kazan gave Mexico a lifeline. Mexico lost this battle, but the get to still fight the war.

Serbia 0-2 Brazil: Serbia played a direct 4-2-3-1 attack, looking to get the ball quickly up the flanks to either Filip Kostic and Dusan Tadic, who them would bring the ball inside to take advantage of target man Aleksandar Mitrovic, who had the size to challenge for every ball in the box. In any case, Serbia needed central distributor Nemanja Matic to link up with the flanks. Brazil looked to spread things out in a wide 4-3-3; they relied on movement on and off the ball from side to side and in and out of the center. Of course, Brazil’s talisman is Neymar roaming from the left side, but they are at their best when Philippe Coutinho and Paulinho are allowed to leave their midfield spots and creatively roam up front with Neymar. Pressing Brazil is risky; Brazil is so good at ball skills that they could quickly beat the press and get into the attacking end before Serbia has a chance to get back in transition. The more Serbia fouled, the more Brazil were slowed down and taken out of their attacking rhythm, and nobody got fouled more in this tournament than Neymar.

Better attacking buildup in the final third for Brazil, and they did everything to get the ball on the feet of Neymar. One super ball over the top by Coutinho to Paulinho in the 36th minute – who showed a great touch in getting the ball over the goalkeeper – changed the game for Serbia, who had shown discipline and control up to this point but now had to chase the game. The one thing Serbia didn’t want to do once they got down was stretch themselves; against a team like Brazil that is expert at taking advantage of space, that would have been fatal. Serbia did an effective job of getting the ball forward on the right side, with Antonio Rukavina linking up well with Tadic, and they had some quality chances in front of the Brazilian net. A rare hiccup by Serbia defending a set piece as Thiago Silva heads in a corner; a rare mistake by Serbian center back Nikola Milenkovic. Predictably, a lot more back-and-forth after that as Serbia opened things up getting forward in numbers, which opened up the back for Brazil to exploit. Despite the final score a fun game to watch as Brazil not unexpectedly wins their group.

Switzerland 2-2 Costa Rica: A very self-confident Switzerland came into their standard 4-2-3-1 that they like. Breel Embolo got the start on the left side to add pace and thrust wth Ricardo Rodriguez, but talisman Granit Xhaki roamed from his central attacking spot to the left, while Xherden Shaqiri was the right flanker getting forward getting the ball into target man Mario Gavranovic in the box, bringing Xhaki and Embolo in trailing. Even though they were out by now, Costa Rica tried to be spoiler and took a chance with a 3-man backline in a 3-4-2-1 offensive look, a center-intensive tactic with middle flankers Bryan Oviedo and Cristian Gamboa dropping back to support the back three for a five-man backline, as well as getting forward in support of central talisman Bryan Ruiz, who had the freedom to roam sideline to sideline and switching play, while Joel Campbell was the lone target man in the box. This game was by far the most aggressive Costa Rica was in this tournament; the reigns of conservatism were off them as the Ticos sacrificed some shape in the back to get in offensive areas and open things up in attack, creating multiple chances. Holding midfielder David Guzmán got forward in attack early, and we saw some attacking quality from center half Daniel Colindres that was missing from his game up to now.

As long as Costa Rica was going to press and take chances going forward, the Swiss were going to counter. This was the high-paced, direct attacking quality we had been waiting for from Costa Rica all along, pressing high to get the possession quickly then countering. The Swiss maintained most of the possession, and around the 25th minute were able to find space between the Costa Rican backline and their covering midfielders. Blerim Džemaili blasted the ball in in the 31st minute with a surgical attack involving an Embola header from the left flank. Even though Keylor Navas was the more renowned goalkeeper, it was Swiss keeper Yann Sommer who had the more impactful game. A towering header on a set piece by Kendall Waston in the 56th minute to get the Ticos on the board for the first time this tournament. After the score Costa Rica played a much deeper defensive line, and once the game was tied the Swiss played a much safer game. Sloppy defense from both sides late. The Swiss left too many players on the pitch sitting on yellow cards, resulting in two defenders being expelled for their next knockout round fixture. Switzerland finally gets through with the vertical ball through the middle as sub Josip Drmic finishes a screamer in front of goal in the 88th minute. And just when we thought Switzerland had this game won, Sommer with a boneheaded mishandle as the ball comes off his head on a penalty by Ruiz and into the net behind him. One of the more entertaining games of the third stage.

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FIFA World Cup 2018: Group E and F Second Matches

Brazil 2-0 Costa Rica: Costa Rica played a compact, discipline 5-4-1, looking to sit back, win the ball and hit Brazil on the quick counterattack. Unlike in 2014, Brazil didn’t rely on flanker Neymar to score, but they did rely on the attack to flow through him this time around and get the ball into the box for Phillippe Coutino or Willian to finish. Brazil’s midfield did a good job of staying in front of the Costa Rican attack, not giving them the space to counter. More of a possession-intensive game by Brazil, kind of like the “tici-taci” game we are used to seeing from Spain. Costa Rica did a good job of closing down the Brazilian wingers Wagner and Marcelo early on, and the back three did a good job of keeping Brazil out of the box as long as they stuck together as a unit. Clearly Neymar is a marked man; opposition strategy throughout this tournament will be to put a body on him and beat him up. Costa Rica did a lot of switching play from side to side, making Brazil have to run around the pitch. About 25 minutes in Neymar began to find his rhythm, finding holes on the flank and gaining momentum. When that happens he brings the whole team with him.

In the second half, Brazil started to find holes in the back three of Costa Rica, making them panic in the box. Costa Rican goalkeeper Keylor Navas was awake and alert and he had to be, he was under siege for the last 45 minutes. I don’t have a problem with the Neymar penalty being overturned by VAR; he definitely embellished the minimal contact in the box. Too much of this game was played in the Costa Rican box in the second half, so it was no surprise that Phillipe Coutino finally got on the end of one in stoppage time. Neymar delived the dagger 5 minutes later. Costa Rico was a tough nut to crack defensively, but when you give up the possession they allowed, bad things eventually happen.

Serbia 1-2 Switzerland: Expected a tactically rigid and physical game from both sides and that’s exactly what we got. Identical 4-2-3-1 formations that relied on the two holding midfielders to clog up the middle of the pitch and introduce the attack going forward. So the influence and playmaking happened out wide. The second tallest team in the tournament made their presence felt in the fifth minute when target man Aleksandar Mitrovic got his head on a Dusan Tadic cross to put it in the back of the net. Mitrovic did exactly what a target man is supposed to do; get the ball up top, and either hold up play for trailing attackers to get into the box or take a shot himself. Switzerland’s backline looked disjointed and out of shape. Their attack was bewildering; they spent too much time trying to make thrusts forward through the middle (exactly into the Serbian strength) and not enough time going down the flanks where they could open things up.

Winger Aleksandar Kolarov and Tadic were especially effective on either flank for the Serbs. The Swiss ruled the possession, but the Serbs were so good in transition, getting back and maintaining their defensive shape quickly, making the Swiss have to just pass the ball back and forth. The Swiss didn’t so much get the ball down the flanks as much as they kind of methodically worked their way down the flanks. Xherdan Shaqiri made more runs at holding midfielders Nemanja Matic and Luka Milivojevic, who were both sitting on yellow cards. Switzerland finally caught the Serbs slow on transition, and Swiss talisman Granit Xhaka buried a long range shot. As the game got more open and back and forth, it also got more chippy; every single ball got contested, but both teams played to win. Shaquiri’s runs at the Serbian center paid off in the 90th minute on a fast break. Gotta give it to the Swiss; they got it together enough to get full points.

South Korea 1-2 Mexico: South Korea looked to play very conservatively with a 4-4-2 formantion, while Mexico was going to be more adventuresome with three forwards in a 4-3-3 formation. It was apparent from the start that the Koreans were going to take people on, closing down Mexico’s speedy forwards and especially Javier Hernandez and Guardado. Mexico showed a lot of movement diagonally both on and off the ball, leaving Korea with having to get in front of them, especially in the middle third, trying to interrupt El Tri’s attack. The best Korean attacks came on the counter, especially down the flank. Mexico’s best chance was to manage tempo and try to keep possession, play from side to side. The penalty goal by Carlos Vela meant that Korea had to chase the game and take more chances both in the back and going forward. Korea became more aggressive but they still did not send numbers forward, relying on quick runs, by two or three players, and long passes into the attacking third. Yet Mexico did not play any differently after the goal, playing with width and maintaining possession.

Despite their lack of size the Koreans were dangerous on set pieces and 50/50 balls. At about the 60th minute you could tell that the humidity in Rostov-on-Don was getting to both sides, as both backlines were having to react to quick pressure from each other. Good to see world-class defender Rafa Marquez come on in his fifth World Cup; his purpose was to settle in front of the Mexican backline and act as a stopper before the Korean attack got into the box. Because Korea sent so many numbers forward, they were exposed in the back, and when Mexico interrupted a Korean attack in the 66th minute, Korea had nobody back to stop Hernandez on a quick counter for a score. Gotta give it to South Korea, they never gave up, and kept up the pressure at the heart of the Mexican backline, which finally wilted and allowed a stoppage time goal to Korean Son Heung-Min. Too little too late.

Germany 2-1 Sweden: Even though Sweden play are careful 4-4-2 formation, they looked to play more adventuresome down the left wing with talisman Emil Forsman. Germany planned to move the ball around in a 4-5-1 formation, hoping to get Marco Reus and Toni Kroos to apply pressure going forward, with Tomas Meuller more in the center of attack as opposed to his usual ramsteuter on the right. The Swedish defense was pack tight, but Germany still managed to find space, especially on the left, where winger Jonas Hector and flanker Julian Draxler found room to operate in the final third. I expected Sweden to give up much of the possession and quickly go on the counter when they did get it, but to give up as much possession as they did is just self-defeating. Germany plays a notoriously high backline considering it is only two center backs (Jérôme Boateng and Antonio Rüdiger); It cost them in the 30th minute when Viktor Claesson stole the ball at midfied and sent a cultured through ball on to target man Ola Toivonen, who got loose behind the center of the German backline and buried it. In an attempt to get more creativity going forward, German coach Joakim Low moved Meuller back to his customary ramsteuter on the right, and Marco Reus moved inside.

You would think given how badly Germany handled the counterattack in their loss to Mexico that that part of their game would improve this time; it didn’t. By subbing Mario Gomez for Julian Draxler, Germany was going with four men up front in a 4-2-4 overload. It worked immediately; Reus scored on a one-timer three minutes in. Boateng gets sent off on a silly foul in the box with ten minutes left, so you would think with their tournament lives on the line, Germany would have to play the rest of the game more carefully. They did not. Germany kept up the possession and the pressure, keeping Sweden on their backheels, resulting in a short set piece free kick that Kroos buried from the left edge of the box in stoppage time. Sweden was so close to eliminating the defending world champions, but a desperate and classic Germany, a team that has historically known how to grind out results, pulled victory out of the jaws of defeat. NOW THAT WAS A FINISH!

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