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FIFA World Cup 2018: Knockout Round Day Two

Spain 1-1 Russia (3-4 pk)

La Furia Roja were going to live and die with the patient and probing 4-2-3-1, no Andres Iniesta to start the game meant Marco Asensio and David Silva were going to be the flankers who serviced Diego Costa in the box, and Isco was given the important job of being support to Costa trailing in from the center. And when they didn’t have possession, Spain pressed high to get it back. Russia changed things up a bit with a conservative 5-3-2 counterattack, looking to limit Spain’s attacking options in the final third with a five-man backline (which meant no room for leading scorer Denis Cheryshev from the start), get the ball forward quickly to target man Artem Dzyuba holding up things for trailing forward Aleksandr Golovin, both getting service from Yury Zhirkov and Mário Fernandes on the flanks, but the point of attack was going to come through the center as sideline-to-sideline midfielder Aleksandr Golovin pulled the strings.

39-year-old Sergey Ignashevich showed his age early by messing up a defensive set piece on David Silva, putting it in his own goal in the 11th minute. As great as Russia was at set pieces, they were surprisingly horrible at defending them; this was the fourth set piece goal they allowed in the tournament to this point. On the rare occasions when Spain went long into the attacking third, Russia were 6’s and 7’s. If Russia was going to win this game, they needed to press Spain high to get the ball back and limit their possession; they did not. As usual, Spain got comfortable sitting in space, moving the ball from side to side, dictating flow and tempo, waiting for channels to run into, slowly gaining ground, testing their opponent’s resolve. Russia looked good running on Spain the few times they had the ball, but with no real organization or coordination. A rare handball by central defender Gerard Piqué in the box gave Russia a penalty kick in the 41st minute, Dzyuba converted. Russia’s five-man backline was incredibly disciplined and hard to break down; Spain did not have a shot on goal in the first half.

To get more offensive buildup through the center, Spain finally brought in Iniesta for Silva, who had a rather forgettable game. To get more finishing in the box, Russia finally brought in Cheryshev, and Fedor Smolov for help up top, but at the expense of Dzyuba up top, so no target man. There just wasn’t any quality shots on goal for either team through full time. Only Spain actually tried to win this game in extra time, Russia soaked up all the pressure and were clearly just hanging on. An unsatisfying game all around, with an unsatisfying end. For all their talent, Spain has reverted back to their old ways; an immensely talented side with the ability to win it all, coming up with ways to screw it up.

Croatia 1-1 Denmark (3-2 pk)

Croatia is going to play to its strengths in the midfield with a balanced 4-2-3-1 formation, with Ivan Rakitic making runs through the middle linking up with talisman Luka Modric going forward, Ivan Perisic making supporting runs from the left, and cultured Mario Mandzukic up top holding up play in the box. Denmark looked to spread things out in a 4-3-3 that played like a covering 4-1-4-1 if they had to drop back in numbers, with midfield creator Christian Erikson playing more centrally bringing the ball forward for the top three of Yussef Poulsen and Martin Braithwaite supporting the top man Andreas Cornelius in the box. Not a good start for the Croats, who were 6’s and 7’s on the set piece in the first minute that Mathias Jørgensen scored, goal I attribute more to goalkeeper error by Croat Danijel Subasic. But they put it to Denmark with a great offensive buildup on their first possession and equalized by Mandzukic, who was not going to miss from six yards out in the 4th minute.

Things settled in after that; a lot of long balls from Denmark early, while Croatia looked for a more patient buildup through the center. Both teams played to their strengths; Croatia had players who moved around creating space and opportunities in the final third; Denmark got the ball forward quickly on direct passes into the box, then drew set pieces, making things uncomfortable for the Croatian backline. I think Modric was doing too much, frequently going back into this own box to close down the Danish attack. Croatia turned up the heat in the second half, with long diagonal balls into the final third, diagonal runs into the box, makingit uncomfortable for the Danish backline. Both teams with great chances in front of the goal.

Croatia spent the early part of extra time hemmed in by Denmark. A clean, well-played game; neither team got a yellow card; lots of fouls by Denmark but nothing deliberate. I was surprised that a team like Croatia which is good at controlling flow and tempo, ceded that idiosyncrasy to Denmark. I don’t have a problem with the professional foul by Mathias Jørgensen in the box on a Croatian breakaway by Ante Rebic; Rebic had an empty goal and had to be brought down. Kasper Schmeichel with a great penalty save on Modric, he is his father Peter’s son. Another unsatisfying end to an unsatisfying day of futbol.

Knockout Round Preview


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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 C and D Third Matches

Denmark 0-0 France: I wasn’t convinced this was going to be an exciting match going I, and I hated to be right. Denmark played it safe with a center-intensive 4-3-3 that could morph into t a 4-5-1 if they got more adventurous in attack (they did not). Midfield creator Christian Erikson, who usually likes to find the game, was pushed back more to clog up the middle with Martin Jorgensen, and the front line of Martin Braithwaite, Andres Cornelius and Pione Sisto were more of the first line of midfield defense. France rung up six changes to his lineup (they knew they were through so they were playing it safe, also), playing a safe 4-5-1 that could also have morphed into a 4-5-1 has they wanted more offense (they did not either). Antoine Greizmann was the focal point of the attack in the center, with Olivier Giroud the lone target man up front. There was some attacking action early, as Denmark more or less circumvented its midfield and get the ball quickly to its front three, who were responsible for most of the attack in the box.

France midfielders Steven N’Zonzi and N’Golo Kanté were squeezing out the midfield, making it tough for Erikson to get the ball, so Denmark was more than happy to go over the top. Right winger Djibril Sidibé and right flanker Ousmane Dembélé made some impressive thrusts into the attacking end early. Giroud and Greizmann were marked men all game long; Danish center backs Mathias Jørgensen and Simon Kjaer put them on lockdown. I’m not going to bore you with what happened in the second half. Suffice it to say that the ball just kind of got passed around back and forth, neither team really trying very hard, both knowing they were through to the next round with a scoreless draw.

Australia 0-2 Peru: Australia went with a basic 4-4-1-1 formation, not very adventurous considering they still had a chance at advancement depending on the result in the other group fixture. No real creator anywhere on the pitch for the Socceroos so they were just going to play the ball to their front man Tomi Juric and hope he could get the ball on to Tom Rogic trailing in. Peru were going to run at you with a 4-2-3-1, with three forwards up front with Edison Flores and André Carrillo bringing the ball into the box for target man Paolo Guerrero from either flank. Peru was not going to just sit back and let the Australians come at them; they pressed them high, forcing the Aussies to go over the top to get the ball forward. Australia took a lot of shots but very few on goal, and they were rewarded a lot of direct free kicks. Both teams tried to stay compact, forcing each other to make lateral passes and avoid diagonal long balls. Not much play from side to side.

Recognizing the Australia was playing a high back line, Peru played a long ball up front to Guerrero, who set up Carillo for the one-timer. Australia didn’t changed their game after going down, but they were more aware of the long ball getting behind them. Peru’s backline was playing high, also, which is why Australia was getting up front frequently. In the second half, Peru replaced Yoshimar Yotún with Pedro Aquino to get more of a push forward in midfield. Center forward Christian Cueva finally got on the end of a give-and-go, then found Guerrero in the box for a right-footed shot to the bottom left corner of the goal. In response, the Aussies brought on a veteran target man in Tim Cahill to offer more movement off the ball in the box, draw back deep into midfield to get the ball forward, and offer more aerial ability in front of goal. Then Australia tried to get more speed going forward by bringing in 19-year-old flanker Daniel Arzani, who was less creative than Robbie Kruse on the left but could get into the attacking end faster. Nothing worked. Peru stood firm and finished their tournament on a winning note despite crashing out days ago.

Iceland 1-2 Croatia: Iceland allowed too much space to Nigeria in their previous group fixture, so this time around they played a more compact 4-2-3-1, with Emil Hallfredsson and Aron Gunnarsson lying back in the center just in front of the back four. Alfred Ginnbogason was the target man up front getting on the end of balls into the box from flankers Birker Bjarnason and Johann Gudmundsson on the break, with talisman Gylfi Sigurdsson trailing in support. Croatia was already through to the next round, so there were nine changes to their 4-5-1 formation that felt more like a 4-3-2-1, but deep-lying playmaker Mateo Kovacic and free talisman Luka Modric retained their spots with the freedom to roam and find the game, with Ivan Perisic making his first start slotting inside from the left. Croatia is very good at making crisp, precise passes in a controlling attack, but what makes them dangerous is their ability to move players out of their usual roles and rotate them forward, backwards and inside as needed. When they don’t have possession they are adept at taking players on and closing them down and harassing them immediately. Iceland stayed tight defensively, then picked their moments and sprung on the break. Opportunities came up for Iceland on rare Croatian mistakes; they just didn’t convert.

Croatia played rather leisurely, choosing not to go up tempo; they did not have to take the game to Iceland, just manage the game and wait for opportunities to creep up. The one person Iceland needed to keep off the ball, Modric, they didn’t do a very good job of; as a result, you got to see why he is one of the best midfielders in Europe; he is very clinical and precise. Iceland’s best forays forward were down the flanks. What finally got Croatia on the board was a patient overloaded buildup in the Icelandic half resulting in a Milan Badelj finish in the center of the box. Needing a result, Iceland had to get forward, so they sent all of their wingers forward in attack, and overloaded the attacking half in more of a 3-5-2 setup. A Dejan Lovren handball in the box gives Iceland a lifeline; Sigurdsson converts. Iceland poured it on after that, but you could tell they were gassed late. Emil Hallfredsson got his pocket picked by Badelj in the back third, and he sent the ball into the left side of the box to Ivan Perisic, who sent it into the right corner of goal. A game effort by Iceland, who created plenty of chances on goal and had a number of chances to win, but they left way too many gaps for a possessive and organized Croatia team to exploit.

Nigeria 1-2 Argentina: Nigeria played a tight, midfield-intensive 3-5-2, looking to challenge Argentina in the middle third, but surprising given that there were only three defenders against an otherworldly player like Mess. The idea was to get the ball to right flanker Victor Moses on the right, and then bring the ball into the box for target man Kelechi Iheanacho to hold up play and Admed Musa to finish. It appeared as if Argentina was playing a conservative 4-4-2, but with the many changes to the starting XI, Argentina looked to keep their options open. Argentina replaced Sergio Aguerro with Gonzalo Higuain, who is better finding channels in the box. Lionel Messi was the central talisman up front, free to move all over the pitch, and Angel di Maria was back on his customary left flank, so Argentina was getting a lot more movement in the final third. With an eye on getting more players moved up in attack, Argentina brought in Éver Banega in a linkup roll. It worked; Banega with an over the top long pass to Messi, who beat his man one on one for an easy goal.

Nigeria looked confused in attack all game long, there was no organization to their offense, and couldn’t get any momentum going, like they didn’t know what they wanted to do on the ball from one moment to the next. Banega and Javier Mascherano did a great job of tying up the Nigerian attack in the midfield. Messi-Higuain-di Maria worked well together; the attack just flowed. Nigeria got a break in the 51st minute, when Mascherano was called for a penalty for bringing down in the box on a corner; Moses converted. In desperation, Argentina sent numbers forward. Center back Marcos Rojo does not come to mind when you think of the Argentine attack, but he was in the box on a cross by right winger Gabriel Mercado. Argentina spent so much time introducing their attack down the left flank with di Maria; what put them over the top was the one time they went down the right flank. Nigeria tempted the fates by giving up way too much possession to a sleeping giant.

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