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FIFA World Cup 2018: Quarterfinals Preview

World Cup Trophy

The Quarterfinals

The Round of 16 found 6 group winners moving forward.  The two second-place finishers that won, Russia and England, did not look particularly impressive in doing so, each squeaking through on penalty kicks.  The two sides of the quarterfinals bracket have some slight differences in the quality of the competition.  One side of the bracket has no team ranked lower than 14th in the world rankings.  The highest ranked team on the other side of the bracket is 12th ranked England and all the other teams in that bracket are ranked 20th or lower, in one case, much lower.  So what do we have to look forward to in the quarterfinals?

Uruguay vs. France

Uruguay got past Portugal in the round of 16 despite the Portuguese dominating possession and shots because they played a deep and disciplined backline and bet on their attackers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani to get the job done up front, which they did.  France has a new star in the making, Kylian Mbappe, and topped Argentina in the round of 16 by making good use of his explosiveness.  However, the French gave up more goals to Argentina than they did in three group games because Messi and the Argentines were the first offensively proficient team they faced.

Unlike Portugal who had difficulty breaking through Uruguay’s defense, France has the speed and one-on-one ability in Mbappe up front and Paul Pogba in the midfield to find the seams even though Uruguay does not concede many shots.  Unlike most players, Mbappe can make his runs to either side of the field, so Uruguay can’t overplay him to one side or the other.  On the other end, Suarez and Cavani have the ability and experience to give the French backline a rough time.  However, Cavani’s left calf is ailing, which could put them at a disadvantage.  France has the more complete squad and should prevail anyway, but if Cavani doesn’t play or is playing hurt, it will be that much easier for France.

Brazil vs. Belgium

Brazil topped Mexico 2-0 in the round of 16 by sending waves of attackers and trusting their defense.  Brazil has some of the best one-on-one players in the world and are patient on the attack till the find the cracks to exploit.  Belgium was expected to run Japan off the field in their game, but the Japanese played them evenly through the first half and when Belgium pressed the attack in the second half, Japan used their quickness, particularly on the wings to run up two quick goals.  Belgium kept up their attack though and quickly got the two goals back.  Both teams attacked back and forth looking for the winning goal.  Belgium prevailed on a quick counterattack late in extra time.

Brazil and Belgium are the 2nd and 3rd ranked teams in the world, respectively.  However, Belgium’s defense has shown cracks against teams with creative offenses and Brazil will be the most creative offense they have faced yet.  Brazil has been getting better each game in this Cup and their veteran defense has given up only one goal so far.  Brazil ends Belgium’s World Cup run here.

Sweden vs. England

Sweden managed to get by Switzerland last round by playing stout defense and patiently waiting for Emil Forsberg to make some magic on the offensive end.  The Swiss also looked to defend heavily and find their spots on offense.  It made for a boring game.  Despite the Swiss controlling the ball more of the game, Forsberg made the difference late.  England survived its bout with Colombia on penalty kicks.  Colombia played without their star James Rodriguez, but still played England tough.  England has not shown much creativity in their offense in this tournament, but has done well on penalty and free kicks.

Sweden and England figures to be a boring game with little scoring.  Neither team creates well enough against stiff defenses.  Sweden will have to watch its fouls in the defensive third lest they give the English the edge they need with a set piece.  The English defense will have to keep a close eye on Forsberg.  This game could go either way and figures to be won by the team that makes the least mistakes.  I give England the slight edge to be that team.

Russia vs. Croatia

Russia managed to get by Spain in the round of 16 by way of Spain’s inability to create in the offensive third and some questionable referee calls and non-calls.  The Russians spent the entire second half and the extra periods surviving by pulling everyone back on defense.  Their goalie then bailed them out in the penalty kicks phase.  Croatia also got to the quarterfinals via penalty kicks against Denmark.  Croatia gave up a first minute goal to Denmark, but struck back minutes later and then settled down on both ends of the field.  They created a number of scoring opportunities, but couldn’t finish.  They showed some backbone though winning the shootout after star Luka Modric couldn’t convert a penalty kick late in the game.

Croatia and Russia appears to be a mismatch in the Croats favor, but then, so did Spain and Russia.  As with every other game against superior teams, Russia will play a patient defense-heavy game and hope for a breakdown by Croatia or penalty kicks.  Croatia will control the midfield and count on the attacking front of Mandzukic, Pericic, Rebic, and Modric to do a better job of creating opportunities than Spain did.  Modric creates a lot of scoring opportunities and he will need to ramp it up a notch against Russia’s 11-man defense.  Croatia should end Russia’s surprising World Cup run barring another run of fortunate refereeing.

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FIFA World Cup 2018: Knockout Round Day Four

Sweden 1-0 Switzerland

The Swedes came into this game looking to shut down the middle and get forward on the wings in a 4-2-2-2 formation, looking for Emil Forsberg to create things floating in from the left, Victor Claesson crossing the ball on the right, and Ola Toivonen the target man in the box getting the ball onto Marcus Berg. Switzerland limped into this game with a few players out through injury, employing a flexible 4-2-3-1 that played like a 4-5-1 in attack, playing the ball through sideline-to-sideline midfielder Granit Xhaka, with his primary attacking help coming from Xherdan Shaqiri on the right, Steven Zuber new to the starting XI trying to make runs forward on the left, and Josip Drmic the fourth starting target man in the box this tournament.

The Swiss were committed to play out of the back, find good starting positions and combinations, working the ball around, then finding a playing running into the box to cross it to. The Swiss are usually good at playing out of pressure, but they got careless in the back a few times and gave up good chances to the Swedes. Sweden were a little more direct, but not really finding an offensive rhythm. Sweden played a very deep back-line, which is why Switzerland was able to find space to pass the ball into. No surprise that the Swiss dominated the possession. The Swedes did a lot of work closing down space in the center, and their wingers were pressing the Swiss flankers. Both teams got shots off in the box, just not on goal, with some badly missed finishes that should have gone in.

Forsberg finally got on the end of a ball in front of the box in the 66th minute. The Swiss were getting really frustrated with the officiating, so they were putting bodies on a lot of Swedish players. Drmic was practically useless up front, not getting the ball in the box and not really a part of the Swiss offensive buildup. Sweden was very disciplined in the back after scoring, closing down the box to the Swiss and not giving them good looks at goal. It’s not always pretty, but there is a cohesion and a single-mindedness to Sweden that squeezes every ounce of performance out of those canary-yellow jerseys.

Colombia 1-1 England (3-4 pk)

Without their talisman James Rodriguez, Colombia employed a Christmas tree 4-3-2-1 formation, with Carlos Sanchez providing cover for the backline, Jefferson Lerma and Wilmar Barrios bringing the ball forward on the flanks, Radamel Falcao responsible for the chances in the box, and Juan Cuadrado and Juan Quintero trailing into the box to help. England took a chance with an adventuresome yet center-intensive 3-1-4-2, with Jordan Henderson protecting the backline, sideline-to-sideline technical midfielders Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard varying their runs all over the pitch, speedy Raheem Sterling breaking into the box to link up with Harry Kane waiting on the ball to take his chances on goal. A three-man backline meant that Ashley Young and Kieran Trippier were going to be busy both attacking and defending on the flanks.

Both these teams live and die on set pieces. A lot of youth and speed for the Three Lions, with Colombia trying to close down space through the center to discourage runs by Sterling, Alli and Lingard. Early on, Kane wasn’t finding space in the box to operate, so he was coming back deep to get the ball. England was doing a good job of closing down the forward thrust of Colombia on the flanks, pressing Cuadrado and Quintero up high and limiting their ability to get the ball forward. Falcao was not getting a lot of options in the box, as England’s three-man backline was good at cutting off his help.

For whatever reason, Colombia decided to get physical and chippy, challenging England everywhere on the pitch, grabbing and bullying (you would have thought the English would be prone to this). It cost them in the 57th minute when Carlos Sanchez dragged Kane down in the box and Kane converted the penalty. Of course, England’s score meant that Colombia started to get players into the attack, which predictably meant that there was now space for Alli, Lingard and especially Sterling to use their speed to exploit. England replaces Alli with Eric Dyer to provide more cover centrally in the back.

Colombia tried to get the ball into the box, but the Three Lions did a good job of closing down the final third, closing down channels to both run and pass into. Three minutes into extra time, England were uncharacteristically 6’s and 7’s on a Colombian corner and center back Yerry Mina scored his third goal of the tournament on the header. That took the wind out of England’s sails and gave Columbia extra energy in their game, especially on the left side. It was as if England just couldn’t get over having victory taken from the jaws of defeat in extra time. England were the better team throughout. It would have been disappointing had they not made it through on penalties.

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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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