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FIFA World Cup 2018: Knockout Round Day One

One and done time…

France 4-3 Argentina

France played a 4-2-3-1 that played like an advanced 4-1-4-1, with N’Golo Kanté protecting the backline, Paul Pogba the sideline-to-sideline midfielder expected to get forward into channels in the center to help the attack, the explosive Kylian Mbappé making runs in from the right, the target man Olivier Giroud up front waiting to get the ball on a trailing Antoine Greizmann. Argentina played its customary 4-3-3, with Lionel Messi playing a false-9 up front, so they were going to expect a lot from the wide playes, Nicolás Tagliafico and Angel di Maria on the left, and Gabriel Mercado and Cristian Pavón, although Éver Banega was expected to get into attacking channels in the center. France played a considerably high line considering it was Messi they had to defend.

Mbappé’s early explosiveness caused a penalty in the box in the 13th minute; Greizmann converted. Kanté was so good at covering the center that France could afford to take some chances forward. Argentina couldn’t handle Mbappé’s speed; France taking one long ball after another over the top to him through the center. Argentina wanted Messi to play near the box in a false-9, but he spent more time playing deep bringing the ball forward. You can have all the defending you want, if you close down the box and let someone have a long shot outside of it, bad things can happen. It finally happened in the 41st minute, when France failed to close down di Maria outside the box and he sent one sailing into the right side of the net. Argentina were going to be patient, maintaining a patient possession until they could get the ball to Messi. Gabriel Mercado deflected a Messi shot on a set piece to take the lead in the 48th minute.

France got taken out of their game, playing a lot more cautiously instead of playing long balls to their speedy players up front. On Benjamin Pavard’s goal in the 57th minute, they played like they were supposed to; a long ball over the top down the left flank to Lucas Hernandez, who sent a long cross into the center to Pavard. When Pogba got on the ball, France played over-the-top; he sent another long pass to the left flank to Hernandez, who sent it in to the box to Mbappé with the finish in the 64rd minute. Argentina just couldn’t handle Les Bleus’ speed, as evidenced by Mbappé’s toe poke in the 68th minute; Pogba again with the patient buildup in the center, gets the ball quickly to Giroud, who one-times it to Mbappé. France knew what areas of the field to attack with their speed, and took advantage of it perfectly. Kun Aguero came on in the 65th minute to get up top and receive the ball in the box and put shots on goa; that’s what he did in the 3rd minute of stoppage time on a cultured pass from Messi (why Argentina didn’t have a true striker up front is beyond me). One helluva finish in a fun match to watch; the best game of the tournament so far. Messi and Argentina have some ‘splaining to do.

Uruguay 2-1 Portugal

This game was going to come down to the center of Uruguay’s disciplined, physical, no-nonsense defense, Diego Godín and José Giménez (who haven’t given up a goal leading up to this game) versus the otherworldly talents of Cristiano Ronaldo in the box, and Uruguay’s counterattack versus Portugal’s pragmatism. Uruguay played a 4-1-2-1-2 that played like a wide 4-4-2 diamond, looking for Rodrigo Bentancur to slide in from the left to the center, but quickly getting the ball in the attacking third to Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani up top. Portugal employed a disciplined 4-4-2 that played more like a 4-2-2-2, with Ronaldo floating around freely from the left, but flank play was going to be important with João Mário and Bernardo Silva bringing the ball forward with Ronaldo trailing in.

A lot of body checking, as I expected both teams to interrupt their opponents with very physical play. The one-two game between Suarez and Cavani got Uruguay on the board early in the 7th minute. Uruguay closed down the back by dropping defensive midfielder Lucas Torreira back into a five-man backline. Uruguay was happy to let Ronaldo get the ball on the flanks, because every time he and tried to bring it inside, there were two Uruguayan players to close him down. Uruguay looked more comfortable on the ball despite giving up a vast amount of the possession. But Portugal has size and are good in the air and on 50/50 balls, and they took advantage of that on their set-piece goal in the 55th minute by Pepe (when you give up as much possession as Uruguay gave up you have to expect bad things will eventually happen).

A much more confident offensive buildup by Portugal in the second half, moving the ball from side to side. The one-two by Suarez and Cavani rose to the occasion in the 62nd minute. I expected to see a lot of reckless challenges throughout this game, and I was not wrong. In the 65th minute Portugal brought on flanker Ricardo Quaresma to get more attacking quality down the right flank. We tend to forget that Ronaldo started off life as a flanker, so when he gets closed down in the box, he goes outside looking to draw defenders to him and put the ball in the box. Uruguay played a very deep backline; there was just no panic in their game when Portugal got the ball in the box. Suarez was gassed, and Cavani got beat up but Uruguay survive the Portuguese onslaught to advance to the quarters against France.

The two best players in the world, Messi and Ronaldo, are sent home on the first day of the knockout stage.

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 A and B Third Matches

Uruguay 3-0 Russia: You knew going in that neither teams was going to spend a lot of time in the middle third. Uruguay’s intent was evident from the start; they played an attacking 3-1-4-2 formation, putting long balls up front to their two front men Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, and were so intent on quickly attacking they sent long passes directly up front and even took long shots from outside the box. Russia had every intent to play a direct attacking 4-2-3-1 formation, pumping the ball down the flanks and getting the ball inside to target man Artem Dzyuba to hold up play in the box and get his trailing help Aleksei Miranchuk from the center and flanker Denis Cheryshev from the left. A long pass to the front left Russia 6’s and 7’s in the back, fouling Suarez at the edge of the box; he converted a direct free kick for the score. Russia were not letting grass grow below their feet, pumping the ball forward to Dzyuba on the counter.

Russia put their size to good use, going over the top, winning 50/50 balls in the air and drawing set pieces. Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev and center defender Sergai Ignashevich showed their age; these two should have been better on set pieces. But it was Uruguay that did better on set pieces; left back Diego Laxalt scored on a corner. If Dzyuba got the ball anywhere but in the box, he was quickly closed down by two defenders. Uruguay made life on the left wing problematic for Russia, as evidenced by right back Igor Smolnikov having problems trying to slow Uruguay down, and leading to Smolnikov’s sending off early. Russia’s response was quick long balls over the top to the front to Dzyuba, but with no help.

With a two-goal lead, Uruguay looked to slow the game down, get their feet on the ball, manage the game, play keep away, and moving the ball around looking for overloads on one side of the ball. What put the final nail in the Russian coffin? A Cavani one-timer on a corner. Three set pieces, three goals! I guess Russia is good against bad teams, and bad against good teams.

Saudi Arabia 2-1 Egypt: Even though they were the first team out of the tournament, the Saudis played to win, utilizing a 4-1-4-1 that played like a 4-5-1, which was center-intensive despite not having a true talisman in the center and having numbers on the flanks. Egypt was also playing to win, choosing to keep it’s starting XI from the previous two group fixtures in a 4-5-1 formation, wasting no time getting the ball directly to their right talisman Mo Saleh, who was used to attack and draw Saudi players to him, hoping to open up space for other Egyptian players. Whenever Saleh touched the ball, two to three Saudi players collapsed on him, which didn’t stop him from trying to put it in fifth gear when he got the ball; it finally worked for him on a goal in the 22nd minute.

I was struck by the amount of skill on the ball both teams had, but what negated that was the lack of true defensive shape both teams exhibited. The Saudis controlled most of the match with their possession, showing a little more quickness (they had to if they were going to play the ball through the middle). Salem Al-Dawsari and Yaseer Al-Shahrani made some impressive thrusts into the attacking third from the left, but I was struck by how they and the rest of the Saudi flankers took less advantage of the flanks and made runs into the center into the teeth of the Egyptian defense.

As long as Saudi Arabia attacked in the center, Egypt defended with essentially two lines of four, leaving Salah and Treziguet up top making up the bulk of their counterattack. The heat mattered not to both these teams from hot-weather countries. The Saudis got shots off, just not on target; story of their tournament. Saudi pressure through the center eventually resulted in two Saudi penalties in the first half, converting on one by Salman Al-Faraj. At some point you knew that the Saudis would break through during the run of play with as many furious runs they made at the center of the Egyptian defense. It finally came in the 5th minute of stoppage time, on a patient build-up in the box to Al-Dawsari. Don’t tell either one of these teams this game meant nothing – it meant everything to these teams and these countries.

Iran 1-1 Portugal: Good to see Iran playing a meaningful game this late in the tournament. Iran sat deep in a modified 4-1-4-1 which played a lot like a 6-3-1, lying deep and waiting for Portugal to bring the game to them for them to counter. Portugal played a surprisingly more cautious 4-4-2, bringing in right flanker Ricardo Quaresma to set up Cristiano Ronaldo roaming freely from sideline to sideline in the final third, with Andre Silva in the box. Iran gave up an obscene amount of possession, but that did not worry them; they were comfortable keeping everything in front of them, content to make Ronaldo have to take his chances from long range. Not much play on the flanks by Iran, who were content to make direct attacking thrusts at Portuguese midfielders William Carvalho and Adrien Silva. Iran went for the quick combinations at the heart of the Portuguese defense in the box, putting together passes but not getting off any quality shots on target.

You could tell that Portugal wanted to catch Iran on the break, but Iran worked to interrupt the break. Iran was getting good chances in the final third, they just weren’t capitalizing on them. Somebody other than Ronaldo finally got it done for Portugal; as long as Iran was going to let Quaresma have the ball on the right flank, Quaresma was finally going to bring it in himself and take a shot. A rare miss by Ronaldo on a PK. Iran with a lifeline in the 3rd minute of stoppage time with a penalty goal by midfield substitute Karim Ansarifard. A Great fight back by Iran, putting Portugal through the ringer, but because of the result in Kaliningrad, Portugal goes through and Iran is sent packing.

Spain 2-2 Morocco: Morocco did not let Spain off the hook even though they had long since been eliminated. Spain played – what else – a patient 4-3-3 that played like of 4-5-1, ruling possession looking for space to make short passes into and looking to control flow and tempo. Andres Iniesta is the focal point of the patient attack for Spain in the center of midfield, looking to get the ball up front to target man Diego Costa, with help from David Silva and Isco coming in from the flanks. Morocco, with no pressure, looked to play a more direct 4-1-4-1 that plays like a 4-5-1, wanting to get the ball on the flanks to Hakim Ziyech and Nordin Amrabat, who then looked to cross the ball into target man Khalid Boutaïb. Spain wingers Jordi Alba and Dani Carvajal love to push forward, creating space for Silva and Costa in the box. Morocco did their best to get bodies on Spain players in the attacking half, hoping to at least slow down the Spanish attack, which got tempers flaring.

The game plan for Morocco was allow Spain to have it, and when they made a mistake, pounce. It worked to perfection on their first goal when Boutaïb stole the ball at the half touch line from Sergio Ramos – Spain practically lulled themselves to sleep — and walked it in in the 14th minute. Isco found a channel to run into in the 19th minute and practically got in front of goal unmolested for a Spanish equalizer. I think Iniesta’s run into the box is what gave Isco the space to score; Iniesta runs into center channels caused all kinds of problems for the Moroccan backline all game long. The Spanish backline was getting beat by long passes and throws behind them; Boutaïb and Amrabat from the right had several good chances in front of goalkeeper David De Gea. As usual, Spain ruled the possession, this time by pressing high and winning the ball. Both teams were on point with substitutions: Youssef En-Nesyr came on for Boutaïb and scored in the 81st minute for Morocco, and Iago Aspas came on for Diego Costa and scored in the 91st minute for Spain. Give credit to Morocco for not giving in. They had something to play for: Pride in themselves, their team, and their country…

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