Caught your breath yet? It’s been quite a whirlwind since the World Cup started with goals aplenty and no small amount of talking points. The World Champions, Spain, has been dumped out unceremoniously, the tournament’s scoring spree started with an own-goal by Brazil. One hundred and thirty six goals thus far have been scored at an average of 2.38 per game. And even Wayne Rooney found the back of the net!
Lionel Messi and Neymar have been scintillating, Guillermo Ochoa produced his best Gandalf impression not allowing Brazil to pass as Mexico held the hosts 0-0, Fabio Capello achieved the seemingly impossible by having a worse World Cup with Russia than he did with England four years ago. Costa Rica upset the apple cart, James Rodríguez came to the fore for Colombia filling a Radamel Falcao sized hole. Holland and France defied national stereotypes displaying an almost unprecedented level of team unity, there was Tim Cahill’s Van Basten-eque volley against the Dutch, John Brooks’ ‘what just happened?’ celebration, the choreographed jigs, Phil Neville’s commentary, the genius and madness of Luis Suárez, goal line technology, the Ivory Coast’s last gasp heartache at the hands of Greece and so much more.
There’s been loads of drama, excitement and entertainment at this year’s World Cup and we haven’t even had a game in the knockouts yet!
As the cliché goes we’re now into the business end of the tournament where one moment of magic can seal a spot in the quarters whilst one slip could lead to elimination. So, what could be in store for the 16 who’ve managed to reach the knockout stage?
Brazil vs. Chile:
Brazil has not been terribly convincing and will need to up their game against an exciting Chilean team. The Seleção benefited from a number of generous decisions against Croatia, faced an inspired Mexican side and even suffered an attack of nerves when Cameroon equalized against them in their final group game. The one major bright spot has been the form of Neymar who has been crucial to Brazil, scoring big goals, taking responsibility and cementing his position as one of the team’s senior players despite his relative youth. Neymar has grown in stature as the tournament has progressed and is handling the pressure of expectation with ease. He’ll need to be on top form again and Brazil as a whole will need to raise their performance levels against an energetic Chile.
Chile, even taking into account their loss to Holland, has been impressive playing bright, forceful football. Despite being the away side Chile will approach the game with confidence. Charles Aránguiz’s energy in midfield will be key in disrupting Brazil’s rhythm whilst Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sánchez are big game players capable of troubling their illustrious hosts. With Brazil looking occasionally vulnerable this may be a golden opportunity for Chile to take advantage of their frailties.
The start of the match could be a little cagey as would be expected with a knockout tie but it has the potential to be a thriller if both sides settle into their natural game. Luiz Filipe Scolari has always made it known that he didn’t want to face another South American team and Chile could demonstrate why he’s so nervous.
Prediction: Brazil 3 – 2 Chile (after extra time)
Colombia vs. Uruguay:
The moods of both camps couldn’t be more contrasting.
The Colombians have been vibrant, colourful, together and positive as they breezed through their group games. They provided the World Cup with one of THE heartwarming moments of the tournament when they brought on the 43-year old Faryd Mondragón against Japan and in the process ensured that he overtook Roger Milla as the oldest player to have participated at the World Cup. The bond between the Colombians is extremely strong and that is in no small part down to coach José Péckerman. They Colombians could have feared the worst losing Radamel Falcao to injury but instead other players have stepped up, James Rodríguez and Juan Cuadrado chief amongst them, and they’ve played each game with a freedom and joie de vivre which has been refreshing to watch.
If Colombia is football’s equivalent of REM’s Shiny Happy People then Uruguay is the entire back catalogue of Rage Against the Machine. They’re angry, very angry, fuming as a result of the Luis Suárez ban. Diego Lugano, La Celeste’s captain, was indignant after Suárez was handed a nine-match international ban on top of a four month suspension from all football related activities. Óscar Tabáraz backed his star striker and Uruguay in general has rallied around Suárez. The ‘us against the world’ mentality should suit Uruguay as they will harness their anger and channel it on the pitch. What they can’t do is allow themselves to be swept away by the sense of injustice otherwise they will exit the World Cup. The Suárez controversy has unfortunately overshadowed their impressive recovery in Group D. Uruguay reached the knockout stage beating both England and Italy after losing surprisingly to Costa Rica. Can El Maestro Óscar Tabáraz live up to his nickname and mastermind a win against Colombia? It’ll be a difficult task but the Uruguayans do thrive on adversity.
Prediction: Colombia 2 – 0 Uruguay
France vs. Nigeria:
This is a match that could be closer than expected.
France impressed in their opening two games scoring three against a limited Honduran side and five against their neighbours the Swiss. They failed to break down Ecuador who were reduced to 10-men but overall Didier Deschamps will be happy with what his troops have delivered. Karim Benzema is enjoying his World Cup, as a unit Les Bleus have been cohesive and most importantly there is a genuine togetherness that is clear to see. This is a squad that seems far less prone to falling apart at the seams compared to the class of 2010. What we haven’t seen though is how France will react if put under pressure, will they turn on each other? Will they be galvanized? On the evidence displayed thus far the smart money would be on the latter but we’ll find out the character of this team when they’re up against it.
Nigeria’s Stephen Keshi has achieved what no African coach has done before; he’s managed to take a team into the knockout stages. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised he broke that glass ceiling, after all he masterminded Nigeria’s African Cup of Nations victory in 2013 ending a 19-year wait. His is a side that on their day can pose a threat to any team in the world. Argentina had to rely on the genius of Lionel Messi to help the Albiceleste best the Super Eagles. Equally, they’re capable of not being at the races as their 0-0 draw with Iran demonstrated, indeed they’re indebted to their goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama for pulling off a stunning save against Reza Ghoochannejhad and though they beat the Bosnians 1-0 they benefited from a highly dubious offside call denying the Balkan side a goal. Keshi and his team won’t be overawed facing France but neither will they be too cocky either. If Nigeria can replicate the attacking performance in their last match then the French will be in for a tough game.
Prediction: France 2 – 1 Nigeria
Germany vs. Algeria:
Germany go in as favorites but Algeria do have a 32-year old grudge to settle.
In 1982, Algeria was set to qualify for the knockout phase of the World Cup having upset West Germany and Chile whilst losing to Austria. West Germany and Austria played their final game after Algeria wrapped up their campaign leaving both sides knowing what they had to do. The West Germans needed to win whilst the Austrians couldn’t lose by more than two goals. What transpired was one of the biggest controversies to hit the World Cup. The Schande von Gijón saw West Germany score on the 10-minute mark against Austria and then after that nothing of note happened. Both sides settled for a 1-0 score line to West Germany as it ensured the pair would qualify for the knockouts at the expense of Algeria. FIFA altered the format of future World Cups after the ensuing outrage to ensure that the final group matches would be played at the same time in order to avoid something like this ever happening again.
The Algerian players, and the Germans for that matter, aren’t old enough to remember the game but the legacy of that match still rankles and if the Desert Foxes require any motivation they have an ideal opportunity to right that particular wrong. As a team they have been well drilled and gave the highly fancied Belgians a fright. They ruthlessly dispatched South Korea and gave the Russians problems in the air with Adi M’bolhi making crucial saves at the other end. Whether they can match the Germans in the air is another matter. They have the skill of Sofiane Feghouli to call upon, Nabil Bentaleb has slotted in comfortably and Islam Slimani has looked dangerous in front of goal. In all likelihood, Algeria will need to play at the peak of their powers and hope Germany has an off day if they’re to have any hope of causing an upset.
The Germans look in ominous form. They took apart Portugal with consummate ease and controlled the game against the US. They did wobble a little against Ghana when the Black Stars attacked them but they still recovered their composure to snatch a draw. This is a stylish team led by a stylish manager and though they play eye-catching football it is always dangerous and with purpose. On paper it’s hard to see beyond Germany as they possess no discernible weaknesses in all areas of the squad bar an out and out goal scorer. The only question mark against them is whether this side can handle the pressure. This is an extremely talented group of individuals but they have yet to deliver the international success Germany craves. Can they deal with the weight of expectation? If they can then they’ll be in serious contention for the World Cup.
Prediction: Germany 3 – 0 Algeria
Netherlands vs. Mexico:
This is an intriguing contest between two sides blessed with talented, charismatic managers.
Holland stormed through the group stages securing maximum points including a stunning demolition of Spain. Louis Van Gaal’s tactical acumen has come to the fore and his players are executing his plans perfectly. Robin van Persie will return from suspension and he will be a key player for Holland alongside the jet-heeled Arjen Robben. But it’s not just the old guard who’ve been performing. Daley Blind, Stefan de Vrij, Darryl Janmaat, Memphis Depay and Jasper Cillessen have all played well for a side that was tipped to go home after the group stages given the relative greenness of the squad. If anything they’ve played with both freedom and courage and could be set up for a run to the final if they manage to negotiate a tough Mexican side. Arjen Robben has been an absolute dynamo for Holland and for the sake of the Oranje it’s key that he stays fit for the duration of the tournament.
Miguel Herrera has become a bit of a cult hero with his touchline antics and celebrations but don’t let the theatrics fool you this is a coach who is extremely adept at setting up his team and has thus far prepared them superbly for each of their group games. The stand out result is of course the 0-0 against Brazil, a game they perhaps should have won, but more impressive under the circumstances was the following match against Croatia. Herrera managed to coax a winning performance after his team’s superhuman effort against Brazil. Not only did they beat Croatia, they dealt with them clinically and comfortably. Héctor Hererra is having a fine World Cup as has Oribe Peralta whilst Rafael Márquez has been inspiring at the back and it would remiss not to mention the heroics of Guillermo Ochoa in goal. This promises to be a fascinating match.
Prediction: Holland 2 – 1 Mexico (after extra time)
Costa Rica vs. Greece:
It’s safe to say that no one expected these two to reach the knockout stage let alone face each other. Their paths to the round of 16 were very different though.
Costa Rica qualified comfortably from what was on paper a difficult group. They sensationally came from behind to beat Uruguay in the opening match before Bryan Ruiz headed home in their second game to give Los Ticos a memorable victory against the 2006 champions Italy. Their last match against England was a dead rubber and they duly secured a 0-0 draw to finish on top of their group. Costa Rica will be in the odd position of going in as favourites based on form. How will they cope having to force the play? Will they even try? Inadvertently, FIFA may have given the Costa Ricans cause to perform after seven of their players were drug tested after the match against Italy. It may have been perfectly innocent but perceived slights have a funny way of motivating a team into giving that little bit extra over the course of a tournament. Jorge Luis Pinto’s side also come into the game with no little quality. Keylor Navas has been secure in goal and will surely be the centre of a lot of transfer speculation, whilst at the other end of the pitch the twin threats of Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz will keep the Greeks busy. This is as good a chance as any for Costa Rica to qualify for the quarters.
Greece on the other managed to cross the line with a last gasp penalty against a heartbroken Ivory Coast. If Costa Rica’s road to the round of 16 was relatively serene then Greece did it the hard way. They were thumped in their opening match against Colombia, managed to dig out a 0-0 draw against Japan playing most of the match with 10-men after Konstantinos Katsouranis was sent off in the 38th minute. And of course they pulled it out of the bag against the Ivory Coast with virtually the last kick of Group C. The Greeks certainly know how to do drama. More seriously, it would have been easy for Greece to have folded after their opening game but the fact they held on against Japan in tough circumstances as well as pulling out a result in their last game shows a side that possesses a steely resolve and resilience. Goals have been their major weakness scoring only two in the whole tournament and those were in the final match against the Ivory Coast. Though this side is more adventurous under Fernando Santos they may be best advised to defend, frustrate and then hit Costa Rica on the break and perhaps even take it to penalties if the situation demands.
This could be an interesting game of cat and mouse. Who’ll throw caution into the wind first?
Prediction: Costa Rica 1 – 1 Greece (Costa Rica to win on penalties)
Argentina vs. Switzerland:
All is not quite as it seems with Argentina. They may be one of the favourites but the Albiceleste has not been firing on all cylinders. Angel Di María, Marcos Rojo and Sergio Romero have been performing for Alejandro Sabella’s side but where would they be without the genius of Lionel Messi? The Barcelona star has dug Argentina out of a hole in each of their group games scoring stunning goals against Bosnia and Herzegovina and Iran whilst netting a brace against Nigeria. Messi may not be dragging his team kicking and screaming into the latter stages of the World Cup but he is shouldering a bulk of the responsibility. Then again the sign of a world class talent is to produce the goods when it counts and Messi is doing that in spades at the moment. The parallels to Diego Maradona’s performances in 1986 are inevitable but also understandable. Rumours of discontent in the Argentina camp with players reportedly unhappy with coach Alejandro Sabella continue to circulate. Squad discontent isn’t always fatal as France’s run to the 2006 final demonstrated but it’s far from an ideal situation. The Argentineans need someone to rally around and that person is Lionel Messi and ominously he is hitting his stride.
It’s been a bit of an up and down tournament for Switzerland but they won’t be overawed by Argentina and coach Ottmar Hitzfeld has been playing a wily game already. He’s taking the pressure off his side stating they have nothing to lose against Argentina and placing the weight of expectancy on the South Americans. Behind the scenes he’ll be devising plans to neutralize Messi and would have noted Argentina’s frailties as well. Defensively, Argentina has looked a little suspect and with the Swiss coming off the back of a comfortable 3-0 victory against Honduras, a confident Xherdan Shaqiri and company won’t fear taking the game to their opponents if the situation requires it. If, and it’s a very big IF, Switzerland can keep Messi quiet and on the periphery of the game then there could be a chance of an upset. The problem is that Messi is such a special talent he only needs one opening to produce the goods and win a match.
This really could be his defining World Cup.
Prediction: Argentina 2 – 0 Switzerland
Belgium vs. USA:
This is a game that has the potential for an upset. Player for player Belgium has a more talented squad but Marc Wilmots has yet to find the right formula to make the Red Devils tick. Jürgen Klinsmann on the other hand has fashioned his side into a tight unit capable of troubling the top sides.
Belgium won all three of their group games but they haven’t been completely convincing. They came from behind to beat Algeria, defeated Russia in a damp squib of a game and managed to overcome South Korea even though they had Steven Defour (deservedly) sent off. There have been a few concerns for Marc Wilmots chief amongst them is the form of Romelu Lukaku who has been very ordinary this World Cup. Divock Origi whenever he’s come on has looked more threatening than the Chelsea striker. Eden Hazard has delivered moments of quality but has yet to light up the World Cup like Lionel Messi or Neymar. This team does possess fight though even if they’re not performing to the top of their game. Their stunning two minute turnaround against Algeria, the moment of magic by Hazard to set up Origi against Russia and the win over South Korea despite being a man down shows how dangerous they can be. If Wilmots can find the magic formula and get Belgium to gel then the Red Devils will sizzle.
Jürgen Klinsmann masterminded qualification from the so-called ‘Group of Death’ and did so by imbuing a philosophy and positive attitude amongst the camp. He’s been successful with his recruitment policy with the likes of Fabian Johnson starring for the States adding to the talent running through this side. Tim Howard has been a calming influence and pulled off some great saves, Graham Zusi has created dangerous chances, Jermaine Jones has been a key player in America’s midfield, Kyle Beckerman has been solid as a defensive shield and Clint Dempsey has led the line upfront and produced when it mattered. Don’t underestimate the importance of John Brooks’ goal too as his intervention turned a satisfactory point into a morale boosting three.
If anyone needs to up their game it’s Michael Bradley who hasn’t been as effective as he could be. Will he get the nod from Klinsmann in this game? It’s a tough decision to make but Bradley has been giving the ball away too much in recent games and with the quality Belgium has at their disposal the US cannot afford to surrender possession cheaply. Portugal’s last second equalizer is a stark warning of what can happen if the ball is turned over easily. Dropping Bradley would be a big call especially at the start of the knockout phase but Klinsmann isn’t afraid of making a big decision.
This will be another tight game, the stars versus the team. If Belgium find their groove then they’ll be difficult to beat but if the US play with the same intensity as they did against Portugal and Ghana then a quarterfinals spot isn’t out of their reach. Klinsmann may well have to write another sick note for US fans if his side can upset the odds once again.
Prediction: Belgium 2 – 1 USA (after extra time)