The tightest Round of 16 stage at a World Cup Finals brought us five extra time match ups and no true blowouts. Each match, even Colombia’s decisive 2-0 win over Uruguay, was hotly contested as expected in the stage that separates the pretenders from the real contenders. But no one could predict, as with many other aspects of this global tournament, how close and dramatic this first knockout round would be.
So here is a closely analyzed and studied team of the Round of 16 games.
(It includes a regular 23 man World Cup roster, with 3 goalkeepers).
GK: Tim Howard (USA) – It seemed for certain that Keylor Navas would get the honor by being the man who lead his nation to their first ever quarterfinals. Then out of nowhere, Algeria’s Rais M’Bolhi made his claim to almost being the protagonist of an all time upset of Germany. But in the final Round of 16 game, it was the American keeper that became a global social media sensation. Despite Navas and M’Bolhi terrific performances (as well as deserved praise for Chile’s Claudio Bravo, Colombia’s David Ospina, Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa and Germany’s Manuel Neuer), it could only be Howard after his staggering 16 save performance against eventual winners Belgium. Howard’s tremendous denials almost spurred on his nation to an amazing comeback, making photo memes and other internet elements created of him only fitting. It truly was a great period for the goalkeeping union in the first knockout stage.
LB: Jan Vertonghen (Belgium) – For a man who loathes playing on the outside, the Tottenham figure has showcased why he is one of the world’s top back line talents. Despite not one to always go forward thanks to his primary center back ways, Vertonghen was a constant threat whenever he ventured into the US’s half of the field and produced one ball that should have been tapped in for a goal. His play will give Marc Wilmots more assurance that he can get dynamic play from his fullbacks.
CB: Johan Djourou (Switzerland) – For a player who seemingly has been on the demise of his career with each passing year, the former Arsenal man has revived his reputation a bit with three very good displays. His last one unfortunately means that the Swiss are out of the tournament, but Djourou was simply terrific with Fabian Schar and almost shut out a vaunted Argentine attack. While Schar made the one notable mistake by not winning the tackle to stop Messi’s assist on Di Maria’s winner, both he and the Hamburg man were great in their positioning. Gonzalo Higuain and Ezequiel Lavezzi’s days were made very difficult because of the surprising elite play from the much maligned Djourou.
CB: Gary Medel (Chile) – Exhibiting once more, the great competitor that he is, the man at the heart of the diminutive Chilean backline offered up another valiant effort for his nation by preventing many chances for Brazilian forwards Fred and Jo, along with surviving forays into the box from Neymar and Hulk. It was the typical dogged display from “the pit bull” that could easily see him not stuck in the Championship with Cardiff next year, and almost was at the center of the greatest day in Chilean football history. Despite a strong effort from Mario Yepes, the Colombian captain didn’t have to deal with Luis Suarez, while Vincent Kompany’s fine day still saw the US with a some clear cut chances.
RB: Efe Ambrose (Nigeria) – Although he was helped out by Didier Deschamps’ mistake of playing Karim Benzema with Oliver Giroud, the 25-year-old Celtic center back had his best game at rightback ever. His dribbling and journeys forward were so sensational, and he also provided several decent crosses that almost lead to major problems at the back for France. And though Antonine Grizemann’s inclusion did make his second half a bit harder, Ambrose wasn’t at fault for the goals and displayed the fine potential to be a stable force for country and maybe a bigger club than Celtic in the future.
DM: Mehdi Mostefa (Algeria) – He may have been apart of the worst team in Ligue 1 this past season, but the 30-year-old defensive midfielder from Ajaccio put on the performance of his life in Algeria’s near upset of title contenders Germany. Mostefa frustrated Toni Kroos and Philip Lahm all night, reading their moves solidly and delivering any tackle when necessary for manager Valid Halilhodzic. A shame his great performance has not and will not be ever acknowledge by most.
LAM: Angel Di Maria (Argentina) – For most of their Round of 16 match, Xherdan Shaqiri was the better player than the Real Madrid star. The Swiss talent, with his dazzling array of dribbling and movement, would had been on this team had it not been for Di Maria coming up his huge. The placidity exhibited on his finish from Lionel Messi’s pass was something that many players would have botched in that moment. Instead, the versatile winger is coming closer to a sweet Champions League-World Cup title double.
CAM: James Rodriguez (Colombia) – The top star of the round of 16, the Monaco playmaking and now play finishing star continues to become a global household name with his CONMEBOL counterparts Messi and Neymar. With Uruguay stiffing the Colombian attack better than anyone of their group stage opponents, a breakthrough for Jose Pekerman’s side was only going to come through from a moment of sheer technique brilliance. And it came emphatic from King James, whose solo volley turn effort ranks as one of the Top 3 goals of the tournament. Adding a second goal to seal the victory and lead the golden boot race with 5 goals (and 2 assists) makes him the in-form player of them all this Cup.
RAM: Andre Schurrle (Germany) – Angel Di Maria’s late heroics almost got him a nod for this place, but the Chelsea man made the full difference in getting Germany through a major scare. Without his injection of pace and drive against a terrific Algerian defense and keeper, Schurrle’s spark was enough to save Joachim Low’s job and continue Deutschland’s dream of another world championship. His back heel goal clearly ranks as the most underrated finish of the tournament and will most certainly see him take a place in the lineup against France on Friday.
F: Klaas Jan Huntelaar (Netherlands) – Louis van Gaal made a gutsy decision by taking off an ineffective Robin van Persie for the Schalke box finisher with his team down 1-0 to Mexico. It proved to be the right call as Huntelaar’s stronger presence in the air allowed for the set up header for Wesley Snejider smash to equalize. The 30-year-old then displayed nerves cooler than a day in Antarctica with the clinical penalty past the formidable Memo Ochoa to send the Dutch into a second straight quarterfinal
F: Romelu Lukaku (Belgium) – Along with Schurrle and Huntelaar, the physical specimen that is the Chelsea striker provided the difference off the bench to allow his side to progress to the last 8. Coming in for the effective Divock Origi, Lukaku looked like the man who terrorized defenders the past two seasons in England and not the one who seemed to still being dealing with a late Achilles injury before the tournament. His strength and speed were too much for a tired US center back trio, as he basically did most of the work for Kevin De Bruyne’s finish and score the match winner with a clinical finish near post past Howard. It was the type of display that could be the difference in not only getting the 21-year-old back to his best, but also transforming Belgium from talented upstarts to real title contenders.
Keylor Navas added to his global reputation be being the man to lead Costa Rica into places their nation has never been before. A goalkeeper who already has that renown praise around the world is Manuel Neuer, whose centerback like clearances against Algeria added to his already formidable aura.
Argentina left back Marcos Rojo had arguably his strongest game ever for the Albicelestes with fine two way play, while Juan Zuniga continued a good World Cup for him by making sure that his dangerous jaunts from the backline didn’t take him away from his primary responsibility of defending.
Vincent Kompany offered up his great abilities against the US, including almost finishing off a 60 yard run with a goal that started with a fine ball interception. Mario Yepes showed against a Suarez-less Uruguay that his finest moment of his career could come at its tail end.
Hector Herrera may have been apart of a Mexico team that endured the collapse of the tournament, but enhanced his resume with another strong midfield outing. The man at the hands of that defeat, Arjen Robben, continued to show that his speed, control and flopping ability is second to none in this tournament.
“Mini-Robben” Xherdan Shaqiri was captivating throughout in almost leading Switzerland to a famous victory, while Kevin De Bruyne got a needed goal and solid display to help his shaky confidence.
Finally, Barcelona star men duo Lionel Messi and Neymar came up massive for their nations when the pressure was again at a massive high for them.