(Author: Manfriend, of course)
After two weeks of non-stop ball chasing, diving, goal scoring and suggestions to the referee to check VAR, we have wrapped up the groups. Many of the big guns have managed to make it through safely, despite not looking overly convincing. That can’t be said for Germany, who got dumped out of the tournament in the group stages for the first time since 1938. And honestly, hardly anyone is sad to see them go. In fact, there’s a word to describe this feeling around the world: “schadenfreude”, (a German word meaning “to take pleasure from someone else’s misery”)
However, nothing was more heartbreaking than seeing Senegal eliminated. Despite playing with heart, they were sent packing because of the FIFA fair play rule introduced to this year’s tournament:
If teams are tied on points, then the team who have received less yellow and red cards would advance.
This rule led to one of the most farcical ends to a group stage since the famous 1982 World Cup game between West Germany v. Austria, in which a win by one or two goals for the Germans would have resulted in both teams going through. No prizes for guessing what happened. West Germany scored after 10 minutes and then nothing of notable happened for the remaining 80 minutes.
More on that absurd end later.
So, with the round of 16 about to start, the most exciting fortnight of football is upon us. Every coach, player and fan knows that they are FOUR games away from holding up the World Cup – previously known as the Jules Rimet trophy. (Some still referred to it today.)
The Jules RimetTrophy was the original prize for winning the Football World Cup. Originally called “Victory”, but broadly known simply as the World Cup or Coupe du Monde, it was renamed in 1946 to honour the FIFA President Jules Rimet who in 1929 passed a vote to initiate the competition.
Here’s what we can look forward to, and where the game could be won and lost:
Game 1: France vs Argentina
This matchup is one most football fans would have expected later on in the tournament. Personally, I didn’t expect it to happen at all. Neither one of these nations have looked very convincing, so it will be interesting to see if they are able to step it up for this match-up between historically gargantuan forces in the tournament.
The French are definitely going into the game with more confidence, and are the better team on paper. This should be more than enough to beat a lackluster Argentinian side who lack any direction or impetus. If France can neutralize the threat of Lionel Messi – easier said than done – then the game will be their’s to lose. It will be a relatively fast-paced game, and one that neutral viewers will enjoy.
Method:* 90 mins
Game 2: Uruguay vs Portugal
Uruguay will have Diego Godin, Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, faced with the incredible Cristiano Ronaldo, Ricardo Quaresma and Andre Silva. There will be some amazing players on show.
So, why am I dreading this game?
Well, it’s simple. Uruguay are a disciplined side who prioritise defence over attack. They like to grind out wins by strangling their opponents into submission and stifling out any dangerous attacks that the opposition tries to conjure up.
Portugal won’t be much different, if their Euro 2016 victory is anything to go by. In that tournament, Portugal got through the groups with 3 draws, and didn’t actually win a game in normal time until their 2-0 semi-final victory over Wales. (Not a typo. I did write Wales.)
Don’t expect a goal-fest. The best way to describe this game is with a word that many Uruguayan’s live by: “Garra”. Simply put, it means “guts”, “grit” or “determination”. Both of these teams will show plenty of “garra” for the cause.
Game 3: Spain vs Russia
Spain haven’t really shown any weakness going forward on the pitch, but defensively they look a shambles. Despite having two of the best central defenders in the world – Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique – they are giving away too many chances, and conceding goals at an alarming rate.
Russia have already done better than expected, and will create chances against Spain. The problem is that they will also concede a few goals. If Russia is to have any chance of progressing in the tournament, they have to be more disciplined. All of their players need to perform their roles diligently.
I expect Spain to have too much firepower going forward. Their movement and passing will cut Russia apart. Once Spain score, Russia will push more men forward, turning this game in to a rout. However, if Russia score first, we could be looking at a potential upset.
Method: 90 minutes
Game 4: Croatia vs Denmark
What an opportunity this is for Croatia. They have managed to win the “group of death,” and it has left them on the easier side of the draw. The Croats have been clinical against their three opponents, and will now face a not-so-exciting Denmark side. This match will be won in midfield, which will definitely play into the hands of Croatia, who possess the better players.
Denmark’s only chance to progress will be by turning this game into a scrappy affair. They need to be smart, fouling when necessary and making sure the likes of Perisic, Modric and Rakitic don’t get too comfortable on the ball, while trying to muster up a chance to win the game through their star man Christian Eriksen.
Method: 90 mins
Game 5: Brazil vs Mexico
After being taken apart by Sweden, Mexico are lucky to be in the knockout phases at all. If it wasn’t for the most unlikely of wins by South Korea over Germany, this tie could have been a repeat of the devastating semi-final from four years ago. Anyway, let’s all collectively say ‘Auf Wiedersehn’ to Germany. A smug smile is optional but appreciated. If not sure how to. Allow England Legend and broadcaster, Gary Lineker can show you.
Mexico have looked great so far, until their soft underbelly was exposed by one of the weaker teams in the tournament. Ill discipline and frantic decision-making could have cost them heavily. So, why were they so good against Germany and then South Korea, while looking amateurish against Sweden? Simple. Mexico is not a team that have the quality to chase a game. They are set up to hit teams on the counter. They opened the scoring in both of their wins, but got demolished in the game they conceded first in. Brazil will need to be aware of this and play smart football.
If Brazil score first, expect a comfortable win and a possible red card out of frustration for the hot-headed Mexican players. However, if Mexico score first, Brazil could be in for a tough afternoon. In either scenario, I don’t see Mexico winning, unless it goes to penalties, where anything could happen.
Method: 90 mins
Game 6: Belgium vs Japan
Belgium, like many other nations, are referring to their current set of players as their “Golden Generation”. Never in the past have they had so many world-class players: Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens, Toby Alderweireld. The list goes on and on. They have players who don’t even get playing time despite being top stars.
Looks ominous for Japan, right?
Absolutely it does.
So, what can the Japanese do to progress? Do Belgium have a weakness?
Well, many might disagree, but I think they do, in Roberto Martinez, the coach. Some Belgian fans were a little apprehensive at his appointment in the first place, and despite an excellent qualification campaign, and three wins in the group stages, there will still be people who question his tactical nous. Arguably, the greatest thing he has brought to this squad of players is a feeling of togetherness, which they were lacking at the Euros. Yet, if they were to go a goal or two down, that “team spirit” feeling could wear thin, ending in a lot of finger-pointing across the Belgian side.
Could Japan be the team to destroy Belgium’s new-found togetherness?
Yes, they beat Colombia, but only because Japan played with an extra man for 87 minutes. Even then, the Colombians were the better side, until they understandably tired in the last quarter of the match. Against Senegal, they played well, but it was Senegal’s inability to finish that allowed Japan to scrape a late and unlikely draw against the Africans. As for the game against Poland, they got outplayed, out-thought and outworked. What was most disappointing was that, while they were losing 1-0, they heard that Colombia had scored against Senegal, which was enough to put Japan through to the knockout stages. What followed was incredible, in a not-great way: Neither Poland or Japan attacked. Poland wanted the win, and Japan to progress. Clearly both teams got what they wanted. But to take that sort of risk, knowing that Senegal needed only one goal to put Japan out, was more stupid than brave. Relying on another nation to do you a favour, especially when you can go and do the job yourself, isn’t anything to brag about.
Colombia won’t be saving Japan during this match. I wonder how they will fare when they have to win by themselves. I suspect not very well.
Method: 90 minutes
Game 7: Sweden vs Switzerland
Sweden. What a team. They were boring against South Korea, naïve against Germany, and magnificent against Mexico. So, what should we expect from them against the Swiss? I genuinely can’t tell you. They have been the most unpredictable side for me this year. I do know, though, that without a world-class striker, their midfield will need to turn up.
Switzerland never look too convincing but always find a way of grinding out results, mostly in part to Xherdan Shaqiri. Sweden will need to keep a very close eye on him and make sure he doesn’t receive the ball near their goal at any time.
This match will be a war of attrition, and could be the second game to end up needing the penalties to decide who advances. I’m considering setting my alarm for two hours after this game kicks off, so I can experience the nail-biting tension of a World Cup penalty shootout, without having to waste over two hours of my life on a game that lacks any real quality.
Game 8: Colombia vs England
When the World Cup draw was made, most people would have expected Colombia and England to face each other at this stage of the tournament. This expectation would have been followed by a confident: “Colombia will be too strong for England.”
I’m not sure those same people, myself included, are so confident now.
Colombia have played well, if not excitingly, so far. Their main strength lies with Davinson Sanchez, who has looked fantastic. The 22-year-old is the main reason the South Americans have been able to keep two clean sheets, against Poland and Senegal. He will once again be vital if Colombia are to be successful.
England have impressed, but against two weak opponents, making it very difficult to tell how good they actually are and whether or not they can be listed as one of the contenders. Their final game against Belgium could have given us a good idea, except both the English and Belgians decided to play their fringe players.
This will definitely be an intriguing match-up, with battles all over the pitch. The most important of which will be between the aforementioned Davinson Sanchez and the prolific Harry Kane. Not for one moment are England solely reliant on their talisman, but Kane is currently the sharpest shooter at this summer’s World Cup, hitting the back of the goal 5 times. Keeping him off the score sheet will give Colombia’s attacking line time to get the the goals they will need, and secure their progression in to the quarter finals.
Method: 90 minutes
Nothing beats Knockout football, at the World Cup. No points! No draws! No second chances! Win or go home!
* Here, the method refers to how the match will be won. Will it be wrapped up in 90 minutes? Or will a goal in extra time be the decider? What about on penalties? We’ll find out!
For Manfriend’s previous World Cup articles, read on:
And as always, you can get your own schedule for the events – and all sorts of other World Cup info – here.