We are fast approaching the knockout phase of World Cup 2018, and entering Wednesday we have half of the “big 16" already set. A quick look, then, at the teams that have already secured their place in the next round (including a handful of sides still with group games to play).
Uruguay (first in group): Barcelona’s Luis Suarez has already opened and added to his account at the World Cup and has scored a couple of goals. And Monaco’s Edinson Cavini is on the scoresheet as well. Moreover, Galatasaray’s Fernando Muslera has already kept three clean sheets. But all that we have seen from Uruguay thus far is the ability to win what might have been the most-suspect World Cup group we can ever recall. Moving forward, how well the revamped midfield keeps possession and provides service to Suarez and Cavani will be key. The tests get harder from this point forward, beginning with Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal on Saturday, but there is an unmistakable sharp edge to the Uruguayan attack.
Russia (second in group): As expected, the hosts were eventually going to get shown up, as was the case in the 3-0 loss on Monday vs. Uruguay. The consolation is getting back to Moscow at the top of the knockout phase. But the early flurry of goals came at the expense of the pliable Saudis and Egyptians, and let’s not forget how unimpressive Russia looked in the run-up to Copa Mundial. Early-round scoring hero Denis Cheryshev is familiar to much of the next-round opponent, Spain, as he plays for a living with Villarreal in Liga. Espana’s shortcomings thus far make the Sunday clash more interesting than it would have seemed a few weeks ago, but we get the idea that the Russians are living on borrowed time. And have already given their fans all they’re going to get in this event.
Spain (first in group):
Reading Marca or As from Spain, and one might think La Furia Roja has already been eliminated from the tournament. The fact is that Espana has advanced as Group B winners, but nothing has come easy, and some alarming cracks have been uncovered in the Spanish dike. Specifically, David De Gea’s ongoing uncomfy form in goal, and some curious miscommunication at the back between Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique, who have only been playing together for the last decade. What gives? Expect Fernando Hierro to make some personnel switches before the knockout round commences on Sunday at Moscow vs. host Russia; fortunately for Hierro, some answers might be on his roster. In particular, expect the lively Koke to be featured, perhaps at the expense of the disappointing David Silva, to add more bite to a partnership behind the frontline with Sergio Busquets. Hierro needs to make sure to continue finding a place for Celta de Vigo’s electric Iago Aspas, who salvaged Spain a point with a brilliant back-heel in added time on Monday vs. Morocco. What we do know is that Isco is now the featured performer, and it is time for Hierro to surround him with a bit more of the new blood. The old guard looks increasingly fragile. If Hierro can get it right, however, Spain could have a direct route to at least the semifinals, as after Russia it gets the winner of Croatia/Denmark, foes against which La Seleccion will be favored.
Portugal (second in group): We have a feeling the Selecao are not going to last too long in the knockout phase, relaying as they must on Cristiano Ronaldo for goals. The great one’s missed sport-kick vs. Iran on Monday was also an ominous sign, though Beskitas striker Ricardo Quaresma became the first Portuguese player other than Cristiano to score in the tourney when converting a nice volley vs. Iran on Monday. The recipe that worked in Euro 2016, when Portugal pin-balled its way through the KO phase with a series of nervous results, is a tough act to make work two tourneys running. Sure, Cristiano can prove the difference in any match, but there are too many other flaws on this side for the Real Madrid man to camouflage. The Saturday match vs. Uruguay will be difficult.
France (first in group):
To say that we haven’t seen the best of Les Bleus yet would be one of the understatements of the tournament. Simply, France has yet to fire, with the link-ups between midfield and the frontline sporadic, Antoine Greizmann looking a bit lost, and the team not looking like it is enjoying itself just yet. Perhaps a difficult qualifying campaign should have given a hint of things to come; some believe the French psyche, buoyant up until the finals of Euro 2016, is more than a bit fragile. There are match-winners all over the pitch, but the sum has yet to look greater than the collective parts. The same can be said of knockout round foe Argentina in a tasty Saturday encounter at Kazan. Bottom line is that Didier Deschamps has got to get his side firing on all cylinders, and soon, or the knockout round will prove disappointing.
Denmark (second in group): In the end the Danes qualified rather comfortably, though the margin of their advance came in a difficult opening match vs. Peru, when Leicester’s Kasper Schmeichel survived an onslaught in the nets and Yussuf Poulsen’s goal, set up by Spurs’ incomparable Christian Eriksen, proved the decider. Poulsen returns for the Sunday match vs. Croatia after sitting out the France battle on suspension. While Eriksen can turn the tide of any match, Celta de Vigo’s Pione Sisto is lively on the wing, and Schmeichel a force in goal, the Danes look a bit pedestrian elsewhere in the lineup. Eriksen and his deadly set-pieces still might be enough to get Denmark to advance in the knockout stage, where the path to the semifinals is not too unreasonable (Croatia, then the winner of Spain/Russia).
Croatia (first in group):
Perfect in the group phase, even when gaffer Zlatko Dalic rested nine starters in the final match vs. a desperate Iceland. Luca Modric, however, was on the pitch for that match, and the Real Madrid man has emerged as one of the key forces in the tournament. There are match-winners on this squad beyond Modric, with Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic (who came on late vs. Iceland) and Juve’s Mario Mandzukic (rested vs., Iceland) established difference-makers. The Croats thus have multiples of weapons that can put the ball in the net and seem to be firing on all cylinders, and Monaco’s Daniel Subasic has not allowed a goal from the run of play. As the form team of the group stage (and with maybe the tourney’s most impressive win to date in the 3-0 romp past Argentina), Croatia cannot be dismissed, and a deep run in the knockout phase would not surprise.
Argentina (second in group): The TV execs (and advertisers) are thrilled that Lionel Messi will grace the knockout phase, and the round-of-16 match vs. France on Saturday at Kazan looms as the glamour game of the next round. It all might be held together by bailing wire, however, as reports of internal upheaval were rife after the 0-3 scoreline vs. the Croats, with a reported mutiny underway against manager Jorge Sampaoli. The Argentines pulled it together to squeeze into the KO round with a late winner courtesy Man U’s Marcus Rojo vs. Nigeria, and Sampaoli was rewarded for his move to put Sevilla’s Eve Banega into the midfield lineup; his assist helped set up Messi’s opening goal. We still think Sampaoli is a bad fit, as Argentina lacks the defenders to play the pressing style Sampaoli prefers, but moments of magic from Messi cannot be minimized. This could still be Lio’s tournament, but a lot else must break right for the Argentines, who likely disappear for a while from the world scene after this tourney (likely Messi’s last).
The only other qualified teams for the KO phase as of Wednesday are in Group G, where Belgium and England are guaranteed to advance in meet for top spot in the group on Wednesday in Kaliningrad.
: So far the “bully” Belgians have stayed in character from the qualifiers when they seemed to be scoring goals just for sport, running up margins vs. outmanned foes while banging home 43 goals. More of the same vs. limited Panama and Tunisia, scoring eight times, four of those by Man U’s Romelo Lukaka. Roberto Hernandez, however, will likely be resting Lukaku (nursing a sore ankle) and Chelsea’s Eden Hazard vs. England, while keeping several others, including Man City’s Kevin DeBruyne, on the bench due to yellow cards (which now don’t get erased until after the quarterfinal round). As always with the Belgians, how they fare vs. better foes remains a challenge, as the big hitters have been able to take care of Belgium in recent tourneys. New-look England might qualify as much in Group G decider on Wednesday.
England: While the “new’ England has been mighty impressive for Gareth Southgate, and was in full flower for the 6-1 blowout of Panama on Sunday, keep in mind a few things. First, England advance to Russia in the first place from a very soft UEFA qualifying group; indeed, UEFA “Group F” was the only group that did not send a team to the knockout playoff, as Slovakia’s record was the worst of the second-place teams in the qualifiers. The Slovaks also remain the toughest test England has yet had in the road to the final group match, as previous Group G victims Tunisia and the Panamanians are not exactly Germany and Spain. Now England catches a Belgian side that might be resting several regulars, though Southgate might be tempted to sit some starters as well. As of late in the week, Spurs’ Harry Kane is the Golden Boot leader with five goals, and so far so good for Everton‘s young Jordan Pickford in goal, but things are about to get a lot tougher for the Three Lions; no more Panamas, Tunisias, Slovenias, and Lithuanias from here on in the World Cup.