Every one of these Round of 16 matches is worth watching. Period.
Conceptually, I like to think about the elimination round of the World Cup as four groups of four teams, each with a chance at one of the semi-final spots.
Group 1 includes four South American powers: Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay. Group 2 includes four arguable surprises: Holland, Mexico, Costa Rica and Greece. Group 3 holds UEFA’s strongest prospects (and all of Africa’s): France, Nigeria, Germany and Algeria. Group 4 contains four teams that have not played to potential: Argentina, Switzerland, Belgium and USA. Group 1 plays Group 3 in the semi’s; Group 2 plays Group 4.
Looked at this way, Holland has perhaps the clearest path to the semi’s. Group 2 is not quite as weak as one of 2010’s which included Uruguay, South Korea, USA and Ghana (that’s the tragedy of the USA’s extra-time loss to Ghana in 2010 — USA is unlikely ever to get that easy a group in the elimination round). But if Holland can get through an energetic Mexico, they have to like their chances against either Greece or Costa Rica in the quarter’s.
The other beneficiary is clearly Argentina. Group 4 lets them avoid the traditional European powers (France, Germany) as well as the pesky in-form South American teams (Chile, Colombia). Instead they will have to go through a weaker European gauntlet: the Swiss, then probably the Belgians, with over-achievers Holland as the last impediment to the final. But, like Group 2, this group is just one upset away from producing a shocking semi-final debutante.
Groups 1 and 3 are more complicated. Brazil will have a brutal path to the final, through Chile and then perhaps adventurous Colombia and an in-form Germany or France. Germany, one of the other favorites, likely has it tough too: through Algeria, then a rampant France, then Brazil or another South American power with lots of local support.
On to the matches:
This is a rematch of a pretty uncompetitive Round of 16 game from the 2010 World Cup in Johannesburg, which Brazil won easily 3:0. But Brazil are facing a very different, much better Chile team today. I worry that the hoodoo of playing Brazil at home will weigh more heavily on the Chileans as a result of their history of woe against the Seleção — they lost 0:3 and 4:2 in 2010 qualifying; they drew 1:1 at home but lost 5:0 in Brasilia in 2006 qualifying.
That said, with the exception of two moments of brilliance from Neymar in a laugher against a massively overmatched Cameroon, Brazil haven’t looked all that great. Mexico provided a template for how to take them on, and even poor Croatia managed to contain them before being undone by poor goalkeeping and a fraudulent penalty. Does Chile have the defensive nous to keep the score down and steal one? They’ve certainly got a bold attack to hit Brazil on the counter. Still think it’s Brazil 3:1.
Colombia have been a joy to watch in this tournament — they just seem to be having so much fun and playing such nice, flowing football, at least much of the time. James Rodriguez has been their star, playing with amazing confidence. But they’ve gotten good production out of Quadrado, too, and, at least against Japan, out of Jackson Martinez. Uruguay, meanwhile, are coming off the tough, emotional match with Italy, after which they lost their main attacking threat Luis Suarez to a FIFA ban after his moment of utter madness. It just doesn’t seem like Cavani or the aging Forlan can replace the Suarez threat up front. I think Colombia wins if they don’t tighten up too much and give guys like Godin a chance to beat them.
I am really looking forward to this one. Holland have been on fire, winning all their games in Group B including 2:0 over Chile and 5:1 over Spain. Nobody has figured out how to defend Arjen Robben’s incredible pace, and with a Van Persie back from suspension and young Memphis Depay providing some unexpected goals, they look terrific. But if you’d have to pick a team to match up with them in the Round of 16, Mexico would be high on the list. El Tri are tough defensively (they held Brazil scoreless), decent through the midfield, and crafty in the final third. Miguel Herrera’s use of Chicharito off the bench has been inspired — he totally changed the Croatia match when he entered in the 62nd minute. Both teams are likely to line up in mirror-image 3-5-2’s. The Mexican’s have the X Factor of Miguel Herrera on the sidelines, his eyes ready to pop out of his head at any moment. Feels like a toss-up to me.
One of these two teams is going to make the World Cup quarter-finals. Unbelievable. The Greeks were just as awful and just as lucky at pulling results as always: scoring only two goals in their three group stage matches, both in the same game. Ugh. Meanwhile, Costa Rica will be the fan favorites, and for good reason. They soundly beat Uruguay and Italy, frustrated England in an inconsequential match, and just made a mockery of the Group of Champions. Costa Rica looked particularly good transitioning out of the midfield into attack, and that is likely where they will find some success against the ponderous Greek midfield. Wouldn’t be shocked to see this go to penalties after Greece park the bus in the second half to preserve a 0:0 draw.
If you didn’t watch their dreadful 0:0 draw against a 10-man Ecuador, you’d have to rate France as one of the favorites. Against Honduras and Switzerland they played beautiful football. Karim Benzema and Olivier Giroud have been awesome, and Hugo Lloris has anchored a good defense. Nigeria, on the other hand, have been pretty suspect. They took an underserved three points from the Bosnia match, played one of the worst matches of the group stage in a 0:0 draw with Iran, before Ahmed Musa showed a little spirit with two goals against Argentina in a 3:2 loss. I think France crush Nigeria here.
Algeria are a great story, making the Round of 16 for the first time ever. And Germany figures prominently in their national football narrative: the appalling incident in Gijon in 1982 where W. Germany and Austria played a negotiated draw, keeping Algeria out of a deserved spot in the knock-out round. They are fun to watch if a bit overly direct. Germany are playing great football, and they are miles deep. They’ve been here before. The only seam I can see for Algeria is Germany’s 4-centerback defense, which Algeria’s quick, athletic forwards might exploit with long balls into the penalty area. Ultimately I think Germany has too much quality for Algeria. But let’s celebrate them for eliminating the miserable Russians, at least.
It’s hard to know how good Switzerland really is. They sucked ass against France, but dominated Honduras. Stole a game from Ecuador with a great last minute, length-of-field run. It’s not hard to know how good Argentina is: they are really good. But despite their quality, they have only managed narrow, one-goal victories over Bosnia, Iran, and Nigeria, not exactly a group of death. Lionel Messi has been magical, making goals out of nothing. But he’s gotten precious little goal support from his teammates. He has four of their six goals. If there is a massive shock upset in the Round of 16, this may be the one. But my money is on a 2:0 win by Messi. Er, Argentina.
As the Brits would say, not much in this one. This is a pretty tasty game for both Belgium and US. The teams know each other well after playing two friendlies in recent years. Of all the seeded teams USA could have faced in the second round, other than Switzerland, Belgium is eminently beatable.
In a strange way, neither team comes in with a lot of pressure. For the USA, just making this round is a huge win, after the difficulty, anxiety, and suffering of Group G. If they get eliminated here, they go home with a significant accomplishment. For Belgium, their “golden generation” has lived up to some of the pre-tournament hype by winning all three group stage matches, even if they didn’t always look great doing so. Few truly believe they can win the cup this time — they are clearly building for 2018. So both teams come into this game playing with house money, to some extent.
What does that mean for the match? I tend to think that Belgium is more like Portugal than Germany. Full of individual talent but lacking a bit in coherence and team spirit. USA will always grind and hustle, but for me they need to get a really clever performance out of Dempsey and their midfield to win, which means Michael Bradley finally has to have a decent game. That’s the crux for me — if good Bradley shows up we win; if the Bradley of the group stage shows up we lose. And if, god forbid, it goes to penalties, the Howard-Courtois battle will be epic. Two of the best goalkeepers in the world.