MOSCOW: Following Thursday’s final clashes in Group G and H the lineup for the Round of 16 is set, with defending champions Germany conspicuously missing following a disastrous campaign.
However, Germany’s exit coupled with groups not ending as expected on paper, has given us some mouthwatering ties as early as the Round of 16.
Not only do we know have the eight matchups ready, each team is now aware of their path to glory, and which teams might potentially lie in the next rounds.
FRANCE VS ARGENTINA:
The Round of 16 kicks off on Saturday with the highest-profile contest of the lot, at the end of which one of the pre-tournament favourites would bid adieu.
Argentina have already played a virtual knockout context, and after losing 3-0 to Croatia, would’ve probably not expected to have qualified from their group.
While France remain unbeaten, they haven’t gone past the second gear. If the French are to beat Argentina, they’d have to get the most out of the attacking talent they have in abundance.
The Argentinian side clearly over-relies on Lionel Messi. And it wouldn’t be surprising if he carries his team to the quarters.
URUGUAY VS PORTUGAL:
With Cristiano Ronaldo and the Portugal side evidently slipping up against Iran, they were a few inches away from being eliminated.
Ronaldo’s form will be crucial against a Uruguayan side which has both Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani scoring goals.
Despite the prolific strikers on display, Uruguay-Portugal could be a cagey low-scoring affair that might go beyond the 90 minutes. On paper, Uruguay are the form side, and have been increasingly improving their play in the tournament.
Meanwhile, Portugal appear to be heading in the other direction, and unless Ronaldo pulls off another show, it could spell danger for the reigning European champions.
SPAIN VS RUSSIA:
It’s never easy playing the host side in a World Cup, but Spain should have too much quality on the pitch for Russia.
The Russian side were flying high after two wins on the bounce against Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but the 3-0 loss against Uruguay would’ve been a massive reality check, which the Spanish team would look to capitalise on.
Spain are far from playing their best football and were on the brink of losing to Morocco in their final group game.
However, with Russia having already exceeded expectations by qualifying for the knockout stages, this might be the game where Spain find form that could carry them through to the latter stages.
CROATIA VS DENMARK:
Along with Uruguay and Belgium, Croatia are the only side to have won all three of their matches so far. While the other two teams were in and around the second-tier of favourites for the tournament before the World Cup started, Croatia are turning out to be the veritable Dark Horse.
Denmark too are unbeaten in the tournament, and would fancy their chances against the Croats especially after keeping the French attackers at bay in the final pool match.
The two No 10s Christian Eriksen and Luka Modric will be crucial for their sides. Whoever gets to dictate play more might script the win for his team.
BRAZIL VS MEXICO:
Brazil are yet to hit top form. And in Mexico, they face a side that made Germany look ordinary, and laying the foundation for the defending champions’ exit.
But it’s the same Mexico side that Sweden completely outclassed in the final contest. And Brazil should have enough quality to capitalise on the dip in Mexican form.
Neymar Jr hasn’t come to the party just yet, and it’s Phillipe Coutinho who has struck the decisive blows for the Brazilians.
Of course, there’s no better stage than the World Cup knockout fixtures to raise your game. There’s more than a fair chance that the Neymar-led Brazilians could run rampant here.
BELGIUM VS JAPAN:
Despite having won all of their matches, Belgium might feel a bit anxious about the fact that they really haven’t been challenged in the tournament so far.
Their final group match against England was supposed to be the match, but it turned out to be a dead rubber, with both sides fielding second string squads.
On paper, Japan should be no match for Belgium, but would a win really tell much more about them than we already know? Would Belgium be ready – and maybe already have an eye on it – for the potential quarterfinal against Brazil?
Romelu Lukaku and Edin Hazard would be back for them in this one, and there should be goals for Belgium.
SWEDEN VS SWITZERLAND:
Both Sweden and Switzerland have qualified from tough groups, and might feel they have nothing to lose. That in itself could result in perhaps the most open Round of 16 clash.
However, with the Round of 16 draw such that the winner of this match would play the team that wins in the final pre-quarterfinal game between England and Columbia, both the Swedish and Swiss sides would feel they have a perfectly navigable path to the final.
Switzerland are the unbeaten side of the two, while Sweden topped their group. Both sides should be going after the match here, and if the teams are even after 90 minutes, it probably wouldn’t be 0-0 at the time.
COLOMBIA VS ENGLAND:
Losing 1-0 to Belgium gave England the ‘easier’ path to the semis on paper, with Colombia potentially followed by the winner of the Sweden and Switzerland match. However, a loss is a loss, and would’ve dented the momentum the team had gathered in their first two wins – albeit against sides of lesser pedigree.
Harry Kane is the top of the goal-scoring charts with five goals, and his form would be critical for England’s chances of overcoming a Colombian side that qualified from a competitive group, where none of the sides was unbeaten or winless.
The favourable draw for England has all of a sudden raised expectation for the side back home. And that’s precisely when the English side historically comes unstuck.