As the World Cup progresses to the Round of 16 on Saturday, the cream has risen to the top. While most of the games have been nail-biters, often decided by own goals or penalty kicks, most of the pedigreed teams have advanced to the next round (aside from Germany). Whether it be their workmanlike play and deep bench (Belgium) or their offensive prowess (Brazil), the remaining teams all have something special to offer, which should result in great matches for an already stellar World Cup.
Let’s take a closer look at the remaining teams, as we attempt to predict who will advance to the quarterfinals of the 2018 World Cup.
France vs Argentina
France- Les Bleus earned seven points in Group C, beating Australia and Peru while playing to a lackluster scoreless draw against Denmark. They ae led up front by Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud and supported by midfielders Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante. Defensively, they are anchored by Raphael Varane and Lucas Hernandez. Les Bleus ceded only one goal in three matches, but their back line will be tested by Argentina.
Argentina– This is a team with issues off the field that have caused them to underperform on the pitch. While there have been allegations of problems related to friction between the manager and players as well as Lionel Messi’s imploding “legacy,” Argentina managed a late goal against Nigeria to advance to the Round of 16. Although the squad looks less like a world-class soccer team than in the past, nobody would count La Albiceleste out with their number 10 on the pitch.
Prediction– While anything is possible for Argentina with Messi on the field, France is not without their quality players as well. They seem to be a more balanced squad and have some depth beyond the starting 11. Les Bleus also has a stronger back line, with Argentina’s fullbacks a bit slower due to age. Look for France to advance to the next round with a 3-2 win.
Uruguay vs Portugal
Uruguay- Playing in arguably the weakest group against Russia, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Uruguay garnered all nine points in their three matches while not ceding a goal. They possess a solid front line manned by Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, but it is their defense that is their strength. Anchored by team captain and Atletico Madrid defender Diego Godin, he is supported by fellow club teammate Jose Gimenez as well as Jose Caceres and Sebastian Coates. This strong back line ensures that Uruguay is generally competitive in their matches.
Portugal- Sure, it’s all about Cristiano Ronaldo, but there are more pieces to this team. Portugal finished in second place in Group B, just behind Spain due to scoring one less goal as the group tiebreaker. They opened the tournament with a come-from-behind tie against their Iberian adversary 3-3, with Cristiano Ronaldo scoring all three goals. With a 1-1 tie against Iran and a 1-0 win against a lackluster Moroccan squad, Portugal is a team in need of a makeover. CR7 has scored four of their five goals, but Portugal will need to involve others to contribute offensively.
Prediction- Both teams have experience on the international stage, but this game will come down to balance and speed. Uruguay will look to push up the field using their speed from the midfield to spray the ball wide to Suarez and Cavani while defending against a counter-attack. Ronaldo cannot be stopped, but Uruguay will deny CR7 the ball whenever possible and stymie the offense of Portugal. La Celeste will defeat Portugal 2-1 in a hard-fought match and send Portugal packing.
Spain vs Russia
Spain- Winning Group B on goals scored as the tiebreaker, Spain had a major shakeup right before the tournament began with manager Julen Lopetegui sacked after accepting the post of Real Madrid manager. With Lopetegui largely credited with turning the Spanish fortunes around after an underperforming few years, the team is now led by former Real Madrid defender Fernando Hierro. The team beat Iran while tying Portugal and Morocco using the same lineup and tactics as they had under Lopetegui. Their back line has often been slow to react, with Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos beaten at crucial times. Their midfield, however, is strong, with Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Isco controlling the center of the field. La Roja have struggled up front, with Diego Costa inconsistent at times and no suitable replacement available on the roster.
Russia- With the host country starting the tournament with a 5-0 drubbing of Saudi Arabia, they beat Egypt before losing to Uruguay 3-0. After losing their last 10 matches before the tournament, more was made of Russia’s victories than the competition they played in the group. The Achilles heel for the Russian squad is its aging defense, with most of their back line well over the age of 30. The Golden Eagles also lack the international exposure that Spain possesses, with the Spanish squad playing for some of the top clubs in Europe.
Prediction- While host country Russia are playing in front of their home fans, it won’t be enough to stave off a polished Spanish squad, who will control the pace and possession of the game. Spain will advance with a 2-0 win, but at least the Russian players won’t have a long to trek to return home.
Croatia vs Denmark
Croatia- Easily the best team in Group D, they finished in the top spot and earned all nine points, while ceding only one goal in their three matches. Seen as competing in a tough group, they beat Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland en route to winning the geoup. Striker Mario Mandzukic is their main threat up front, but their midfielder is their core strength with La Liga stars Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic controlling the center of the pitch while supporting the offense. With Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren anchoring the back line, Croatia has proven to be a difficult opponent.
Denmark- The Danes were expected to advance beyond group play, with France, Peru and Australia filling out the group. Denmark played well enough to advance, with one win and two ties. In three games, they gave up only one goal but only saw the back of the net twice. Denmark is led by Tottenham Spurs midfielder Christian Eriksen, who had an uneven three games thus far. More will be needed of Eriksen if they are to advance through the knockout phases of the Cup. Defensively, Chelsea fullback Andres Christensen leads a stout defense with Leicester City keeper Kasper Schmeichel taking charge in goal. He is the main reason Denmark has ceded just one goal in the tournament up until now.
Prediction- Croatia is by far the more balanced team, with Denmark having to rely on their more experienced and talented players. Croatia should be able to shut down Eriksen, then apply pressure to the back line of Denmark. Much of the match will be played in the Danish final third of field, seeing Croatia advance to the next round of play with a 2-0 win.
Brazil vs Mexico
Brazil- The Samba Boys took first place in Group E, winning twice while drawing once. With Neymar having to return to form following his foot injury, Barcelona midfielder Philippe Coutinho has assumed some of Neymar’s flair and offensive prowess. This is a team that can generate offense from almost any position with the possible exception of the goalkeeper. From defenders Marcelo and Thiago Silva to midfielders Paulinho, and Casemiro, attackers Gabriel Jesus and Willian have ample company up front. This pressure makes it difficult for opposing teams to mount a successful attack against Brazil, which largely explains why Brazil only gave up one goal in their three group matches.
Mexico- Starting off group play in Group F with a 1-0 win over 2014 World Cup winner Germany, the soccer community began to look at the CONCACAF champions in a more favorable light. But after a narrow 2-1 win over South Korea followed by a 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Sweden, it was clear from the faces of the El Tri players that perhaps their expectations were a bit optimistic. While the Swedes were certainly a worthy adversary, Carlos Osorios’ squad were clearly not ready for prime time, at least not on that day.
Prediction- One could make the case that both teams play a similar style of football, but there is no case to be made regarding the quality of the squads. Brazil clearly is the better team, and a victory over Mexico by the score of 3-1 will send El Tri back to Mexico and Osorio to the unemployment line.
Belgium vs Japan
Belgium- After a few disappointing tournaments over the past few years, Belgium’s “golden generation” seems to be ready to make a run deep into this World Cup. After scoring eight goals in their first two matches, Belgium and England chose to rest a number of starters resulting in a 1-0 Belgium victory. Their starting eleven is strong, with Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, Manchester City fullback Vincent Kompany, midfielder Kevin De Bruyne and strikers Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku leading the squad. This is a team that is exciting to watch.
Japan- After sacking manager Vahid Halilhodzic just prior to the start of the World Cup, not much was expected from the Samurai Blue in this tournament. But interim head coach Akiro Nishino has held the team together with the support of the veterans on the squad. Opening with a 2-1 win over Colombia, they played Senegal to a 2-2 draw before falling to Poland 1-0 in their final group match. They ae the first team in the tournament to advance beyond the Group Stage by the “fair play” tiebreaker, having accumulated less cards than 3rd place Senegal. Japan is led by Borussia Dortmund midfielder Shinji Kagawa and Leicester City striker Shinji Okazaki, who will be looked upon for more firepower if the team is to advance through the knockout stages of Cup play.
Prediction- Japan will give it their all, but it’s hard to see how they can compete competitively against the Red Devils. At the end of the day, look for Belgium to advance to the next round with a 3-0 win over Japan.
Sweden vs Switzerland
Sweden- Needing a win in their third match of Group F against Mexico, Sweden delivered a convincing 3-0 win over El Tri. This win, coupled with a German loss to South Korea, moved Sweden from third place to first place in the group. The only team in the group with a positive goal differential (+3), most of their squad play their club ball in Germany, and their physical style of football is similar to what you might see in the Bundesliga. Former Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic said yesterday that he can play better than the team, two years after he voluntarily retired from international football. Watching this Swedish team advance to the Round of 16, one would suspect that the squad is doing quite well in his absence.
Switzerland—Finishing up in Group E in second place with a win and two draws, the Swiss ended their campaign with a lackluster 2-2 tie against Costa Rica, allowing Los Ticos the ability of picking up a point before returning home. With midfielders Granit Xhaka of Arsenal and Xherdan Shaqiri of Stoke City their main catalysts, Switzerland were one of the very few teams not awarded any penalty kicks. This is largely due to their penchant for shooting outside the penalty area, and it is a rarity to see a Swiss striker “going to goal”. While this style of offense helped the Swiss advance to the Round of 16, it will be needed if they are to advance any further in the tournament.
Prediction- Sweden has gotten stronger as the tournament has progressed, and they should be able to take control of the game against the Swiss. Look for a close match, with Sweden winning 2-1 and sending the Swiss back to the Alps.
Colombia vs England
Colombia- After falling to Japan 2-1 in the opener while picking up a red card in the 3rd minute of play, Los Cafeteros cruised past Poland 3-0 before squeaking out a 1-0 win against Senegal to take the top spot in Group H. With Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina and a stout defense led by Barcelona standout Yerry Mina, Colombia ceded just two goals in their three group matches. They have a strong midfield led by Juan Cuadrado, Mateus Uribe and James Rodriguez, who is their chief playmaker. The team’s go-to guy up front is Radamel Falcao, who has been quiet in this tournament but always remain a threat. With Rodriguez substituted early in the last match due to a recurrent calf injury, more will be expected of Falcao and fellow striker Luis Muriel if they are to advance further in the tournament.
England- They were plenty of doubters when Gareth Southgate was given the reins of the England national team. But after seeing the Three Lions tank the past few years, he has proven to be a breath of fresh air. Unlike the German squad, Southgate has chosen a young and largely untested team to represent England. Make no mistake-this is a hungry group of competitors who want to make their mark on the world stage. 24-year-old Team Captain Harry Kane is their main offensive threat up front, while 31-year-old Jamie Vardy rides the bench. Their back line are in their mid-twenties, with 32-year-old Gary Cahill on the bench for support. The same is true for their midfield, with Fabian Delph and Jordan Henderson the “old men’ at age 28. Gone are the days of a starting 11 over the age of 30 for the Three Lions. This is a team that will only get better in the next few years.
Prediction- Colombia has the potential to improve their quality of play, having underperformed thus far in this tournament. But with some of their players looking tired and James Rodriguez carrying a knock into this match, it’s hard to see Colombia matching up well against England. The Three Lions will have the better of play and send Los Cafeteros home by the score of 2-1.