After a thrilling group stage of the World Cup which saw powerhouses Spain and Italy exit the tournament while teams like the USA, Costa Rica and Greece advanced, it’s time to take a look at how the knockout rounds shape up. If they are half as good as the group stage, we’re in for a real treat. Before I get to my breakdown of the final 16, let’s recap how I did the past two weeks, shall we?
GROUP A – Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon
The host nation Brazil was a no brainer, as was Cameroon finishing last in the group. I chose Croatia over Mexico because of their advantage in midfield, and it came down to the final matchday where Mexico dominated the final 45 minutes on their way to qualifying for the knockout stages for the third World Cup in a row.
GROUP B – Netherlands, Chile, Spain, Australia
Four for four. Nailed this one, in fact I had this to say about the opening game – “Runners-up in 2010, the Dutch are out to prove that they are still a world power and will do so with a win over Spain in their opening game on their way to topping the group.” Had Spain pegged as an overrated, aging team who had peaked four years ago.
GROUP C – Colombia, Japan, Ivory Coast, Greece
Colombia was an easy one to pick with all their support but it was the Greeks who nipped the Ivorians for second in the group. Japan played some nice football but in the end lacked the goal scoring needed to advance.
GROUP D – England, Uruguay, Italy, Costa Rica
Who saw the Ticos coming? Had England as underrated, and was as wrong about them as any team I had premonitions about going into the tournament. Thought Uruguay would advance and Italy would be bounced. Good thing that pick didn’t come back to “bite” me in the….ah forget it.
GROUP E – France, Switzerland, Ecuador, Honduras
Four for four again, and this time it was the opening game that ended up being the critical one. Switzerland scored an injury time winner against Ecuador in the opening game for both teams that gave the Swiss the edge and wound up being the deciding factor. France cruised just as I thought they would, and they could be dangerous going forward. More on that later.
GROUP F – Argentina, Bosnia/Herezgovina, Nigeria, Iran
Messi was his usual world class self in helping Argentina top the group, while Bosnia were absolutely screwed out of a result against Nigeria. An early Edin Dzeko goal was ruled incorrectly offside in the second game against Nigeria, and it was all downhill after that. Iran put up nice fights against Nigeria and Argentina but in the end had little quality up front to create enough chances to advance.
GROUP G – Germany, USA, Ghana, Portugal
Other than having Spain out in the group stage, the qualification of the USA into the knockout stages is the pick I am most proud of. Something in those send off games against Turkey and Nigeria clicked for them and they played two good games against Ghana and Portugal before tiring out against Germany. Luckily, Ronaldo scored late to seal it for the USA to advance. Bigger challenges lie ahead for the USA.
GROUP H – Belgium, Russia, Algeria, South Korea
Belgium was one of my pre-tournament darkhorses and despite topping the group did not look the least bit convincing in doing so. Algeria drew Russia in the final game and deserved to advance the way they played against Belgium in defeat and in the blowout of South Korea.
So out of my 16 knockout picks, I had 11 out of 16.
Now, on to the knockout rounds and my predictions and breakdowns for all eight games.
BRAZIL vs. CHILE
An all South American affair, the Brazilians have not lost to Chile in more than a decade, and has never lost to them on home soil. The last time Chile beat them was in a World Cup qualifier 14 years ago. All that being said, something tells me this Brazilian side is ripe for the picking. They were unimpressive against Croatia and got fortunate to receive a bogus penalty that gave them the lead in the second half. They were better in a draw against Mexico but couldn’t unlock the Mexican defense or the goalkeeper for that matter. Cameroon was as big a pushover as anyone in this tournament, so nothing meaningful could be assertained from that game. Chile, meanwhile, crushed Cameroon and Spain and in a meaningless game against the Netherlands held their own for over an hour before succumbing to a Dutch setpiece and then a late goal to finish them off. This Chilean team is the smallest in height as a squad but they have an elite frontline and a backline decent enough to fend off Brazilian pressure. Call me crazy, but I think the hosts go out in the round of 16.
Chile 2, Brazil 2 (CHILE WINS ON PENALTY KICKS)
COLOMBIA vs. URUGUAY
Radamel Falcao? Who needs him? Even without the services of one of the best strikers in the world, goals haven’t been a problem for Los Cafeteros. They potted three against Greece, two against the Ivory Coast and four against Japan as they ran rampant over the rest of Group C. They have one of the best attacking front trios in Jackson Martinez, Juan Cuadrado and James Rodriguez, all of whom have scored in this World Cup so far. Uruguay will be without Luis Suarez, who will miss a significant period of time due to the alleged biting incident in the match against Italy. Without him on the front line, it’ll be up to Edinson Cavani who has yet to get off the mark this World Cup. The only thing that can derail the Colombia bandwagon is the inexperience factor. I just don’t see it.
Colombia 3, Uruguay 1
FRANCE vs. NIGERIA
The French were my sleeper pick to make a huge run and they get a matchup with the Super Eagles before a potential blockbuster with the Germans in the quarterfinals. France, for my money, has been the most impressive team through the group stage, despite the competition they faced. Yes, Switzerland, Honduras and Ecuador aren’t world powers but the way they have passed the ball and created chances provides home for Les Bleus going forward. Karim Benzema and Olivier Giroud have really gelled up front for France and should feast on a Nigerian defense that had problems handling Argentina in their last game. This is the game I am most sure of in the round of 16.
France 3, Nigeria 0
GERMANY vs. RUSSIA/ALGERIA
The Algerians squeaked through with a draw against Russia and now face a German side primed for a big run in the knockout stages of this tournament. Germany destroyed Portugal, drew Ghana and edged the USA looking impressive in all three games. The thing that worries me about Germany is their back four, as they don’t play with traditional right and left backs – they have FOUR centerbacks which has its advantages and disadvantages. A team with real speed on the wing can give them fits, but Algeria has one striker, Slimani, in the traditional #9 role rather than those hybrid attacking midfielders. The Algerian striker got high above the Russian centerbacks for the tying goal against Russia but he won’t be afforded the time and space against the big German defense. Can’t see the Germans out at this stage.
Germany 2, Algeria 0
NETHERLANDS vs. MEXICO
The Netherlands, next to France, have been the most impressive team for me through the group stages. Yes, they let in a few against Australia, but one was a goal that was probably the goal of the tournament by Tim Cahill and they scored plenty in that game anyway to secure three points. They thrashed Spain in the opening game 5-1 and did enough to beat Chile 2-0 in a game that would decide who would top the group. Robin Van Persie, the team’s main striker, will return from yellow card suspension to take on a Mexican team that has been stingy defensively. Now, however, El Tri has to face a Dutch team that loves to move the ball out wide unlike Brazil who does things through the middle with Neymar and their creative midfielders. The Dutch will test the Mexican wingers and fullbacks as they put players like Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneidjer outside and have them drive inside with their pace to give the opposing defenders fits. I see a close game but a Dutch win.
Netherlands 2, Mexico 1
COSTA RICA vs. GREECE
If you had this as a round of 16 matchup, either you missed the boat by not putting a few bucks on it or are celebrating on your new yacht. Either way, this is a real intriguing stylistic battle between two squads who were projected last in their respective groups. Costa Rica beat Italy and Uruguay before drawing England in a meaningless game. The Ticos played extremely well in grabbing seven points to top the group and now get a Greek team they can certainly beat. Costa Rica used deep crosses to score a few of those goals early in the Uruguay game and to beat Italy they really clamped down at the back. Greece needed a late penalty to secure qualification to the knockout rounds but were unimpressive really in their prior two matchups. Costa Rice nicks a late winner to keep their dream run alive.
Costa Rica 1, Greece 0
ARGENTINA vs. SWITZERLAND
The Swiss had major problems in their only game so far this tournament with a serious threat in attack and were blitzed for five goals by the French. Argentina is just starting to hit its stride with their maestro Lionel Messi scoring from all areas including a wonderful free kick winner to beat Nigeria in their last game. The Swiss throttled Honduras and needed an injury time winner to beat Ecuador, playing attacking soccer in all three games getting them in big trouble at the back against the French. They’ll have to sit back and hit on the counter against Argentina because of the threats their opponents pose, but ultimately I don’t see them having enough to handle them over 90 minutes.
Argentina 3, Switzerland 1
USA vs. BELGIUM
The United States played a good game against Ghana, a great game against Portugal and wore down against Germany in a valiant effort. Belgium, meanwhile, sleptwalked through their first two games and somehow wound up with six points before going down to 10 men and struggling against South Korea. Last year, Belgium beat the USA 4-2 in a friendly that had the US looking bewildered at times. The back four is mostly changed since then, so the new backline will get their first crack at the Belgians which boast an impressive midfield and frontline led by Romelu Lukaku, Divock Origi and Eden Hazard. At the back, Vincent Kompany is a rock at centreback and will be clearing crosses out of the box all game long. For the US to win, they’ll need pace down the wing with Fabian Johnson and DeMarcus Beasley as they had in the Portugal game. Trying to go down the middle with a out of form Michael Bradley and a worn down Jermaine Jones is not the best way to try and unlock the Belgian defense. Go wide, get your diagonal balls and your crosses in and take your chances. As much as I want the USA to win, I just think Belgium is the better side. Just as in the last World Cup at this stage, I think we bow out in extra time.
Belgium 2, USA 1 (IN EXTRA TIME)