After an exciting group stage drenched in goals, even a single day off between World Cup matches seems like a lot. Thankfully, the knockout stage starts tomorrow afternoon, and it promises even more drama, heroics and surprises. Here are my predictions:
Brazil v. Chile
Brazil didn’t dazzle in the group stage despite finishing on top and the road only gets tougher from here. The first step is Chile, a team that often draws acclaim for its attacking style but that does equally well against sides that want to attack. The Chileans work hard, press and strangle the opposition, as they did to Spain in their victory over the former world champions. Their only loss was against a Dutch team that made the game ugly. Unfortunately for Brazil, they can’t play ugly in front of their home crowd, so I expect a hesitatingly open match and a handful of goals. Brazil will pull it out because they’re more dynamic than the aging Spain that Chile beat so handily, but it won’t be easy. I hope Chile scores the first goal early and forces Brazil to come forward. Brazil will play their best match of the tournament so far.
Colombia v. Uruguay
Uruguay without Luis Suarez is a less scary Uruguay, but Suarez wasn’t one hundred percent fit anyway and it’s not Suarez who scored the vital goal against Italy. It was Diego Godín. Colombia may have breezed through the group stage, winning big against Japan even with a reserve squad, but their group was relatively weak. They’re untested. Their World Cup ends here. Expect to hear more about their Number 10, James Rodríguez, in the future—but not a future this immediate. Uruguay are an experienced, cohesive and talented squad. They underperformed in qualifying and lost to Costa Rica, but when their backs got up against the wall, they won. They’ll win again. Rather than be a distraction, the Suarez situation will steel them with the belief they’re being unfairly targeted by the powers-that-be.
France v. Nigeria
France blasted their first two opponents, then peppered Ecuador with shots but couldn’t score. Uncharacteristically, their team spirit seems high. But they meet a Nigeria that beat Bosnia and Herzegovina 1-0 and just went toe-to-toe with Argentina in a 2-3 loss. Nigeria are team that has been overachieving lately, including in winning the African Cup of Nations in 2013, but perhaps that’s not surprising given how disappointing they’ve been in the last decade. What’s impressed me most about Nigeria is their adaptability. They can jab and move and they can stand in the pocket, trading power punches. I don’t smell an upset, but I do feel it will be a competitive match. I think France will falter eventually by firing another round of blanks, but it won’t be here. They’ll start strong, they’ll doze and Nigeria will punch them awake. I hope it’s an exciting tilt.
Germany v. Algeria
Algeria qualified second from the worst group of this World Cup. Germany finished first in the best group. There are potential issues with Germany playing four central defenders across the back and Philipp Lahm in midfield—Ghana’s directness and speed posed them plenty of problems—but Algeria just doesn’t have the quality to pick at those issues. They’ll most likely sit back, watch the Germans pass the ball around and hope to counter, but that won’t work. Germany’s weakness isn’t facing an organized an defence; they’ll break those down. It’s facing quickness. The moment Algeria decides to try to soak the Germans up is the moment the match is over. I expect Klose to come on and break Ronaldo’s record of World Cup goals. Algeria’s best chance is to attack as they did against South Korea.
Holland v. Mexico
The Mexicans have surprised me with their resilience and play on the wings. They held Brazil and beat a Croatian side that boasted two excellent midfielders and a top level striker. But whereas Mexico is fatigued, the Dutch are rested; and whereas Croatia’s excellent midfielders were creative types, the Dutch have Arjen Robben, who’s more like Sonic the Hedgehog. Mexico will play bravely and at times may push the Dutch back, but it’s the Dutch more than any other squad at the World Cup who have cracked, with confidence, the armour of possession football. The Dutch won’t care how much of the ball Mexico have. It’s what you do with it that counts. Passing the ball twenty times in your own half is merely a form of passive defence. The Dutch play a more traditional defence (although there are certainly questions about their defenders, who play in a Dutch league not known for its defensive abilities) and a more ruthless, efficient offence. They won’t care how much of the ball Mexico has if Mexico isn’t doing anything with it. Their own possession will be precise and effective.
Costa Rica v. Greece
This is going to be a stinker. Costa Rica did wonderfully to conquer a group that included Uruguay, Italy and England, and in Greece they have a winnable match, but the Greeks are the Greeks: they’ll snuff out Costa Rica’s attempts and squeeze out a win in extra-time from a corner or other set-piece. My heart says the Ticos can continue their run. My head says that the Greeks, who play boring football for neutrals and who cheated their way past the Ivory Coast (Georgios Samaras should have been banned just like Luis Suarez), have lucked out in meeting the only opponent in the round of sixteen against whom they can grind out a win. The day the Greeks won Euro 2004 was a great day for Greek football, but it left a horrible legacy: the idea that a packed, organized defence and efficient dead ball offence can be successful. Although Greece now lacks the talent and discipline to make that style work, they cling to it. I want them to lose. I predict they’ll win.
Argentina v. Switzerland
One of the key lessons this World Cup has taught us is that when Lionel Messi truly wants to win, no team can stop him—not even Argentina. The Argentines did well to top a weak group but they’ve been misfiring up front and their back line is porous. How wonderful, then, that they’re meeting a team with similar defensive problems! The Swiss have been cheese, especially against the best team in their group, France. So it’s a case of who improves the most, with the caveat that Argentina’s potential is much higher than Switzerland’s. Having said that, unless Messi disappears, he should have another excellent day of football…
Belgium v. USA
Belgium has been worse than expected. The Americans have been better than advertised. It’s an even match-up. Before the tournament started, the Belgians were many people’s pick for dark horse of the tournament. I picked the Americans to cause a surprise or two. I’m going to stick by my pick for this match, but I have to say that despite not really impressing with their play, the Belgians have quietly shown an impressive amount of resolve. They were down in a match; they came back to win it. They were a man down in a match; they came back to win it. The Americans have traditionally shown a lot of resolve. I expect this to be a match that simmers rather than boils but that we would all do well to to watch to the very, very end.