World Cup round of 16 analysis and predictions
MOSCOW — Whew. Catch your breath yet? Because here we go again.
A 42-hour pause at the World Cup has allowed hundreds of thousands of visitors and the billions watching around the soccer-engorged planet to reflect on 15 consecutive days of 48-match mayhem, of a dethroned champion, VAR, fair play tiebreakers, late game-winners, own goals, Senegal’s dance step, the Viking Clap and Harry Kane.
The hangover will need to subside by late Saturday afternoon (local time) because the best tournament in recent memory will resume with two matches per day through Tuesday.
Germany has gone home. So have all of Africa’s representatives and almost everyone from Asia and Central America. After the fun and games of the first round, this has become, as it almost always does, a rumble between Europe and South America.
Europe has 10 teams to the round of 16, but the favorite is South American (Brazil). Three outside contenders — Belgium, Croatia and Uruguay — were perfect in group play. (Uruguay did not concede a goal.)
There is a noticeable imbalance in the brackets, with one side featuring a lone superpower of the past 10 years (Spain). The other side bulked up with Brazil, Argentina, Portugal, Belgium and France.
A closer look at the eight matches:
France vs. Argentina in Kazan (Saturday, 10 a.m. Eastern)
This is the heavyweight pairing of the round, at least on paper. One of these teams has advanced to the final in four of the previous seven World Cups. And both carried championship ambitions — France more so than Argentina — into the competition.
Les Bleus won their group but in unconvincing style. La Albiceleste needed a miracle finish against Nigeria to secure passage as a second-place team.
Lionel Messi is re-energized, but the Argentines are not going to change overnight. The defense remains vulnerable and the attack seems unsure of itself.
France’s talent and depth are undeniable, but can Coach Didier Deschamps finally make it all work properly and inspire a fuller performance?
The pick: France on penalty kicks after a 2-2 draw.
Uruguay vs. Portugal in Sochi (Saturday, 2 p.m.)
Three of the tournament’s most dangerous forwards will take the field, with Uruguay’s Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani facing Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo.
Coaches stress the importance of balance, and in this World Cup, Uruguay’s Oscar Tabarez, in his fourth tournament, has implemented it. The defense and attack are in harmony, and the two world-class forwards strike fear into opponents.
Portugal relies heavily — too heavily — on Ronaldo, who scored four times in the first two matches and missed a penalty kick against Iran.
One man can make a difference, especially if that one man is Ronaldo, who wrecked Spain in the group opener. But as the stakes rise, he is going to need help.
The pick: Uruguay, 2-1.
The Russians rode the wave of emotion and nationalism — as well as some decent soccer and outstanding goals — to euphoric victories over weak opponents in the first two matches. Uruguay then put them in their place, and the reality that the hosts aren’t very good began to set in.
However, one should never underestimate what it means to play a World Cup match in front of countrymen and perhaps the president or prime minister. Russia has already performed at 80,000-seat Luzhniki Stadium once and will need the power of the people to inspire an upset.
Spain figured to contend for the title and — who knows — maybe it will get its act together. But like France, La Roja has been a disappointment, even though it has yet to lose. In the group finale, it twice fell behind winless Morocco before squeezing out a late equalizer.
The pick: Spain, 2-1.
Croatia vs. Denmark in Nizhny Novgorod (Sunday at 2 p.m.)
Could little Croatia actually win the World Cup? Or, at least, advance to the final? Don’t laugh. The Croats have been that good, and with Luka Modric setting the pace, the door is open in the weaker half of the bracket.
Ivan Rakitic says teammate Modric is “from a different planet.” Every World Cup reveals a player outside the most popular circles: Uruguay’s Diego Forlan (2010) and Colombia’s James Rodriguez (2014) come to mind. Modric might be that guy this summer.
He has received a wealth of assistance from a squad that plays hard and plays in harmony. Going perfect in a difficult group was no easy task.
Denmark, meantime, got through with two total goals in a victory and two draws. If an upset is in the works, midfielder Christian Eriksen is sure to be in the middle of it.
The pick: Croatia, 2-0.
Brazil vs. Mexico in Samara (Monday at 10 a.m.)
With Germany out and other contenders stumbling, the Brazilians are the favorites to win it all. They’ve gotten a little bit better with each match and, with the trophy in sight, they seem poised to elevate their game.
People forget that, leading to the tournament, Neymar had gone months without a competitive match. He’s not in peak form, but he’s getting closer.
There do remain, however, some cracks in the backline, a situation compounded by Marcelo’s back injury. Mexico’s swift forays on the flank could create issues.
Beyond the physical challenges, Mexico must confront a major mental hurdle: The team has lost in the round of 16 six consecutive times. This is perhaps the most talented Mexican team ever, and if any squad is going to break the hex, it’s this group. But at the expense of Brazil?
The pick: Brazil, 3-1
Belgium vs. Japan in Rostov-on-Don (Monday at 2 p.m.)
As good as Croatia has been, Belgium has been better. The soccer world has waited years for this so-called golden generation of players to contend for a trophy, and that time looks like now.
Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku were tremendous in the first two matches. By securing early passage, Coach Roberto Martinez rested most of his starters in the 1-0 group finale against England on Thursday.
Belgium’s problem is the bracket: Getting past Japan would set up a quarterfinal against probably Brazil. Down the road, a more seasoned side might await.
Japan finished a surprising second in Group H, thanks to the fair play tiebreaker with Senegal. To its credit, Japan upset Colombia in the opener and earned a draw with Senegal before losing to Poland. Belgium is another matter.
The pick: Belgium, 3-0.
Sweden vs. Switzerland in St. Petersburg (Tuesday at 10 a.m.)
The Swedes will forever be remembered for conceding Toni Kroos’s miraculous goal in a match Germany had to win. But before and after that traumatic event, Sweden has enjoyed a quietly successful tournament.
They edged South Korea and smashed Mexico, 3-0, to win a group that figured to go to the Germans or Mexicans. The last time they advanced beyond the round of 16 was 1994, reaching the semifinals and winning the third-place match in the United States.
Switzerland was the predictable second-place finisher behind Brazil but surrendering the lead twice in a 2-2 draw against Costa Rica in the group finale will not inspire confidence.
The pick: Sweden on penalty kicks after a 1-1 draw.
Colombia vs. England in Moscow (Tuesday at 2 p.m.)
The Three Lions did not mind finishing second in the group because the last-day loss to Belgium dropped them into the weaker half of the bracket. On top of that, Coach Gareth Southgate had allowed many regulars to rest ahead of the round of 16.
Be careful what you wish for, England. The bracket might be more favorable for a deep run, but that means you have to defeat Colombia, an exciting team that overcame an opening defeat.
The big question is whether Colombian star James Rodriguez will play. He left the Senegal game Thursday with an aggravated calf injury. Coach Jose Pekerman says he is “extremely concerned.” If the playmaking Rodriguez sits out, Radamel Falcao and Juan Cuadrado will have to fill the attacking void.
The pick: Colombia, 1-0.