Friday, June 27, 2014

Preview: Round of Sixteen

After having completed 868 matches, the knockout stage of the 2014 FIFA World Cup is finally upon us. Brasil have only played three matches to get to this point, but the other fifteen remaining teams have all gone through long and often tumultuous journeys to make it through to this stage. Uruguay had to fight through twenty-one matches to reach this stage, the most of any side. This truly has been a tournament of the Americas, with five South American and three North American sides getting through to the final sixteen, both record totals. Two African teams join in the fun, and only six European teams have survived the journey here. Greece and Algeria are both making their debuts in the knockout stage after their surprising performances in the group stage. Colombia have gone from a team few believed would even qualify for Brasil 2014 when qualifying began to a team favored to reach the quarterfinals.

In the first match, Brasil face Chile for the second consecutive time in a Round of Sixteen affair. Brasil have gone undefeated throughout their short appearance in this tournament, but they did win the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup in convincing fashion last summer and have put their poor 2011 Copa America well in the rearview mirror. They find themselves in the CONMEBOL quarter of the bracket. Their first challenger is La Roja, a team that ended Spain's run with a solid 2-0 victory, but a team that could not find the inspiration in their final group stage matchup with Netherlands, a 2-0 loss. Chile have an element on controlled craziness that is a joy to watch, with both fullbacks (Eugenio Mena and Mauricio Isla) always blazing up and down the flanks while Arturo Vidal is bossing their midfield. Brasil did not deal masterfully with a soft group, but they did win the section and Neymar is on a goal-scoring tear. Brasil smacked Chile around in the 2010 FIFA World Cup, defeating Chile all three times they played them by multiple goals, including 3-0 in the knockout stage. Expect Brasil to advance.

In the next match, tournament darlings and superstar midfielder James Rodriguez ride their wave of momentum into their first Round Sixteen appearance since 1990. They have also danced their way into our hearts. Plus, they have the two oldest men playing in the tournament. Basically, they win over the neutral fans using many different angles. However, they have never won a match after the group stage of a FIFA World Cup. They take on Uruguay, the 2011 Copa America champions and returning semifinalists from South Africa 2010. Will the lack of big-match experience come into play and haunt the Colombians? Uruguay will be without Luis Suarez, who was suspended for the remainder of this tournament and beyond for biting an opponent in the previous match, but Uruguay have already won crucial matches without him. Suarez was suspended for Uruguay's 1-0 road victory away to Venezuela. Had they lost that match, Venezuela would have qualified for the intercontinental playoffs at Uruguay's expense. Uruguay defeated Colombia 2-0 in their most recent matchup during this very tournament, meaning the teams each won once and lost once against the other during the 2014 FIFA World Cup. La Celeste will be ready, but something tells me that the upstart Cafeteros will defeat an Uruguay team suffering from disciplinary problems and a lack of form from the brothers Diego (Forlan and Lugano). Colombia are the pick.

The juggernaut Netherlands team has returned from its run to the final match of South Africa 2010 with a vengeance. They smacked Spain around 5-1 in the rematch of that final match, and though they have slowed down a bit, they have taken the full nine points available to them this tournament. The absences of Kevin Strootman and Rafael van der Vaart have not hurt the Oranje one bit. Their three-man back line has been stout, and they look poised for another deep run. Their opponents Mexico have overcome a nearly disastrous 2013 to make it back to their sixth straight appearance in the Round of Sixteen. Defensive midfielder Jose Vasquez is out via a suspension for this match, but the team is nevertheless full of belief. Hector Herrera has been playing some inspired football as their midfield maestro, and goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa has at times looked like an impenetrable wall, holding opponents to one goal over three games in the group stage. However,  Mexico are currently saddled with a five-game losing streak in the Round of Sixteen over the past five tournaments. This will not be the time Mexico breaks the curse, for Netherlands are simply too strong in attack at the moment with Arjen Robben in particular looking deadset upon going one step better than at South Africa 2010 and winning the tournament.

In an absolutely shocking matchup, Costa Rica are favored to defeat Greece. Greece have never before made it to the knockout stage, but they have followed up their quarterfinal run at UEFA Euro 2012 nicely at this tournament, resolutely refusing to lose to Japan despite being down to ten men and not quitting on themselves in the final group match against Cote d'Ivoire in spite of conceding an equalizer deep into the second half of a match they had to win and did. Greece are the ultimate in counterattacking technology, which actually makes them incredibly frustrating to watch. Their are a team only their own fans can love. On the other hand, Costa Rica have the flair up front with Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz dazzling the crowds as they went unscathed through the toughest group at Brasil 2014. Their back five has been fantastic, and their goalkeeper Keylor Navas looks like the netminder of the tournament so far. Greece really do not provide much of an attacking threat, so if Costa Rica can avoid leaving too many openings on the counterattack, they should be fine. Los Ticos will make it to their first ever quarterfinal.

Day three of this stage opens with France taking on the 2013 African Cup of Nations champions Nigeria. Nigeria were fortunate to get the refereeing assistance they needed to defeat Bosnia in the group stage, and they looked very pathetic in their scoreless draw against Iran. However, their attack awoke from its slumber in the Argentina match, and now the Super Eagles look ready to become world-beaters. Nigeria have become a very mentally-strong side over the past two years, and the return of forward Peter Odemwingie to the fray has been a boon. France disgraced their Swiss rivals 5-2 in a very impressive victory in the group stage, and they will not be too bothered by their most recent outing, an underwhelming draw to Ecuador, a game in which they looked rather bored to be quite honest. Karim Benzema has regained his scoring touch, and the French have not been hampered by the loss of star midfielder Franck Ribery pre-finals. No one player is standing out for the French, evidenced by the fact that five different men scored in their demolition of Switzerland. Nigeria are the undisputed kings of Africa with the eliminations of Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire, but that does not change the consensus about this matchup. France should win, but it would surprise no one if the often overlooked Super Eagles find themselves in the quarterfinals. Nigeria are the pick here.

Germany had one bad outing in the group stage as they suffered mightily before drawing a Ghana team that lost its other two matches. However, Die Mannschaft is always a difficult task for any opponent, much less one making its debut in the knockout stage. Who can forget their 4-0 demolition of supposed group rivals Portugal in their opener? Philipp Lahm has been moved into the midfield and has done a fantastic job, and aside from the Ghana game their back four have looked impregnable. Yet another semifinal at a major tournament appears to be in their destiny. Algeria, a team that only qualified ahead of Burkina Faso on the away goals tiebreaker in a home-and-away series where they had to save a penalty kick in the first leg, is amazingly still alive in this tournament. After a timid performance in their opening match against Belgium, they have relaxed and played the attacking football for which the Fennec Foxes are renowned. They ran rampart over a weak South Korea side, and they held their nerve well in a draw over Russia, securing the result they needed from that match to advance. They are looking to repeat the 2-1 upset their forefathers sprung on West Germany at Spain 1982. Germany have other plans, however. As great as the storyline is for Algeria, Germany simply have too much talent and should win this match without too much trouble.

On the final day of the Round of Sixteen, the final South American nation plays. Argentina, winners of all three group matches by one-goal margins, have looked less than spectacular in every outing thus far, yet they have yet to drop points. Lionel Messi has carried the scoring burden by himself, netting four teams, with goals in every match so far during the finals. Argentina have lost only once with Messi playing during this tournament, and that was back in October 2011. Their opponents are Switzerland, a team that have a stoppage-time winner in their first match against Ecuador to thank for their berth in this round. Their heavy loss to France did not keep them down for long as they took Honduras to the woodshed in their group finale. That France loss was their only loss in thirteen matches during this tournament, and they are a dangerous side as they are the most recent team to have defeated Brasil. Xherdan Shaqiri is riding high after a hat trick his last outing, and the class of the numerous overseas imports featuring on the team is readily apparent to the casual viewer. This match should be rather close and should make for an entertaining affair, but somehow Argentina will sneak through and find themselves in yet another quarterfinal.

Belgium were perhaps the least impressive team ever to amass the full complement of nine points from a group stage. Still, they amassed the full nine points are a fancied to make a deep run at Brasil 2014 after a twelve-year absence from the finals of a major competition. Their supposed weakness, inexperience on the international stage, is undermined by their players' vast experience playing in huge matches at club level. Steven Defour is out via a red card suspension for this match, but he was never likely to factor into a knockout stage match anyhow. Belgium managed to eke out all three wins in the group stage by one goal, the third victory completed with only ten men on the field for the second half. Talismanic winger Eden Hazard has largely been invisible but has a tendency to pop up when it counts the most, as he did to score a late winner against Russia. United States of America are into the Round of Sixteen for a second straight tournament. They have plenty of positive experiences in knockout stages, having made it to the finals of six international tournaments since 2005, winning three of them, most recently the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup. They navigated the second toughest group decently well, defeating nemesis Ghana and then having victory snatched away with the last kick of the match by Portugal. A lackluster effort in defeat to Germany in the group finale and an awful tournament from focal point midfielder Michael Bradley are causes for concern as is the injury to forward Jozy Altidore, but the attitude and effort are not. Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman have been fantastic at the defensive midfield positions, and the Yanks are certainly more battled-tested from their group stage than are Belgium. Les Diables Rouges walked all over United States 4-2 in a friendly last year. Even so, the pick here is United States. Why, you ask? Surely, all that experience on the international stage must count for one upset victory over a team with only one player with any prior tournament experience as a member of his national side.

28 June 2014
Chile at Brasil 11:00 Belo Horizonte
Colombia vs. Uruguay 15:00 Rio de Janeiro

29 June 2014
Netherlands vs. Mexico 11:00 Fortaleza
Costa Rica vs. Greece 15:00 Recife

30 June 2014
France vs. Nigeria 11:00 Brasilia
Germany vs. Algeria 15:00 Porto Alegre

1 July 2014
Argentina vs. Switzerland 11:00 Sao Paulo
Belgium vs. United States of America 15:00 Salvador

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