World Cup knockouts pits stalwarts against each other

Amol Gokhale
Saturday, 30 June 2018

The Russian land will continue to spring surprises

Four years ago, Germany’s 7-1 victory over hosts Brazil in the semifinal stole the limelight of even their World Cup final triumph.

Now four years later in Russia, Die Mannschaft has again hogged the limelight, but for an unwanted reason after being eliminated at the Group Stage.

“I would beg for their (fans) forgiveness, especially those Argentina supporters who made such a great effort to be here. And I repeat what I said, I’m responsible. I was just as dreamy-eyed as any fan before. So I’m hurt. I did the best job I could and I quite simply did not find a way to give them what they wanted,” were the words of Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli after his side was humiliated 3-0 by Croatia in Nizhny Novgorod. Their World Cup fate no longer was in their hands, but in the nick of time, they made it.

On Saturday, Sampaoli and his men will take the field against France to kick-off the Round of 16 stage of the tournament, as a strange void separated the teams who made it to the knockout phase—the kind of difference between the teams in the Champions League and the Europa League, without the elites of the game at the table.

In the bottom half of the group, Spain and England are the only World Cup winners, with Spain being the latest to win the crown in 2010 in South Africa. The team they defeated in that final—the Netherlands and 2006 champions.

A telling statistic is that Germany, Italy and the Netherlands have been part of the 17 World Cup finals and all of a sudden, with Germany’s exit, that all experience is sapped out of the World Cup.

Out of 16 teams, Brazil (5), Uruguay and Argentia (2 each), England, France and Spain (1 each) are the only previous winners.

Is it possible? Can there be a dreamy-eyed fan moment that Sampaoli spoke about for any of the ‘so-called’ smaller nations?

Yes, the journey will be difficult, but if they produce the performance of their life, they will take one more step closer to their dream.
All eyes on Messi and Ronaldo
Argentina, 2014 finalists, will get the ball rolling against 2016 Euro finalist France in one of the biggest matches of the knock-out stage. Lionel Messi and Co must produce something special, something a level above than what they produced against Nigeria if they have to get past Didier Deschamps’ young French team.

One more time they will look to their captain Messi to produce something magical like he always does for his club Barcelona.

Barely 90 minutes later, all eyes will be on Messi’s contemporary, Cristiano Ronaldo, as the second European giants versus Latin American powerhouse clash gets underway. If Portugal has Ronaldo, then Uruguay has their mercurial Luis Suarez, giving the game an undercurrent of Real Madrid vs Barcelona with an added flavour of Paris Saint-Germain’s Edinson Cavani to handpick stars.

High flying hosts and La Roja
Ask any home fans about Sunday evenings’ Russia versus Spain clash and they all will tell you how dreaded they are with the fixture. The high flying hosts, who were given a reality check by Uruguay in their last group game.

They know Spain is another level for them and it might be the end of the road for them unless Spain let their guard down and concede goals like they did in the Group stage. But at the end of the day, even the Russians would put money on La Roja to advance to the quarter-finals.

If Luka Modric inspired Croatia puts on a show like they did against Argentina, they will easily get past Denmark, who played out a drab draw with France to get into the Round of 16.

Samba boys and Red Devils
Belgium topped Group G and chose to take the ‘difficult path’ in their quest for the glory. The kind of form they are in, they are on collision course with Brazil in the last eight.

Japan, who advanced to the next round on the criteria of ‘fair play’ should understand that the good behaviour on the field won’t win them a game against the golden generation of Belgium.

Their fans have already won the hearts with their stadium clean up act, but Akira Nishino coached team will have to do more than clean-up job if they are to book a place in the quarters.

On the other hand, Samba boys take on arch-rivals Mexico in another mouth-watering clash. Mexico cannot be taken lightly after they shocked the world with their 1-0 win over Germany, but they were brought down on earth by Sweden who thumped them 3-0 in the final group game and progressed courtesy Korea’s win over the defending champions.

Brazil, after a stumbling draw against Switzerland in the opener, has gone from strength to strength and they showcased their flowing football in Moscow against Serbia. The only worry for Tite is the injuries to his players, as they have Marcelo, Danilo and Douglas Costa all on the treatment table.

Can England do it?
England and Belgium teams were on the receiving end of some criticism when two managers fielded ‘second string’ teams in their final group game on Thursday night in a bid to give their star players rest ahead of knock-out stage.

The much-deserved break could come handy against Colombia who had to give their everything in their game against Senegal to progress. Injury to their talisman and 2014’s Golden Boot winner James Rodriguez, has left Colombia coach Jose Pekerman ‘very concerned’, and it is understandable, given his ability to change the course of the game, as England versus Colombia game will mark the end of the Round of 16 phase.

The earlier match in St Petersburg the same day will see two surprise teams in the fray for the spot in the quarters. 

It is not just their presence, but their performance as well has surprised many as Switzerland held Brazil to 1-1 draw, while Sweden, who earlier denied Italy a place in the World Cup, thumped Mexico 3-0 to top the Group F, losing narrowly to Germany 2-1.

Surprise in store
The Group stage has already provided more than one shocks, it would be unwise to think that things will go as per the script in the second phase of the competition.

Some big names will go out as their fate has put them against another big team. Some personal glory will be achieved, some hearts will be broken. The Russian land will continue to spring surprises.

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