After one of the more interesting sets of group games in recent memory, the 2018 FIFA World Cup finally reaches the knockout stages. That portion of the schedule begins this weekend with the Round of 16, and there are plenty of interesting matchups ahead. And as we advance closer to the championship game on July 15th, seven of the 10 teams representing Latin America and Europe’s Iberian Peninsula in soccer’s biggest event are still going strong.
Here’s a breakdown of those teams and who they’ll be playing between June 30th and July 3rd…..
The opening round was a wild one for South America’s most scrutinized team. They finished with one win, one draw, and one loss, and barely snuck into the knockout rounds by the skin of their teeth. The world came to a stand still for a few days after their opening 1-1 draw with Iceland in which Lionel Messi missed a penalty kick that would have given “La Albiceleste” a late lead.
One week later the Argentinians were practically ran off the field in a 3-0 loss to Croatia which put the team in jeapordy of missing the knockout stage for the first time since 2002. But when Messi finally scored in their 2-1 win over Nigeria, followed by Nigeria and Iceland losing their final sets of Group D games, Argentina’s championship aspirations were saved.
Awaiting them on Saturday however will be France who won Group C with an unbeaten record (2-1-0) and a Plus-2 goal differential. The French have their own championship dreams (last won the title in 1998) and can stretch the field with their offense.
“Almighty Argentina barely made it out of the first round, the huge surprise for all negative reasons,” says Cristian Moreno of ESPN Deportes Radio. Now Messi and company need to step their game up and prove that they are worthy of making it this far.
“Selecao” was a heavy favorite heading into Russia, and that’s still the case after dominating Group E. Their only blemish was their surprising draw with Switzerland in their opening game, but they outscored Costa Rica and Serbia by a combined score of 4-0. Next up for the 2016 Olympic gold medalists on July 2nd is Mexico, a team that’s riding their own miracle wave. More on that later…..
Things for “Los Cafeteros” got off to a shaky start when they were held to just one goal in their loss to Japan. But they redeemed themselves by shutting out both Poland and Senegal to reach the Round of 16 for just the third time in team history. On July 3rd they’ll face a resurgent England squad that has been rejuvenated by their current youth movement (20 players under the age of 30). They’re also a tough defensive team that has only surrendered three total goals so far.
“El Tri” looked unprepared when they were stunned 3-0 by Sweden to wrap up Group F play, but things didn’t start that way. They held the defending champion German’s scoreless to begin the group schedule, and they followed that up six days later with a close win over South Korea in which Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez scored his 50th international goal. But what really helped Mexico was the group finale between Germany and South Korea. Essentially, Mexico needed South Korea to win in order to dismiss their loss to the Swede’s to advance.
Germany lost 2-0, and the Mexican people’s gratitude towards South Koreans on social media has been nonstop since then. But now their focus must shift to the five-time champion Brazilian’s on July 2nd.
Cristiano Ronaldo and company have kept their mission to add a World Cup to their 2016 Euro trophy alive and well. The only true competition for “A Selecao das Quinas” in Group B was Spain, whom they played to a 3-3 draw to start the tournament. They finished the group schedule with a victory against Morocco and another draw with Iran. In the end their 1-2-0 record was better than both aforementioned nations to punch their ticket to the knockout round for the first time since 2010.
“I hold strong to my pick of Portugal (winning it all),” claims Moreno.
Their Round of 16 match on Saturday will be against Uruguay, who along with Belgium and Croatia are the only teams win every game in group play.
Spain made headlines for all the wrong reasons before they even took the pitch in Russia. They fired head coach Julen Lopetegui and replaced him with Fernando Hierro at the 11th hour for reasons unrelated to the World Cup. A move that could have been a potential distraction for the 2010 World Cup champions.
“Spain was terrible in handling (the) Lopetegui (situation). I believe sooner rather than later they will bite their tongue with such a move,” Moreno said about the last minute coaching change.
Fortunately for “La Furia Roja”, they tied with their arch-rivals in Portugal to top Group B (1-2-0 record) and outscored their opponents 6-5. They’re back in the Round of 16 after getting dispatched in the opening round in 2014. But they’ll have what could be the toughest elimination game as they take on the host nation in Russia. The Russians have fully enjoyed their home field advantage. Outside of a loss to Uruguay, they dominated the Middle East tandem of Saudi Arabia and Egypt by a combined score of 8-1 to reach the elimination level.
The champions of the 1930 and 1950 World Cups have been unstoppable thus far. They gave the Russians their only loss of the tournament to date, and held both Egypt and Saudi Arabia scoreless. They along with Croatia and Belgium are the only teams to post a perfect group record. Aside from getting goals at the right time, “La Celeste” has proven to be the best defensive team in Russia as they have yet to yield a goal.
Their defense will be tested however as they draw Portugal in the Round of 16 on Saturday. The Portuguese scored five goals during their group schedule, and they can match Uruguay from a talent standpoint offensively. Cristiano Ronaldo vs Luis Suarez is the matchup for this contest. While it doesn’t exactly have the appeal of Rolando against Messi, Suarez and Messi are teammates at the club level for F.C. Barcelona. Which means that they play against Ronaldo with Real Madrid on numerous occasions during the La Liga season.
This time though the stakes are much higher and the world will be watching. Ending a 68-year drought is much easier said than done.
There’s plenty of excitement heading into this weekend.