The beauty of the World Cup is in full effect.
Qatar has certainly delivered in the group stage with a plethora of impractical upsets, score lines and drama, but none of that is vanishing anytime soon.
Thanks to the chaos the eight groups bestowed, the round of 16 should be no different. Now, there are no second chances. Every second, every detail and every mistake will matter.
One slip up could end a nation’s World Cup journey, no matter if it is a David or Goliath. Capitalizing on that one pivotal moment a game could provide could send waves of jubilation to millions across the globe, while the other set of fans drown in despair.
Japan did that to Germany. Morocco did that to Belgium. Saudi Arabia just nearly did that to Argentina.
With a fresh batch of eight matchups in store over the next few days, let’s rank the round of 16 matchups from worst to best:
8. France vs. Poland
The defending champions showed their class against Australia with a 4-1 rout before grinding out a 2-1 win over the ultra-disappointing Denmark. But France’s biggest question mark was answered in the 1-0 loss to Tunisia: Just how good are they without Kylian Mbappé?
Mbappé came off the bench in the second half and sparkled yet again, but it wasn’t enough to withstand a loss to a team France should’ve beaten with its B-rotation. That concern shouldn’t arise against Poland, though, a team that tends to sit back and play for the second ball because it doesn’t have the technical quality to maintain possession over decent spells.
Poland squeezed out of Group C with more underwhelming performances than convincing, and Wojciech Szczesny can only do so much between the sticks. France should take care of business here.
7. Argentina vs. Australia
Lionel Messi is built for TV entertainment, but Argentina has yet to resemble a World Cup-contending nation. That can certainly change however long it lasts in the tournament, but its loss to Saudi Arabia coupled with an unconvincing win over Mexico carried by individual brilliance from Messi and Enzo Fernández is overshadowing the flaws of the squad.
It’s too reliant on finding Messi in central areas to pull the strings, the midfield lacks proper balance and struggle to play progressive football and the backline is shaky when facing heavy pressure. The Green Falcons pulled off the upset, but Mexico and Poland weren’t willing to take the game to them and suffered the consequence.
How will Australia come out? The Socceroos went toe-to-toe with France in the first half of that matchup but decided to go defensive in the second half despite being 2-1 down to protect goal differential. They may not have the quality on paper to get the win, but they can trouble Argentina if they’re aggressive from the get-go and maybe, maybe do the unthinkable against Messi and Co.
6. Morocco vs. Spain
In tremendous fashion, Morocco came out of Group F unscathed with wins over Belgium and Canada and a draw to Croatia. The Atlas Lions are so far the biggest darkhorse of the 2022 World Cup, but their first-place prize for topping the group came at a cost: a matchup against Spain.
Usually when a team finishes first, they get a favorable draw against the second-place team from the next group, but Japan’s upset in Group E pushed Spain down the ladder. Spain’s setup is pretty simple: It’ll look to spread the ball around and wait for the right opportunity to score no matter how long it takes, and its effective press off the ball typically sees it retain possession almost immediately.
The problem is Spain’s final product. The 7-0 thrashing of Costa Rica blanketed its ability to routinely create chances against teams with superior defensive structure, which came into play in the 1-1 draw to Germany and the 2-1 loss vs. Japan. Morocco will have to hold firm and capitalize on the few moments that’ll present itself to pull off yet another historical upset.
5. Brazil vs. South Korea
Brazil and South Korea played in a friendly in June — and it was utter domination for the Seleção. Brazil won that game 5-1 in a matchup where most of the key players took the pitch for both nations.
This time around, Brazil is entering the matchup with two strong wins against renown international powerhouse killers in Serbia and Switzerland and had the luxury of fielding an entirely new B-team against Cameroon to secure first place in Group G, no matter the loss. The main talking point for the Brazilians will be the status of Neymar, who missed the last two group stage games with an ankle sprain. The Seleção have the depth to get by certain matchups without him, but the sooner he’s healthy, the better.
South Korea, on the other hand, have emerged as a stunning darkhorse after beating Portugal 2-1 in its Group H finale, topping Uruguay and Ghana in the group. The Taegeuk Warriors haven’t had star winger Son Heung-min get on the score sheet, but his late assist against Portugal proved to be the difference to get his nation through. It’ll be a gargantuan task for South Korea to upset Brazil, but it has shown it can be clinical in the penalty box if it can get there.
4. England vs. Senegal
It’s the Three Lions against the Lions of Teranga. These two nations have never met in international competition, adding to the intrigue of this matchup that extends to the quality of players on each side.
Senegal may not have the quality and depth on paper to upset England, but it gave the Netherlands 84 minutes of good fight and showed its resilience against Ecuador to advance in Group A without its marquee player, Sadio Mané. In his absence, Ismaïla Sarr has risen to the occasion down the left-hand flank despite playing on the right for most of his young career. Kalidou Koulibaly and Eduoard Mendy, the Chelsea duo, will also need to be flawless as they each have experience playing against most of England’s squad in the Premier League.
England have one of the most balanced teams on paper and on the pitch, but it’s a matter of manager Gareth Southgate optimizing the wealth of talent at his disposal. Barring the draw to the United States, England comfortably managed to finish first in Group B without Harry Kane logging a goal. Expect England to have the majority of possession while Senegal look to hit the accelerator on the counter.
3. Japan vs. Croatia
Without considering the upset factor, this is arguably the most even round of 16 matchup. While the previous matchups have one evident powerhouse and an underdog, this one is between a former darkhorse and a current darkhorse.
Croatia’s 2018 World Cup Final run is still embedded in many fans’ minds. The midfield trio of Luka Modrić, Marcelo Brozović and Mateo Kovačić are still bossing the middle of the pitch just like they did in their spectacular run four years ago, with Joško Gvardiol emerging as the nation’s breakout star at left center back. However, the Vatreni’s lack of finishers in the final third has led to two draws in group play and they’re susceptible to an exit if they can’t turn things around.
Japan, on the other hand, have upset Germany and Spain in two comeback wins. The Samurai Blue must be thinking: If we can do that against them, why can’t we beat anyone else? In those wins, Japan conceded possession (just 17% against Spain) but utilized its depth of attacking outlets to get what matters: The win. Let’s see if Japan has another key upset in store.
2. USA vs. Netherlands
Just like some of the powerhouses that have already been eliminated, the Netherlands are one of the remaining squads that haven’t displayed any convincing outings. Senegal took the Dutch down to the wire without its best player, Ecuador thoroughly controlled that contest where the Dutch had just two shots (one on target) and they should’ve beat Qatar by more than just two.
The United States are definitely coming into this as the underdogs and have the quality to pull off an upset, if the Stars and Stripes can find enough goals. This one will likely be a low-scoring affair, as the Netherlands like to run with a back five while the United States’ back four has only conceded a penalty goal through three games.
Cody Gakpo is breaking out for the Oranje with three goals in three different games, but beyond him, there hasn’t been much for them in attack or in their build-up play. The U.S. is the opposite. They can build up from the back and have a midfield triumvirate capable of rotating all across the pitch, but they don’t have a finisher like Gakpo. Who will rise to the moment for either side?
1. Portugal vs. Switzerland
In a group filled with darkhorses, Switzerland emerged from the pack and will be looking to threaten a Portuguese side that has shown some vulnerability in all three of its Group H fixtures.
Cristiano Ronaldo hasn’t been the spark as the No. 9 that Portugal have needed thus far, but players like Bruno Fernandes and Rafael Leão have stepped up in different roles to fill in the gaps. But the Portuguese backline hasn’t been as Herculean as expected, and it came to bite them against South Korea. Though that result didn’t matter in the end as they still claimed first place, Switzerland will no doubt be a tough test.
The Swiss, led by captain Granit Xhaka, are another well-balanced and drilled team that don’t have a pure superstar and play brilliant team football. Yann Sommer and Gregor Kobel are two great options between the sticks and they have quality all over the field, but it’ll be interesting to see how Breel Embolo as the striker with Xherdan Shaqiri and Ruben Vargas perform on the wings.
This is another contest that should be tight, and it’ll be Portugal’s toughest test thus far in Qatar. If the Portuguese pass, it’ll show their resolve as they continue their path to the title, but if they fail, the Swiss will be looking to take down more powerhouses. In terms of overall quality, this matchup comes out on top.
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