The group stages are over and we’re into the Round of 16–and what a start! Before we go there, let’s take a moment to review the action of the last week. As you may be aware, in the group stage, each team has to play the other three teams in its group to determine its group position. This means each team plays three games, and the teams are ranked within the group according to how many wins, losses, and draws they get (3 points for a win, 1 for a draw, 0 for a loss). Goal differences also come into play in the event of a tie.* The top two teams in each group move on the the Round of 16. Depending on how well (or badly) a team performs, their chances of moving on may well be set by the end of the second game. As we noted last week, England‘s loss to Uruguay following on from their loss to Italy sealed their fate in the group. They had a final game to play against Costa Rica, but it would make no difference. To their credit, they held Costa Rica to a goal-less draw, but, against all odds, Costa Rica still finished the week as the group leaders, with Uruguay right behind them. England were on the bottom, exiting the contest along with Italy. Who’d’ve thunk?!
On the other hand, both the USA and Germany faced their final match-up needing only a draw for both to qualify. In any other venue, with any other teams, this might have been a recipe for a dull game of back-and-forth with no real effort. But this is the World Cup! Both teams came out blazing, fighting for a win. Given the point and goal differences in their group, either the USA or Germany could suffer a loss and still go through, as long as the loss wasn’t too significant. As it turned out, Germany managed to score a goal against the US, but it was a hard-fought goal. This was the Germany of their first game, and the US did a great job to keep them at bay. I did think Germany was the better team, though, and while they both go forward, and will do well, I’d be surprised to see the US go beyond the final eight.
The Round of 16 began on Saturday and concludes on Tuesday. And what a start! Since there must be a winner from each of these games, matches that end in a tie after 90 mins go into Extra Time (another 30 mins consisting of two 15-min halves). If it’s still tied up at the end of Extra Time, there’s a penalty shoot-out. In the penalty shoot-out, each team selects five players to take shots on goal from the penalty spot. There’s a coin toss to decide which end to use. This may make a difference if a team has a lot of supporters behind a particular goal area. Then there’s a coin toss to decide who goes first. Each team takes turns at trying to misdirect the opposing goalie and score. The first team to get an insurmountable lead (e.g., 3-1, or 5-4) wins. If it’s 5-5 at the end of the shoot-out, they go to “sudden death.” In sudden death, the teams continue to take turns shooting penalties, but the first team to score wins. These rules will apply to the contest from here to the final, since each game must produce a winner.
I suppose given the quality of the teams moving forward, I shouldn’t be surprised that two of the first four games went to penalties. Chile gave Brazil a really difficult time on Saturday, and (IMO) Brazil’s star player was their goalie, Julio Cesar (Julius Caesar, as we call him). Sure, Neymar played well, but Chile did a good job of neutralizing much of the Brazilian threat on the field. In the end, it was two marvelous penalty saves that took Brazil on to the next round. I would have liked to have seen Chile win, but largely for the “upset factor” (Brazil are unbeaten on their home turf in 60 games, and it would be unheard of for them to be out at this point playing at home). That Brazil won was a little disappointing, but not surprising.
Columbia vs. Uruguay was a different matter. Maybe it was the loss of their star player, Suarez, who was red-carded and disciplined by FIFA for biting an Italian player in their previous game, or maybe Columbia just outclassed them. In any case, Uruguay just didn’t have what it takes to get the better of Columbia. The Columbians dominated the game, and James Rodrigues played some world-class football. He scored both goals, the first of which was an incredible shot that bounced off the underside of the top bar at just the right angle. That goal will be replayed as one of the best of the tournament. Columbia and Brazil will face off in the Quarter-Finals, starting Friday.
Yesterday, the Netherlands faced Mexico in a game that went to the wire. I only caught the last ten minutes, at which point Mexico were leading 1-0. Within the space of five minutes, the Dutch scored an equalizer, and then pulled ahead when a penalty call went in their favor during stoppage time. Both teams played well in their groups, so I thought this would be a difficult match. If it wasn’t for that penalty, it too could have easily gone to a penalty shoot-out.
The final game of the weekend saw Costa Rica play Greece. Costa Rica are the surprise of the tournament. Conventional wisdom had them placing last in their group (after all, they were in a group with England, Italy, and Uruguay!). They ended up topping their group, and looking formidable with each game. I honestly thought Greece wouldn’t stand a chance, but Costa Rica seemed to lack sparkle in the first half, and while they came alive and scored what looked to be the decisive goal early in the second half, they allowed Greece to equalize in stoppage time. But the magic returned when it counted, and Costa Rica defeated Greece in the penalty shoot-out by 5 goals to 3. The Costa Rican goalie, Navas, saved the day for sure. This means Costa Rica will face the Netherlands in the Quarter-Finals.
The remaining games in the Round of 16 are:
Monday, June 30 (12 pm ET): France v. Nigeria
Monday, June 30 (4 pm ET): Germany v. Algeria
Tuesday, July 1 (12 pm ET): Argentina v. Switzerland
Tuesday, July 1 (4 pm ET): Belgium v. USA
I predict France, Germany, Argentina, and the USA will win their games. If I’m correct, then the Quarter-Final match-ups will look like this:
Friday, July 4 (12 pm ET): Brazil v. Columbia
Friday, July 4 (4 pm ET): France v. Germany
Saturday, July 5 (12 pm ET): The Netherlands v. Costa Rica
Saturday, July 5 (4pm ET): Argentina v. USA
Of these games, I think Columbia will beat Brazil, Germany will beat France, The Netherlands will beat Costa Rica, and Argentina will beat the USA. Nothing against Brazil, but I think Columbia have the talent to stop Brazil, and it would be a major upset which can be great for the tournament. I think Germany has what it takes to get to the final, and while France have played very well, IMO Germany is the better team. I would love to see Costa Rica win the tournament, but if the Dutch bring their A-game, I think their dream for 2014 will end here. Please prove me wrong, Costa Rica! As for the USA, this is definitely the best US football team I’ve seen in a long time, and I definitely think they have the talent and skill to beat Belgium. Argentina’s a different matter. This is another game where I would love to be proven wrong, but Argentina bring years of World Cup experience, and multiple tournament wins to the field. They’ve also been playing very well. I expect the US to give them a good fight, though–it won’t be an easy victory.
So, those are my thoughts. Do you have any thoughts about the games played this past week, or the games coming up?
* I think this is why those final games are played simultaneously (see last week’s game schedule). This way, the teams in a group can’t tailor their performance according to how the other teams in the group are doing.