The obvious worry after such a gripping and unpredictable group stage of a World Cup is that the second round will be somewhat of a letdown; luckily this turned out to be a wholly unnecessary concern. The round of the last 16 began with the best game of the tournament so far (and possibly the best World Cup game of the century), included five periods of extra time, two penalty shoot-outs and several more stand-out performances from the world’s best players. And despite all eight group winners progressing for the first time ever, the competition remains extremely unpredictable, with no team truly standing out or looking anywhere near complete. The following is a look at all four quarter finals with a brief appraisal of each remaining side.
Brazil v Colombia
The first tie pitches the two sides who contested the closest and the most one-sided second round games. Brazil fought out a classic against the Chileans coming unbearably close to elimination and now Jose Pekerman’s Colombia look set to pose an equal threat.
All in all, Brazil have disappointed. Their dependence on Neymar looks absolute and growing as the games get harder and contributions from other forwards have been minimal; even Oscar’s influence has begun to diminish after an impressive opening week. The defence has looked worrying too. Neither Thiago Silva nor David Luiz look to be playing as well as they can, whilst strangely, the most experienced member of the backline, Dani Alves, looks to have been the most nervous and could be at risk of losing his place. Luis Gustavo’s absence is another huge concern for the hosts, up against the best #10 of the tournament, the absence of any real replacement in that ‘destroyer’ position could be costly.
Colombia meanwhile has been perhaps the most convincing side of the finals so far. Up against a Suarez-less Uruguay in the last 16 they won easily with a solid team performance and yet another brilliant showing from James Rodriguez – surely the player of the tournament so far. The Monaco playmaker creates space wonderfully for his team and is wickedly effective in the final third also. Either side of him, Juan Cuadrado and Victor Ibarbo are fast and skilful ball carriers and will take advantage of Brazil’s weakness in defending the flanks. Meanwhile, Colombia’s weakness of a lack of pace at centre half is less likely to be troubled by the rather immobile Fred.
Prediction – Colombia to scare Brazil and probably out-play them also, but I expect Brazil to somehow scrape through once again, most likely with a Neymar goal.
France v Germany
In a tournament full of good, but not great sides being carried by their star players, this match will contest the two best all-round squads and XIs left in the competition. Both have impressed, particularly given the loss of their star wide forwards (Frank Ribery and Marco Reus) just days before their opening games.
Whilst the Germans have come through some tough games already though, the French have been relatively untested so far, having been given the easiest group and last 16 opponent. One clear advantage Didier Deschamps enjoys however is that he knows his best side. The defence is settled and looks good without being world-class, whilst the midfield may be unbalanced on paper, it looks at least the sum of its excellent parts in practice. The only selection issue the France coach seemed to have was whether to play Olivier Giroud or Antoine Griezmann up front with Karim Benzema; the impact the latter made coming on for the last half hour against Nigeria must have surely made his mind up for him.
Their opponents in contrast have probably the strongest group of players in the tournament but Joachim Low strangely doesn’t seem to have any idea how to use it. His team sheet for the Algeria game was baffling, with a host of outstanding midfielders on the bench, the best right back in the world in midfield and Sampdoria’s rather limited Shkodran Mustafi in the starting XI! Low must learn the lessons of his sides elimination to Italy at the Euros two years ago, and also Bayern Munich’s humbling by Real Madrid in the UCL this year – that even a midfield made of the most technically gifted passers in the world isn’t enough against sides with sufficiently fast forwards and powerful midfield runners. His frontline isn’t totally convincing either. All three of Mesut Ozil, Mario Gotze and Thomas Muller might be world class players but all three are better playing behind the kind of outright striker Germany are plainly missing.
Prediction – If Low makes the right changes then Germany are the better side and should go through. If he fails to prepare his side tactically however, the French have the perfect blend of qualities to expose his side’s weaknesses. This should be the best game of the round.
Netherlands v Costa Rica
They may have only got through the second round by the skin of their teeth, but as it stands, the Netherlands are probably the best bet to reach the final. The squad as a whole still looks pretty average but thanks to the efforts of two men, the Dutch are now serious contenders. The first is obviously Louis Van Gaal, whose clever tactical tweaks and substitutions have helped him extract more from his players than any coach at the finals has come close to achieving so far. While Arjen Robben has surely been the tournament’s second best player behind Rodriguez so far; Robin Van Persie looks in form also but is reliant on a standard of service evidently not forthcoming from this Dutch midfield. Wesley Sneijder and Daley Blind provide some guile but offer no pace, while the rest of the side is simply solid and will miss the presence of Nigel De Jong in front of the back three. Goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen looks shaky also but has done an okay job so far.
Costa Rica represent the worst remaining side by far but their progression to this stage has been wonderful and thoroughly merited, but surely they’re now lacking the necessary quality to progress. Their clever counter attacking tactics won’t work against the best tactical side in the competition and though they have an outstanding goalkeeper in Keylor Navas, the centre halves are limited and should be exposed by the pace of the Dutch forwards.
Prediction – Comfortable Netherlands win.
Argentina v Belgium
Surely the most intriguing of the match-ups, Belgium must start as underdogs but Argentina are the perfect opposition for Marco Wilmot’s side to play at this stage.
The Argentine’s were mine and many people’s picks to win before the tournament but with every game they have looked less and less convincing, following up a slow group stage win with a laboured victory over the Swiss which needed an extremely late extra-time winner. Alex Sabella’s men are every bit as dependent on Leo Messi as the Brazilians are on Neymar, perhaps even more so. So far whenever Messi has been effectively closed down, the rest of the team has looked toothless and clueless going forward. Also similarly to Brazil, the back five don’t convince. Sergio Romero and Federico Fernandez look totally out of their depth, Ezequiel Garay and Marcos Rojo look solid and nothing more – Pablo Zabaleta is only quality defensive player they have. The midfield is slow and uncreative and places a huge burden on Angel Di Maria, whilst Gonzalo Higuain has been useless against the deep defences he’s encounter so far.
In short, Belgium have a much more well balanced team and are superior (on paper) in almost every area. As with Germany though, the manager clearly doesn’t know his best team, having chopped and changed in several positions so far. Watching Belgium play reminds me a lot of watching Chelsea, in terms of tempo and style. Against tight defence they can be frustrating but, like Chelsea, against the bigger sides they could thrive on the counter attack. They have a solid back five to absorb pressure and a wonderfully quick and creative front four that could cause Argentina serious problems on the break.
Reasons Belgium should win: Better goalkeeper, better defence, quicker/more physical midfield, more variety in attack, better options of the bench, much less pressure
Reasons Belgium might not win: Leo Messi
Prediction – If they can mark the Barcelona star out of the game successfully I can’t see a reason why they shouldn’t progress. That’s obviously a pretty monumental ‘if’ however