The group stages are over. The story lines so far have been thus: Spain’s reign ending, Germany looking ominous, Brazil and Argentina starting to kick into top gear, Colombia and Costa Rica surprising us, and the Flying Dutch arguably leading the pack. There’s another story, hold on, I’ve forgotten it. Wait, wait, I’ll get it. Gosh, it’s really gnawing at me, I’ll get it in a second. It’s on the tip of my tongue, or somewhere in my mouth. Nope, can’t think of it. Oh well. It’s been an excellent World Cup so far, the goals have been flowing and the stars have been glowing. Neymar and Messi have carried their teams, and Cristiano Ronaldo has looked on grumpily. He ought to cheer himself up by turning his gaze to the upcoming Round of 16 matches, because there are some tasty fixtures to be salivated over.
The fixture that catches the eye first is Brazil v Chile. Chile’s biggest strength is also their biggest weakness; their attack. They tend to explode out of the blocks, trying to overwhelm unprepared defences. It worked to great effect in the group against Australia and Spain, but they were shown up by the disciplined Dutch. The issue is that such attacking verve often comes at the cost of the defence. Playing with basically a 4 man attack, and encouraging the fullbacks to push forward can leave the defence exposed. Gary Medel plays in defensive midfield for his club, but at centre back for Chile. He goes hard into tackles, often a little recklessly, so expect Neymar to try and win a lot of free kicks. That may actually be a problem for the Chileans because they don’t defend set pieces well at all, as Leroy Fer’s goal against them showed. The Chileans rely on intense pressing from their energetic midfield and vibrant attack to win the ball back quickly, but the Brazilian midfield may well be slick enough to pass through it. Fred will win most of the aerials duels against Medel as well, so his role as a hold-up striker may be best performed knocking down headers for Neymar or Hulk to run on to. With Chile it’s basically an example of a team heavily favouring their biggest asset, the attack. If it works, then it’s great. But the Brazilian defence is one of the most experienced in the tournament and, a David Luiz brain-snap notwithstanding, Thiago Silva, Marcelo and Dani Alves ought to be able to cope, although Alexis Sanchez with relish the opportunity to go at his team mate Alves, and Real Madrid man Marcelo. With Brazil and Neymar beginning to heat up after a few early unremarkable performances, Brazil will look to ride the home support to victory here.
In the wake of Luis Suarez’s four month ban for biting, the expectation is that Uruguay’s World Cup will either fizzle out, or that the siege mentality the affair has instilled will give them a boost. Funnily enough, the game against Colombia is now a match between two teams stripped of their star striker. Colombia have had more time to get used to life without Falcao, and boy, have they found life easy. Without the Falcao, James Rodriguez (Falcao’s Monaco team mate) has flourished into one of the blazing performers in this World Cup, alongside Neymar and Messi. The tactical rejiggering that Colombia were forced into when Falcao got injured meant that Rodriguez was shifted into a central role, rather than out on the left in Colombia’s usual 4-4-2. Rodriguez is now the attacking distributor, and with wing assets like Cuadrado and Ibarbo, he’s spoilt for choice when it comes to pacey runners to play in. Rodriguez has become the funnel through which Colombia transition the ball, often dropping deep to further lubricate the passage (chortle) from defence to attack. Life without your star can be better than you think, Uruguay take note. Of course, they will be reeling from the Suarez ban, mooting reports are circulating about a possible Uruguay boycott of the Colombia match, which seems a bit dramatic. There has always been a debate over how Edinson Cavani and Suarez can play together in the same team, and the ban has eliminated that issue. Cavani often has to defer to Suarez in attack when they play together, taking up a more industrious workhorse role, but is more than capable of taking up the primary attacking reigns in Suarez’s absence. Still, it seems unlikely that Uruguay will be able to regroup in time, and with Colombia high on morale and purring on the pitch, Uruguay’s World Cup may well be ending on the 29th.
As pantomime characters whose actions spawn a tidal wave of internet memes go, it’s hard to beat Luis Suarez. But Miguel Herrera, the Mexico coach, definitely gives the Uruguayan a run for his money. This Mexico team is a strange one, barely scraping through qualifying, but undefeated so far in the tournament. They showed some late attacking verve in the 3-1 win over Croatia, and true grit in the win over Cameroon and the draw against Brazil. Herrera is such an exhilarating sideline presence, his furiously euphoric celebrations and wrath-filled protestations are nearly as entertaining as the football. His ability as a football tactician is certainly eclipsed by his irrepressible talents as a motivator for his team. In that victory over Croatia, Mexico were able to defend ably for the majority of the game, then score on the counter at the end against the tired Croatian defence. They only needed a draw in that game to progress so the defence-first method was a good plan. Against the Dutch, however, they will need to be less conservative, so will hope to have Giovanni dos Santos at his creative best. Mexico pushed their wing backs up the field against Cameroon and it proved difficult to deal with, but they may want to be wary of doing this against the Netherlands because Arjen Robben (if he’s fit) will relish speeding into the vacant space left by an out of position defender. The Dutch squad has been hit badly by injuries to various key men, de Vrij, Martins Indi, Blind and de Jong are all doubtful, as well as Robben. This made it difficult for Louis van Gaal to prepare for their first knockout clash but, despite this, the Dutch should still enter the match as the favourites to progress. If Robin van Persie and Memphis Depay can continue their excellent form, then we may well see the Mexican coach literally explode in the dugout.
Though the above match-ups are probably the most delicious, the other fixtures make for good reading as well. Argentina v Switzerland ought to be good, particularly if Xherdan Shaqiri continues on from his last game, where he banged in a tidy hat trick. Obviously, Messi will look to carry on his one man show, complete with more screamers from outside the box (3 of his 4 goals have been from distance). Argentina will most likely be missing Sergio Aguero, but they can look to PSG’s Ezequial Lavezzi as a replacement. Germany ought to flatten Algeria, and France should beat Nigeria, even though the Africans are the first quality opponent the Frenchmen have run into so far. Another curious fixture is the Belgium v USA match, an enigmatic contest where, on paper, the Belgians should win easily. But the Belgians haven’t yet set the world on fire, most of their games turning out to be relative snore-fests, particularly the 1-0 win over Russia. Will they turn it on finally, or will the plucky Yanks show them up? There could be a surprise in that one. And lastly, almost everyone will be rooting for the darling Costa Ricans against Greece. All in all, it’s a bountiful smorgasbord of delights so we all should settle in, switch on, and help ourselves to the second course of this cordon bleu footballing feast.