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2014 World Cup: Knockout round predictions

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The second round is often fairly straight-forward other than the odd shock or two – the heavyweights tend to find their way through, unless they are paired off with each other. I don’t see there being a Italy-South Korea tie in this round, particularly as in most cases there’s a fairly clear divide between the quality of the group winners and the quality of the runners-up.

If there is a shock coming, it is in the second tie of the round. Colombia are now fancied to do well, but there is always one team who blitz the group stage, start being talked of as genuine contenders, and then fall relatively quickly – Spain 2006 is a prime example, along with the last two Brazil teams. Uruguay now have the momentum and motivation to beat them. I’d not be surprised either way but I suspect Uruguay will come through it, due to them having a little mental edge in terms of experience and getting the result in a tournament. Having said that, I’d say Colombia have a slightly better chance of winning the tournament than Uruguay because Uruguay’s surge may lose its edge by the latter stages whereas Colombia are perhaps better-equipped to go further.

With France, Germany, and Argentina likely to win fairly comfortably, Brazil having just about enough to see off Chile, the Netherlands have a tough time against Mexico but probably just edging it, and Belgium grinding their way past a stubborn USA, the last remaining tie is between the two underdogs, Costa Rica and Greece. As I said in the previous article, I’m not convinced Costa Rica are as good as is being made out, and Greece have a habit of pulling off results like this, so I suspect they’ll sneak it again.

This would leave a quarter-final line-up of Brazil-Uruguay, France-Germany, Netherlands-Greece, and Argentina-Belgium.

Brazil-Uruguay would be the stand-out given the historical context. It could go either way. If Uruguay are psyched up after beating Colombia. they will prove very difficult opponents for Brazil, who will be reminded of the Maracanazo a thousand times that week (though this would take place in Fortaleza). That being said, I suspect Arevalo Rios will be running out legs in midfield and there are only so many feats you can pull off like this, so I’ll go for Brazil. Same goes if Colombia win, though it may be tighter.

France-Germany is also fascinating, a repeat of the 1982 and 1986s semi-final, both of which Germany won (as an additional footnote, Germany have beaten France only once in their last seven meetings, though that one win was last February). This will probably hinge on whether or not Schweinsteiger can make the difference in midfield for Germany, as they haven’t looked great there in his absence. Plus in Benzema France have a striker capable of bagging a couple off a dodgy defence, whereas Germany have lacked a central striker so far. I’m going for France, on the basis that a France-Brazil semi-final seems destined to happen.

France are of course Brazil’s bogey team in recent World Cups, having finished off the last relics of the great 1980s team in 1986, pounded Ronaldo and co in the 1998 final, and shocked them in 2006 courtesy of Zidane and Henry. I’d fancy them to do it again too. By this point, the pressure on Brazil would be immense, having seen off two South American rivals, while France will be able to sneak under the radar again despite having an attack that we know can expose this nervy Brazil defence.

In the other half, Netherlands-Greece is probably closer than you think. The Netherlands have based their attack around counter-attacking, but would meet a team who also do this, while also being slightly more defensively organised. The logical answer is to say the Netherlands have enough, but you also have to bear in mind that they will have played their previous game in Fortaleza, which may leave them tired, especially if Mexico perform well. However, Greece’s (or Costa Rica’s) will have been in Recife. I think Greece can do it, though – if they can get it to penalties, they are certainly in with a good chance, given the Dutch team’s record in shootouts.

Argentina-Belgium is another tough one to call, given that Argentina have looked great in attack but weak at the back and Belgium have looked great at the back but weak in attack, although both have found ways to win regardless. The location of the second round ties gives Argentina an advantage (Sao Paulo versus Salvador), but if Belgium can hitch onto Argentina’s flaws, they can stop them – of all the teams in this half of the draw, Belgium are probably the most likely to stop Argentina. Also Argentina haven’t gone past the quarter-finals since 1990, and have fallen there in three of the last four tournaments.

Of the four combinations for that semi-final, Netherlands-Argentina is the most appealing for the neutral (due to 1978 and 1998), so is probably the most unlikely to happen. Greece-Argentina would likely be very one-sided. Netherlands-Belgium would be a great local derby for this stage and another clash of styles. Greece-Belgium would be fucking terrible. Because things usually happen in the World Cup that I don’t want to happen, it makes Greece-Belgium the most likely outcome. Probably.

In any case, it’s virtually impossible to predict beyond the quarter-finals because the quarters are often very tight and between two teams capable of advancing – it’s where the great stories of the World Cup start to fit into place. But a France-Belgium final seems logical, even if it’s not expected – they are the two teams who have looked tight enough at the back and clinical enough going forward. The rest of the major contenders have only covered one of these aspects. However, both are young, inexperienced sides, which does count against them. Because of this, I’d make Argentina the favourites – I counted them out before the tournament started on the basis of their defence being poor, and their defence has been poor, but Messi is on another level at the moment and he’s going to be so difficult to stop. France-Argentina then? Argentina have won every single meeting between the two…

Either way, I don’t see this being the year of the Brazil-Argentina final as everyone is expecting. The knockout rounds, like the group stage, tend not to work as people expect. Off the top of my head, I have seen some great shocks: Croatia beating Germany in 1998; South Korea beating Italy and Spain in 2002; Greece beating France and the Czech Republic in Euro 2004 before winning the final; France beating Spain and Brazil in 2006 despite a dreadful group stage; Italy beating hosts Germany in the semi-finals of the same tournament; and the Netherlands coming from behind to stun Brazil in 2010.

These are the great games that define World Cups and yet they aren’t obvious before they take place. The games that will define this World Cup haven’t already happened, which is very exciting considering it has already been a very good tournament. However, it doesn’t become a great tournament until we have more great moments in the knockout rounds to savour. The number of goals may drop, but this is where a World Cup is made.

Teams most to least likely to win the World Cup (IMO):

1. Argentina – Pros: Messi, other great attackers, climate; Cons: defence

2. France – Pros: working well as a team, solid at the back; Cons: inexperienced at this level

3. Germany – Pros: deep squad, experience of going well into a tournament; Cons: lack of a striker, little wobbly at the back

4. Brazil – Pros: Neymar, home advantage, motivated, experienced manager; Cons: goalkeeper, defence

5. Netherlands – Pros: Van Persie, Robben, pace, options off the bench; Cons: defensive inexperience

6. Belgium – Pros: deep squad, difficult to beat; Cons: full-back positions, slow starters in games

7. Colombia – Pros: in great form, unheralded, climate; Cons: vulnerable defence not tested yet, inexperienced

8. Uruguay – Pros: experience, momentum, motivated, experienced manager; Cons: age, lacking their best player

9. Greece – Pros: well-organised, big game team, good draw; Cons: unreliable attack, prone to collapse

10. Chile – Pros: attack, pressing; Cons: unsuitable defence, tough draw

11. Mexico – Pros: in form, surprise package, balance of youth and experience; Cons: lack of overall quality

12. Costa Rica – Pros: attack, well-organised, climate; Cons: lack of overall quality

13. Switzerland – Pros: attack, experienced manager; Cons: defence, possible lack of depth, tough draw

14. Algeria – Pros: momentum, motivated (grudge matches); Cons: lack of overall quality, tough draw

15. Nigeria – Pros: exciting attack; Cons: defence, disruptive bonus dispute, tough draw

16. USA – Pros: well-organised; Cons: lack of overall quality

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Written by James Bennett

June 27, 2014 at 02:05

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