One of the most gripping Group Stages in World Cup history is finally over, but it refused to go without a fuss. Just before it bowed out for good, 2018’s first phase claimed an almighty scalp and hurtled off into the distance before anyone had quite realised what it had done.
All things considered, however, the World Cup Last 16 is lucky not to have lost more than one of its familiar faces. I had conveniently ranked Argentina at 14 in preparation for their imminent departure from Russia, but they somehow survived. Germany going from #5 to nowhere, meanwhile, makes a mockery. Cheers, Group Stage.
Nonetheless, the show must go on.
The Germans, of course, have slipped from the rankings without a trace, but in other news we have a new leader, by virtue of the fact that they are the only real candidate – plus a whole lot more moving and shaking.
Croatia continue to rise, thanks to their 100% record and the fact that they are now favourites amongst many to win their much easier half of the draw (and Connor’s absolute demolition of France meaning I felt the need to swap their place with the Croats).
In fact, five of the top seven are on the same side of the draw – the opposite half to England. It’s definitely coming home now, right? JG
- Brazil (up 2)
Brazil rise to the top here, not by virtue of being too good for everybody else, but rather because they’re not as bad. That may sound harsh, but put it this way – in a couple of games’ time, you can see them being here still for the entirely opposite reason.
The Samba Boys brushed aside Serbia without ever looking particularly impressive, but all the warning signs are there. They conceded just one goal in the Group Stage and, despite scoring just five, their attacking threat grows with each passing game; Phillipe Coutinho is in frightening form now, while Neymar showed frankly terrifying signs that he is about to well and truly burst into life.
Mexico, who appear to have already peaked, are next up. I expect Brazil to brush them aside as they get better, and better, and better. JG
- Belgium (no change)
With both teams already through, Belgium’s match against England was one that you probably wanted to win but wouldn’t mind losing. The game itself had a strangely subdued feel to it as thoughts centred on the implications and merits of securing top spot.
Roberto Martinez ‘did a Southgate’ and rested most of his star men to ensure that they are fit and available for when it really matters. The victory for ‘Belgium B’ against ‘England B’ was secured via Adnan Januzaj’s curling effort and will give the Belgians belief and momentum; something they will need to carry them further on the tougher side of the draw. SC
- Spain (down 2)
Two late equalisers in two separate games helped Spain to secure that top spot in Group B.
Despite this, Morocco took a surprise early lead against them in the 14th minute when Khalid Boutaib took advantage of a defensive mix up that surprisingly involved Andres Iniesta.
Spain found the back of the net via Isco with a well-worked equaliser minutes later, but after half time Moroccan sub Youssef En-Nesyri headed in a corner to put his side back ahead with just nine minutess remaining, and the game looked to be finishing that way with Spain in second spot.
However, Iago Aspas’s superb flick shot found the net, and thanks to VAR, Spain had an injury-time equaliser.
With Iran equalising moments later against Portugal, Spain regained that top position. Despite this scare, the 2010 champions have Russia in the next round and look very well-placed to make the Quarter-Finals. AB
- Croatia (up 3)
This is an interesting one. Croatia were one of just three teams to win all nine points in the Group Stage, alongside Uruguay and Belgium. They won every game convincingly, and outclassed two-time winners Argentina. But can you honestly see them winning the whole thing? I don’t think I can, but now will probably be their best chance ever.
They will likely cruise past Denmark, before playing an entirely underwhelming Spain side. Win that, and it’s Sweden/Switzerland/Colombia/England in the Semi-Final. I wouldn’t bet against them. JG
- France (down 1)
Constant shoehorning, a lack of clarity in their direction and a laboured style of play – these factors made it unsurprising to see France play out the first goalless draw in Russia.
Dider Deschamps’ side haven’t impressed in the group stages, with persistence with their 4-4-2 formation seemingly not capable of providing an identity. A 4-4-2 with Mbappé and Fékir in wider roles will leave France exposed in both full-back and central midfield areas, despite the mobility and ferocity of Kanté and Nzonzi. France’s approach has been simplistic and tedious at points.
A failure to profit from the offensive talent within their squad is leaving a lot of French supporters underwhelmed by their national side and Deschamps tactics in this tournament. Deschamps has been in charge for six years but his team still lacks an identity, the style of play floating somewhere between vague and non-existent.
The simple fact is, France, with the quality they possess, should be winning trophies considering the current generation and their ability. Arguably, restrictive coaching is holding them back. CS
- Uruguay (up 6)
Uruguay made four changes in their final group game against the host nation, having similarly already secured their place in the next round.
Luis Suárez scored the opening goal early on and after Russia went down to 10 men, Uruguay took the top spot of Group A with a 3-0 win.
This means Uruguay have won all their group games and are yet to concede a goal as they prepare to face Portugal in the Second Round.
What a battle of the egos this will be; the Suárez v Ronaldo show. It will be one to watch! AB
- Portugal (down 1)
The European champions made life difficult for themselves with an entertaining draw with Iran, but they could favour the knockout stages due to the quality of talisman Cristiano Ronaldo. Fernando Santos’s pragmatism has restricted offensive play, but defensive resilience and organisation has helped Portugal progress.
They face a difficult prospect in Uruguay, who themselves can be considered as an outsider for the World Cup crown, but the individual quality that Portugal possess is enough to beat any side on their day.
However, this over-reliance on Ronaldo and his genius could be Portugal’s weakness; should a team effectively nullify him, then problems could arise. Santos may need to vary his approach. CS
- England (no change)
It’s time now for the debate over whether Southgate was right or wrong to make eight changes to end. Everyone has a slightly different take on it, but now we are where we are.
Ultimately, Belgium’s second string were just a little stronger than England’s but – as has been pointed out to me – by making the changes, Southgate has ensured defeat has had minimal impact on the belief of his key protagonists.
Colombia, despite being dismissed as $hit by some, still have enough to trouble England and hopefully Southgate will take their challenge more seriously. Having not won a knockout match since 2006 this remains a significant hurdle but – in case you didn’t know (pfft) – if England are successful it opens up the so-called easier half of the draw.
I wish someone had mentioned it. GG
- Colombia (up 2)
Much will depend on the fitness of James Rodriguez, on whom they rely a great deal, but still they’ll have a massive support in Moscow, who will turn the Spartak Stadium into a little corner of South America. I say little, it’ll be anything but, and it’ll be yellow and very noisy.
And having never beaten England, there is history there to be made for Colombia who will be desperately hoping they can tap into the form they showed in their second game, when they demolished Poland. If, big if, they can do that, they can certainly trouble our boys.
But, let’s just hope this is the final type I’m writing about them eh?
- Argentina (up 4)
Lionel Messi has arrived. Kind of. It was a finish typical of the five-time Ballon d’Or winner to give Argentina the lead over Nigeria, but from the moment his side took the lead on Tuesday, they didn’t look at all convincing. If anything, in fact, the Super Eagles probably edged it.
That’s irrelevant though – Argentina may have taken the scenic route, but they’re still here. And they have a France side that look uncoordinated, toothless, and not much better, to be honest.
The winner will probably be the side that can get their misfiring front line functioning best. Personally, I hope Messi gets one step closer to his life’s obsession – for this as much as anything else. JG
- Switzerland (up 2)
Switzerland, much like England, will be licking their lips at their path to the Semi-Final. The stars have aligned as their best squad in several decades have watched the World Cup draw part before them like Russell Martin and Sebastien Bassong being faced down by Luis Suarez.
Now, much like then, the opening is clear for all to see. Switzerland are the highest-ranked team remaining in their side of the draw – in other words, if every game between now and the Final were decided purely by world ranking, the Swiss would be playing Brazil in Moscow on July 15.
That probably isn’t going to happen – Switzerland were lucky to beat Serbia, and couldn’t beat Costa Rica – but with Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka having successfully escaped a ban for political celebrations, victory over Sweden in the Second Round is certainly possible. JG
- Sweden (up 7)
The Swedes put their last-minute heartbreak against the Germans behind them with an emphatic win over Mexico that saw them top Group F and set-up a show-down against the Swiss.
It was another disciplined performance from a well-drilled team but on this occasion, they found their shooting boots and a cutting edge that had been missing previously.
This is a team lacking in stars but one which is organised, difficult to break down and dangerous on the counter – qualities that just might see them upset the odds again. SC
- Mexico (down 4)
Six points from their opening fixtures put the Mexicans in pole position to top the group and avoid a knock-out fixture against heavyweights Brazil. Perhaps the opportunity and pressure got to them because against Sweden they produced a horribly ragged and disjointed display which lacked any confidence or conviction.
If it wasn’t for an even more calamitous performance from Germany in the other match, they would be out. As news came through of the South Korean upset, the Mexicans celebrated wildly but unless they can rediscover the swashbuckling form from their opening fixture, few would fancy Mexico to break their ‘fourth-game jinx’ and qualify for the quarter-finals for the first time since 1986. SC
- Russia (down 4)
The hosts were top of the group heading into their final game against Uruguay, having already guaranteed a place in the last 16, and with their star man Denis Cheryshev fourth place in the golden boot with three goals.
Uruguay, however, put a stop to Russia’s perfect start by beating them by a resounding three goals to nil.
The opposition took the lead in the 10th minute, with the second following soon after when Diego Laxalt’s shot took a wicked deflection off Russia’s leading goal scorer; it really didn’t look to be the host’s day. Russia’s comeback diminished even further when Igor Smolnikov was given his marching orders after a second yellow card. Edinson Cavani gave Uruguay a deserved third late on.
This precariously puts the hosts into second position of Group A and gives them the hard task of facing Spain on Sunday. They will certainly need to put this game behind them and find their former form. If they do, could this be the shock of the tournament? AB
- Denmark (up 1)
As far as Åge Hareide and his players are concerned, this was mission accomplished as Denmark collected the point that guaranteed second spot in Group C irrespective of the result in the game between Peru and Australia. Denmark can now look forward to a last-16 tie against Croatia in Nizhny Novgorod on Sunday, and that was the only thing on the players’ minds when they celebrated in front of their supporters at the end.
Norwich City’s link to Denmark through their head coach may result in a few eyes from Norfolk being cast on the Danes as they look to progress beyond the Round of 16.
Denmark haven’t lit the blue touch paper in a similar way to Croatia, their opponents in the Round of 16, but they will hope they can extract the quality from Christian Eriksen’s boots in the latter stages and exploit the pace of Pione Sisto.
The odds are firmly stacked against Denmark, but if they are to operate efficiently and exploit the talent from their main protagonists, then they could conquer Croatia. CS
- Japan (up 1)
For the Japanese, to have qualified for the second phase is a massive result in itself. Few expected them to progress – themselves and their own public included – but they set the tone early on with that thrilling win against ten-man (there’s a clue) Columbia, and followed it up by holding their nerve in the 2-2 draw with Senegal.
But, it’s hard to see them progressing to the last eight, especially with a fresh and rested Belgium side lying in wait. For the Japanese, this will likely be the end of the road. GG