Saturday, June 28, 2014

World Cup 2014 : Round of 16 - Knock Outs

Tonight begins the round of 16.... the knock outs, where a defeat means returning home.... this is the business end of the World Cup, & what will separate Men from Boys.
For the first time in many years, a lot of potential champions & heavyweight teams have been eliminated in the Group stages, while minnows or lesser known teams have moved up.
Spain, the defending champions crashed out unceremoniously, much to the surprise of the football fans, as also did former champions like Italy & England. Portugal is another popular team to have crashed out, as did Ivory Coast, Russia, Ecuador & Croatia....all of them have star players in their ranks & were expected to do much better. While teams like Costa Rica, Chile, Mexico, Greece, Switzerland, Nigeria, USA & Algeria did extremely well to qualify ahead.....all of them had tough & better placed opponents to compete against.
I had earlier mentioned that the Latin Americans will have advantage of playing conditions in this tournament, while the Europeans would struggle & I believe the same will continue to be a feature ahead.

Let's try & evaluate the 16 teams & their possibilities :

Brazil vs Chile :
In a high decibel match, the first of the knock outs, host Brazil take on a resurgent Chile. Brazil coach Scolari has been wary of this Latin American team even before the tournament started, & correctly so. This Chilean team is raw & fast paced, arguably the best squad ever, & they have emerged out of a very tough group, defeating the likes of Spain & Australia & narrowly getting beaten by Netherlands. With the return of Vidal in the midfield, Sanchez will feel more charged along with Medel, Vargas & Valdivia. Goalkeeper Bravo lends immense confidence under the bar. Its truly a well knit team & they have nothing to lose against hosts Brazil, who carry the immense pressure of lifting the Cup. La Rojas, as the Chilean team is popularly known, have to forget history(they have lost to Brazil every time in World Cup finals) & face Brazil with raw courage, which has been their statement in this tournament. Coach Jorge Sampaoli would certainly have some aces up his sleeves
Brazil on the other hand looks good in attack with Neymar being brilliant with his skills & Oscar giving able aide, though Fred & Hulk are yet to find form. The team looks a little dis organised in midfield with Gustavo & Paulinho yet to combine well & Scolari may be tempted to bring in Fernandinho in place of Paulhinho to bring in more bite & speed. In central defence, David Luiz & T Silva look surprisingly rattled at times & wing backs Marcelo & Dani Alves go on frequent overlaps & then fail to rush back in defense....definitely a problem area for coach Scolari to mend. In goal Julio Cesar has looked quite under control. The reserve bench is strong in Maxwell, Maicon, Dante in defense & Willian, Fernandinho, Jefferson, Bernard & Jo upfront. Scolari may opt to try out a couple of them tonight.
However, on paper, Brazil maintain overwhelming advantage as favourites, even on statistics. It should be a tough match, & Brazil should go through, with the whole stadium egging them to score, as the team seems to be gradually peaking....& at the right time. It will be a tight contest for sure. Predicted score line : 3-1 for Brazil.

Columbia vs Uruguay :
A Latin American contest is always high voltage, skills driven & raucous. Columbia taking on Uruguay would therefore be no fact it could turn out to be ill tempered & fiery as well. Uruguay have qualified from the  Group of Death, eliminating top champions like Italy & England. In Suarez, they had found a goal scoring machine, but, he is out on ban for the infamous biting incident.....something very very disappointing & disgraceful. Forlan, their hero from the 2010 edition is a pale shadow & Cavani may succumb to the immense pressure of being a loner upfront. Skipper Lugano, Loderlo, Rodriguez, Gonzalez & Godin are formidable & so is Muslera under the bar, but their winning combination would certainly be hit in the absence of Suarez & the controversy could come to haunt them.
Columbia, on the other hand have been phenomenal topping Group C with 9 goals & three wins. They have not missed their mercurial player Radamel Falcao till now, who's out with an injury.The team under Jose Pekerman's coaching are looking for that first ever quarter final appearance & I believe they are quite capable of doing so. James Rodriguez is leading the attack along with Quintero, Cuadrado, Martinez, all capable of striking at will. The defense looks good with Yepes & Ospina looks in control under the bar. Columbians have been goal hungry & look capable of toppling their fancied opponents, if they keep their nerves & tempers under control. The match may go into extra time & penalties. Predicted scoreline : 2-1 for Columbia.

Netherlands vs Mexico :
Many may not agree, but this probably could be the marquee match of the round of 16. Netherlands have been one of the top teams thus far with van Persie & Robben getting them goals at will. The midfield looks organised as does the deep defense. They topped their group decimating Spain in the opening encounter & have looked rather invincible. But I have a different view. According to me, they struggled to win against Australia & Chile, & were seriously extended in the two games. They defeated an over confident & ageing Spain, who did not have a plan B to execute. Also, they seem to have peaked a little too soon & are now against Mexico, who are no push overs. Netherlands have always faltered to deceive in the World Cup finals, though this time around they look to go the distance. I just feel that the humid playing conditions may finally take the toll on ageing Robben, who has been phenomenal with his bursts down the middle till now & that would certainly affect the forward line. Sneijder has not been in form & van Persie may be left alone upfront. Lens, de Jong, Depay etc have been good only in patches, & defense looked in trouble even against Australia.
In fact Mexico are known to be quietly efficient in their game. They are normally not overawed by their opponents & they have been upto the mark in this tournament, with a convincing goal less draw against Brazil in the Group stages & a fantastic 3-1 victory over much fancied Croatia. Rafael Marquez has been inspirational & Javier Hernandez has added bite in attack along with Peralta, Aquino, & Herrera. Defense has been very organised with Guardado, Salcido & Rodriguez while goalkeeper Ochoa has been simply outstanding, especially against a marauding Brazilian attack.... he saved some absolute stunners in that match & if he even maintains 70% of that performance, Netherlands may well be in trouble to score. Statistically, the two teams have met each other six times till now & Netherlands have won three & Mexico have prevailed twice, with one draw.
Predicted scoreline : 2-1 for Netherlands on popular observations, though I still believe Mexico may pull this one as one of the major upsets of this tournament.

Costa Rica vs Greece :
This should be a relatively easy draw for Costa Rica & they should prevail over Greece. Costa Rica topped the Group of Death, beating Italy & Uruguay convincingly & drew against England. For a team that seemed doomed in this group against such stupendous rivals at the beginning of the tournament, the Costa Ricans were outstanding. They played without fear & surprised a lot of pre tournament predictions. They used their Latin American flair to breeze into the knock out stages & made the best of the playing conditions. Ruiz, Campbell, Borges, Tejeda, Urena have been revelation upfront, while Gamboa, Junior Diaz, Miller, Duarte have been composed in defence & Navas has been assured in goal. They have enough motivation & playing conditions in their favour to move ahead.
Greece, on the other hand just pipped Ivory Coast 2-1 in their last match with the winning goal coming in injury time, to qualify. They have not looked convincing & the humid playing conditions do not help their cause. They have players like Samaras, Maniatis, Kone who could make a difference, but they lack the firepower to go beyond this. In fact they are the surprise entry into the knockout stage.
Predicted scoreline : 2-0 for Costa Rica

France vs Nigeria :
France has been fabulous in the group stages till the last match against Ecuador, which they dew goal less. Karim Benzema has been flowing with 3 goals to his credit till now & they decimated Honduras & Switzerland. The team has been playing as an unit & many see them as potential contenders for the Cup. Players like Pogba, Giroud, Matuidi along with Benzema are a formidable bunch upfront & Sagna, Sakho, Evra, Digne lend solidity to defence with Lloris manning the goal. However, I debate the popular assessments of the leading sports columnists. The French have been in a relatively easy group & they stumbled to a draw against the only proper Latin American team, Ecuador. I suspect, in the knock out stages they will falter. In European conditions or cooler places, this team is certainly capable of beating the best, but in the sapping conditions of Brazil, they will find going tough, especially against a tropical country like Nigeria.
Known as the Super Eagles, Nigeria is a tough team & they qualified from Group F with a formidable performance against favourites Argentina. Their goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama has been superb under the bar & he could thwart the best of the attacks. In attack Musa has been outstanding & blistering. He would be ably assisted by Babatunde, Emenike, Uchebo, Nwofor & Mikel....they are actually a very well knit team.
On their day, they are capable of a upset & if they keep their tempers & emotions in control, they would be a handful against the French Les Bleus. Incidentally the two teams have played against each other only once & Nigeria won.
Predicted scoreline : 2-1 for Nigeria.

Germany vs Algeria :
Germany is the team to beat in this World Cup. Under the coaching of Joachim Low, they have come together as a wonderful team, which has extremely good balance upfront, midfield & defense. They crushed Portugal in their inaugural match 4-0 & then drew 2-2 against a formidable Ghana before pipping USA 1-0. Players like Mueller, already leading the score sheet, Schurrle, Podolski, Kroos, Klose all can score at will..... midfield is dictated by Bastian Schweinsteiger, Khedira & playmaker Ozil,.... defense is lead by skipper Lahm, Hummels, Mertesacker, Boeteng, Howedes & then in goal is the ever dependable Neuer. It indeed is a fabulous line up of a Champion team at their clinical best. They should have little sweat in marauding over Algeria. They are the only European team that has looked in complete control of the playing conditions.
Algeria were 2nd in Group H & have done well to move into the knock out stages for the first time. However, they face Germany & can only play for pride, with nothing at all to lose.
Predicted scoreline : 3-0 for Germany

Argentina vs Switzerland :
This would be one of the easier matches for Argentina. They have enjoyed an easy Group & now face Switzerland, who would have a tough time containing the Latin American giants.
Argentina have won all their Group matches thanks to the little Master Lionel Messi. His magical goals have lit up the World Cup & inspired the team to move into the round of 16. He has been fabulous with his free kicks & sudden dummies on top of the box & the team looks composed under his leadership. De Maria, Aguero, Gago, Biglia all have looked sharp upfront & middle, though Higuain looks a little out of sorts in this line up. Zabaleta, Fernandez, Garay, Rojo are taking good care of the defense along with Romero under the bar. Then there are Demichelis, Palacio, Lavezzi who are sprightly in the bench. Its a strong outfit no doubt, but still looks very heavily dependent on Messi magic & that could well falter them ahead. Also Aguero's injury at this stage will also hurt the team's attacking plans.
Switzerland have been decent in their performance & have qualified by beating Honduras 3-0 in their last match to pip Ecuador, whom also they defeated 2-1. In fact they scored two goals against France as well, though the lost 2-5 in the match. So they have been quite up to scoring at will. Shaqiri got a hattrick against Honduras & is looking to play freely. Xhaka, Mehmedi, Drmic, all are looking sharp upfront, though their defense is of concern. They will have to up the ante & play out of their skins to stop Messi & Co.... looks an extremely tough order.
Predicted scoreline : 2-1 for Argentina

Belgium vs USA : 
This will be a battle of equals amongst minnows of this world Cup. Belgium has been touted the dark horse & they have done well to top Group H with three wins. They have some top quality players who play in the Premier League..... Hazard, Origi, Chadli, Dembele, Lukaku, Fellaini, upfront putting pressure on the opposition & Buyten, Kompany, Vermaelen, managing the back, with Courtois cool under the bar. The team has been solid & low key, which augurs well for them & they have a relatively easier opponent in USA to compete.
USA on the other hand have come up from a tough Group where Portugal was the more fancied team to qualify, who lost out on eventual goal difference. Under the coaching of Klinsmann, they are a sprightly bunch of players. Dempsey has been brilliant, having scored the fastest goal of the tournament thus far, in 29 seconds of the match against Ghana, & he has been ably assisted by Bradley, Zusi, Jones & Beckerman & Howard has been good under the bar. They should have won the game against Portugal, but for the injury time heading equaliser by Varela from a Ronaldo pass.
This should be a keen contest, as both teams are almost equals in capability & stars. I am looking forward to how Klinsmann plots this to win, though Belgium coach Wilmots would have chalked his counter plans as well.
Predicted scoreline : 2-1 for Belgium, though USA might cause an upset, if they can get an early goal.

The tournament has already seen some major upsets in the Group stages & I believe a couple of more would happen in the round of 16.

Looking forward to some Classico ahead ..... so much to bear the glare of the TV through midnight & beyond.... worth every bit for sure.....