So as we take two days break from football before the quarter finals start on Friday, what about those last 16 games? Talk about tense! If there was a pattern, it was the favourites struggling against less fancied opponents, looking very nervous, but redeeming themselves as the games wore on, when their higher skill levels and maybe fitness eventually told. But only just. There is a real sense that teams are becoming more evenly matched. No team has been consistently outstanding; few teams have been completely outplayed. There have been some brilliant games and superb individual performances, but there really is no clear favourite as we go into the last eight.
Spain really must be kicking themselves. If they had sneaked through the group, they could easily have gone all the way. And even England: as I watched the engrossing clash between Belgium and USA last night I thought, we could beat either of these teams. Ah, that if only….
The nerviest game of all, of course, was Brazil v Chile. And a good game it was too. Blimey, even the national anthems were a competition. I have never seen David Luiz so pumped up – certainly not at Chelsea. Chile were impressive, although I didn’t like the way they tried to take Neymar out of the game early on. The penalty shoot out was gruesome, though there was poetic justice in Neymar winning the game with Brazil’s fifth penalty. But what if he’d missed and Chile had won? I shudder to think what would have happened to the Brazilian nation.
They’ve got Colombia next, who despatched Uruguay minus Suarez fairly easily. With rising star, James Rodriguez, scoring the wonder goal of the tournament. Control-swivel-volley. Brilliant. They will give Brazil a very hard time. There is no foregone conclusion.
Brazil came closest to losing it, but Argentina only beat Switzerland with three minutes of extra time left. A scrappy game, but in the end a magical dribble by Messi – who else? – opened up the Swiss defence and Angel di Maria swept the ball in from the right.
Germany looked incredibly nervous in the first half against Algeria. Passes weren’t sticking and the Algerians had their defence on the rack. But as the game progressed they asserted themselves. The finishing wasn’t great, so it took extra time to make the break. Holland too, wobbled badly, against Mexico. 1-0 down until the last few minutes, they kept going and scored two late goals, the winner inevitably a penalty secured by a Robben div…. er, break, halted by a rash tackle. Robben has been one of the best players of the tournament. His pace and incisiveness down the right has been Holland’s biggest asset. They now have Costa Rica in the quarters, after the Central American team beat Greece in a penalty shoot out, with five perfect penalties. Nerves of steel. You’d expect Holland to beat them, but only if they play at the top of their game.
France too started badly, against Nigeria. But their class told in the second half, especially after Antoine Griezmann came on for Olivier Giroud and injected real pace down the left, to complement Valbuena’s thrust from the right. Could France be the team that takes the World Cup by storm? I’m still not sure – they still haven’t played a really difficult opponent. They’ve got one next though – Germany. It’s a close call, but my money will be on the Germans.
Belgium left it until extra time against the USA. The win looked inevitable as USA seemed to run out of legs, but after Belgium went 2-0 up, the Americans revived, got one back and looked like they could take it to penalties. They just lack a world class striker. The likes of Dempsey give their all, but they are not quite at the top level. I’m sure it will happen as more and more Americans get into the game.
I can’t see Belgium getting past Argentina. Messi will come up with something when it matters.
So I’m taking Brazil, Argentina, Holland and Germany to reach the semis. Nothing very original in that, I know. Most at risk? Brazil against Colombia and maybe Germany against France.
But as we reach the final stages, I think class will tell. Barring injury, Neymar and Messi, Robben and Muller will decide where the World Cup is heading.