The ongoing 2014 FIFA World Cup has just about had it all – premature exits by super powers, plucky performances by upstarts, and surprises and suspense in oodles. Now, as we continue careening towards a rip-roaring climax, here’s my ranking of the eight teams which survived and advanced from the “Sensational Sixteen” stage to duke it out in the “Exciting Eight”.
After pumping four goals past Portuguese custodian Rui Patricio in their first game (three of which were converted by top marksman Thomas Muller), the Germans have relatively struggled to find the net in their next three. (They’ve netted five while conceding three.) These “meager” returns were generated against teams which largely looked to hit them on the counter though. The US, in particular, which enjoyed just 37% possession, was clearly content to “park the bus” and play for a draw with a second round ticket likely just a point away. The bigger concern should really be the play of the defensive back four, which has clearly been disconcerted by the power and pace exhibited by the likes of Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan and Algeria’s Islam Slimani on occasion.
However, I’ve still got them ranked No. 1 because they have as many bases covered as any other team. They also have more World Cup experience on their roster than anyone else. If that awesome midfield keeps possessing the ball and Muller keeps scoring, that could be good enough to paper over the defensive cracks.
Midfielder James Rodriguez is right there in the discussion with the likes of Lionel Messi and Neymar when one thinks about the tournament’s best player thus far. However, unlike Messi and Neymar, he’s been operating in a very balanced team. When he looks to the right, he typically sees winger Juan Cuadrado, who has a tournament-leading four assists, terrorizing wide defenders with his mesmerizing mazy dribbles. When he looks behind, he usually catches sight of veteran centre-half Mario Yepes, who’s seemingly been around since the time of the California Gold Rush, and partner Cristian Zapata subduing any attackers who might’ve managed to get by the holding midfield duo of Abel Aguilar and Carlos Sanchez. When one adds the industry of the seemingly tireless fullback pairing of Juan Zuniga and Pablo Armero to the mix, you immediately start seeing why they’ll have an excellent chance of beating Brazil in the quarters. They need only believe, Jose Pekerman. They need only believe.
A copious amount of Messi magic has seen La Albiceleste post four wins from their four starts. Every one of the diminutive talisman’s four goals – including his dramatic game-winning strike against Iran – has been desperately needed by the Argentines, who’ve largely failed to live up to pre-tournament expectations of being an offensive juggernaut. They’ll definitely need greater contributions in the attacking third from the likes of Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero to complement the efforts of Messi and Angel di Maria when they face Belgium. They’ll also need their “flex defense”, which has bent much but not yet broken, to keep holding up. A more effective job of tracking midfield runners will also be required against Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Marouane Fellaini, and co.
As a fan of the Dutch, the most refreshing thing about this World Cup campaign has been the fact that someone has seemingly stepped up and answered the bell on every occasion on which the need has arisen. In the first match against dethroned champs Spain, it was ace hitman Robin van Persie and his tide-turning header that did the trick. Memphis Depay broke the deadlock against Australia. Leroy Fer scored the game winner for the team to top Group B – and avoid Brazil. Meanwhile, in the Round of 16 game against Mexico, it was the hitherto invisible Wesley Sneijder who pulled us back from the brink with a thunderous equalizer. Once again, someone will need to step up and fill the huge void that has been left by midfield destroyer Nigel de Jong’s injury-induced exit from the tournament. On the evidence of what I’ve seen so far, I’m betting that somebody – more than likely Daley Blind – will again answer the bell. Clockwork Orange to the fore!
The French have only conceded two goals in the World Cup thus far. Both of these came in “garbage time” against the Swiss in their second match, which they ended up winning by a score of 5-2. This solidity at the back has been largely guaranteed by a back four that blends youth, experience, intelligence, and athleticism almost perfectly. They’ve ensured that opponents have only forced eight saves out of Hugo Lloris in four matches so far. However, they’ve been aided in no small part by the ball-winning capabilities of the indefatigable Blaise Matuidi, Paul Pogba, and Yohan Cabaye in midfield. They’ve also done an excellent job of linking with Mathieu Valbuena to support Karim Benzema and Olivier Giroud when the 4-4-2 has been deployed. The athleticism of their midfield will give them a chance against every team that they’ll face going forward – including the mighty Germans.
A minor 0-0 hiccup against Mexico aside, Brazil’s progression to the second stage was rather routine. They got over the early nerves to beat a Mario Madzukic-less Croatia. They then did everything but score against the Mexicans, before throttling a hopelessly inept Cameroonian outfit to make progress as winners of their group. However, their less than sterling showing against a pugnacious Chilean side in Belo Horizonte a couple days ago served as a reminder of the gulf in creativity that exists between this iteration of A Selecao and many of those that have gone before it. Maybe Luiz Felipe Scolari did get the artisan-artist mix wrong when composing the squad after all. The fitness cloud hanging over star Neymar, who is one of the few dynamic attacking players in the squad, won’t help matters any either. I still get the feeling that they’ll be a very tough out though.
Eden Hazard hasn’t shone in the way that I expected him to. Neither has powerful striker Romelu Lukaku, who’s actually spent more time ensconced on the bench than he has on the field bullying opposing centre-halves. However, the “Red Devils” have still managed to proceed rather serenely to this stage of the game. Their defense, which has been expertly marshalled by captain Vincent Kompany, hasn’t really been put under too much stress by a succession of sputtering attacks. However, much sterner tests lie ahead. Tests that will require the outstanding Timo Courtois to show why he’s so highly rated. Tests, also, that will demand more incisiveness from the talented Kevin de Bruyne, Dries Mertens, and Divock Origi, who’ve been a bit too profligate with their goalscoring opportunities to date. They’ll probably also need Marouane Fellaini to combine with his bro in the ‘fro, Axel Witsel, to provide a bit more protection for the backline and Courtois.
8. Costa Rica
Costa Rica built its World Cup qualifying campaign on a stingy defense that surrendered just seven goals in 10 games during the hexagonal. In four games at the tournament so far, this tight defense has continued to excel by limiting their oppponets to just two goals – one of which was conceded with them playing a man short. On the other hand, they’ve only managed five goals. Three of these were scored in their first match against Uruguay. From here on in, the likes of Celso Borges and Christian Bolanos will have to do a bit more to create chances for Bryan Ruiz and the speedy Joel Campbell to latch onto. After all, it’s goals that ultimately win matches.
And the winners are…
I’ve got Germany edging out France, Colombia getting the better of Brazil, and the Netherlands ending Costa Rica’s fairytale run. I really think that Argentina-Belgium could go either way, but I’m leaning towards La Albiceleste (because I picked them in a fantasy competition). I wouldn’t be surprised if the Belgians ousted their more fancied South American opponents though.
Enjoy the action!