So here goes – The Round of 16 is upon us – no second chances now, its win or be gone – preview and predictions for Saturday and Sundays matches as follows:-
FRANCE v ARGENTINA – 30th June – Kazan
France as expected, all the way back in December, once the draw was made topped Group C. They did it in workmanlike fashion, 3 goals scored 1 against. They looked solid, but a times, especially against Australia and Peru they had a tendency to lack concentration which exposed their defence and better teams could have taken advantage. Due to no danger to either teams qualifications hopes the Denmark match turned into a glorified training session. You feel they are capable of a lot more, especially with the players at Deschamps disposal. One things for sure, at this stage there is no safety net, after 3 matches, team selection needs to be spot on or they may find themselves on the way back to France, in a not very good mood.
Argentina scraped through. A Lionel Messi inspired side rode a mini comeback from Nigeria and of all people it was centre back Marcus Rojo, who for whatever reason was in the middle of the 6 yard box to smash home the winner (with his weaker right foot) as if he was a seasoned striker. Reportedly the team is now being picked by the players to get the best out of Messi with manager Jorge Sampaoli role just ceremonial one now. Being honest the South Americans have been poor this World Cup and are very lucky to still be in the competition, however sometimes it is how you finish and not how you started that means more in tournaments such as this. A dangerous team that on their day can beat anyone – but can they do it 4 times in row, because that is what it will take to be world champions. First stop Kazan and the French.
PREDICTION – WOWSERS!!!!!!! – What a game to start the Round of 16 fixtures. Whilst any team with the talents of Messi and Aguero cannot be taken lightly, let’s be honest Nigeria were massively naïve against Argentina and didn’t attack their weak link of defence enough, especially in the early stages. If France do not make the same mistake they will survive this test in my opinion, especially with the pace of Kylian MBappe set to cause mayhem for the Argentine defence if deployed properly. 3-1 to the French.
URUGUAY v PORTUGAL – 30th June – Sochi
Uruguay topped Group A with ease, whilst fortunate to beat Egypt in their first game with a late winner, they beat Saudi Arabia easily with the handbrake on, but showed their class to despatch the hosts 3-0 in their final group game. Without hitting their stride they look like a team that is going to be very difficult to beat marshalled by the imperious Diego Godin at the back, you note, zero goals conceded, and that’s not even mentioning Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani who have not hit their stride yet but have 3 goals between them.
Portugal have done what they do best, get the ball to Ronaldo and he tends to make things better. His hat-trick against Spain was the Real Madrid man at his finest, the bigger issue is the defence and lack of dynamism in their midfield. Whilst Portugal aren’t the easiest watch at times, the criticism they get at times for me is harsh. They are a small nation – with a population of less than 11 million, but they have a better record (especially this century) than countries who should be doing far better with their resources, they are European Champions after all, I can name at least one country who would love to have that tag, however it was won. It is clear they will have to improve but so would a lot of teams to win a World Cup and for me their biggest failing was not securing top spot hence avoiding the opposition they have to the face now.
PREDICTION – Uruguay to continue their upward trajectory whilst Portugal do seem stuck in a slight rut if Ronaldo is not firing. Another clean sheet bonus for the Uruguayans – 2-0 – Suarez and Cavani – who else.
SPAIN v RUSSIA – 1st July – Moscow
Spain have had a strange World Cup. Their manager sacked on the eve of the tournament, a superb performance against Portugal that on another day would have seen them victorious, a laboured but deserved win over Iran, then a fully undeserved VAR assisted (correctly) point versus Morocco. Their possession game has struggled when teams defend in numbers and it is no surprise that they have scored a lot more route one style goals with crosses or long balls. They will need to improve if they are going to go any further in this competition. Topping the group, more so because of Portugal’s failings could be the break they need.
The hosts Russia have been fantastic. They have exceeded expectation and getting to knockout phase will already have been seen as a success, though that wont stop them wanting to get further through the competition. Their 5-0 opening day victory over Saudi Arabia really set the tone and when Egypt were beaten in their second group game to secure qualification for the round of 16, the whole country rejoiced. Yes Uruguay beat them comfortably but they were down to 10 men for most of the game, but still looked dangerous going forward. A Russian team where hope was that they didn’t embarrass themselves or the country are now one that has nothing to lose, making them a dangerous team to face.
PREDICTION – Spain are clear favourites for this game, but it will not be easy. Russia will be spirited and cause a number of problems as the Spaniards have shown weaknesses in their game, but can they be exploited enough. Personally I think not, but it will take extra time. 1-1 after 90 minutes – Spain to win in extra time
Croatia v Denmark – 1st July – Nizhny Novgorod
Croatia have been outstanding this tournament and I doubt there would be much argument if they were described as the best team so far at World Cup 2018. They were sketchy in their opening match against Nigeria, eventually winning 2-0, but this was most definitely a match that in previous tournaments they wouldn’t have won. They have got stronger since, winning their final two group games, firstly a complete performance in a 0-3 drubbing of, at the time, group favourites Argentina, followed by a weakened team beating Iceland 1-2, 3 games 3 wins, you cannot ask for much more than that at this stage. Their midfield gets a lot of the plaudits, with players of the quality of Modric, Rakitic and Perisic.and rightly but the spine of the side is choc full of experience and know how with well over 200 caps between goalkeeper Subasic, centre backs, Lovren and Vida and tough as teak forward Mario Mandzukic. Add to this a line of younger players, this squad is going places and maybe just maybe that is very deep into this tournament.
Denmark, well what can I say, solid (thanks to captain Simon Kjaer) if not spectacular – well unless Christian Eriksen is on the ball and then anything is possible. It may sound harsh but I do not feel there is anything special about this team unless their talisman is up for it. Credit where credit is due though whilst not being that convincing they have made the last 16 undefeated, they have rode their luck especially in the first game in beating Peru after their South American opponents had been the better team and missed a penalty. Since then though they have not looked back they saw out the game against Australia 1-1 after being pegged back and put under pressure and then held out in their final match up against the French to get to this stage. What will we see now, to be fair I honestly cannot tell you, but if they want to progress it will most definitely depend on Eriksen.
PREDICTION – Croatia have a habit of performing poorly in the knockout rounds when they have been superb during the group stages, however their world class midfield will snuff out the Danes primary dangerman in Christian Eriksen and secure a comfortable victory, maybe one of many on the way to glory. 2-0 to the Croatians.
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