Now that the dust has settled, and the excitement of the World Cup has started to wear off a bit, it is time for the knockout phase of the World Cup.
Some early surprises occurred already as Argentina nearly flamed out of the tournament altogether and Germany fell from grace.
In the group stages, we saw powerhouse countries sleepwalk their way to this point, for the most part. Now, playing without a sense of urgency can be costly. Now, games can no longer finish in a tie as penalty kicks will be awarded at the conclusion of a match.
We have eight matchups with eight burning questions to help predict the chaotic experience we are all set to witness.
1. Does Lionel Messi deserve the blame in what has been an underwhelming showing for both he and Argentina this World Cup?
Townes: Yes, he deserves a good portion of the blame. Messi nearly retired from Argentina altogether a few years back as the pressure seemed to be too much for him. I think he gets frustrated with his team especially being spoiled with Barcelona. He needs to adapt, cater to his guys, and have faith that they will perform well.
France might be four years away from being what Germany once was as Argentina will win a close one.
Al-Kazzaz: Messi doesn’t deserve all the blame because he shouldn’t have to carry the team on his back. But when he does miss a crucial penalty, he has nobody to blame but himself. It’s obvious he doesn’t do well under pressure. He needs the help and support of his teammates. One player can’t win the World Cup for his country on his own. It’s a team effort.
France pulls through with the use of their young and talented midfield and attack to wear down Argentina’s defense. No excuses for Les Bleus.
2. Will Portugal beat Uruguay to set up a potential game between Messi and Ronaldo in the quarterfinals?
Townes: NO. Diego Godin knows Cristiano Ronaldo all too well, so it should be a chess match between these two world-class players. In the end, I think Uruguay is too strong on defense for CR7. Edinson Cavani or Luis Suarez will knock in a goal or two. Fans will have to wait for club play for another Messi-Ronaldo showdown.
Al-Kazzaz: No. Uruguay is loaded with talent and they’re ready for anything. If it turns out to be Uruguay versus a one-man army in Cristiano Ronaldo, then Uruguay will be able to take care of business. Portugal’s defense will have their hands full with Uruguay’s attackers. Uruguay’s got strong chemistry and mentality.
3. What will be the deciding factor in the Russia-Spain bout?
Townes: Keep an eye on both Igor Akinfeev and David de Gea. They have struggled, but de Gea only has ONE save. Russia’s Denis Cheryshev and Artem Dzyuba (five goals combined) and Spain’s Diego Costa (three goals) will be like sharks in the water at the first drop of blood.
Russia will win a shocker here as Spain has more questions than answers, especially in their backline.
Al-Kazzaz: Spain’s got talent and experience, but they’re not as strong as we think they are. Finishing the group with one win and two draws proved it.
Sergio Ramos, Diego Costa, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, and Isco can’t take Russia lightly and they all need to do their part. Russia’s Denis Cheryshev and Artem Dzyuba are worthy of challenging a solid Spanish defense.
Spain gets the job done courtesy of a late goal by Iniesta. Russia plays solid defense, but due to their inability to score, the defense gets too tired and Iniesta takes advantage.
4. Who are some key players to watch in the Croatia versus Denmark matchup?
Townes: Denmark’s Kasper Schmeichel quietly leads all goalies in save percentage (93.3 percent) and is second in saves (14). For Croatia, it starts and ends with seasoned veterans Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic who have both scored a combined three goals.
Schmeichel is lethal, but with Modric and Rakitic setting up Mario Mandzukic and Ante Rebic, two more players to be weary of, it will be a matter of time before they score and move on to the quarterfinals.
Al-Kazzaz: Denmark’s Christian Eriksen is a valuable asset although he only scored one goal in the group stage. Obviously, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic are Croatia’s most valuable assets due to their combined three goals in the Group stage.
Croatia’s midfield dominates and wears out the Danish defense, and they take advantage by scoring goals and not allowing Denmark to score on them. Croatia’s a very focused team and they don’t let their guard down.
5. Is it, now, Brazil’s World Cup to lose with Germany no longer in the mix or does Mexico knock out another powerhouse country?
Townes: Mexico has to capitalize up front with scoring chances. They left a lot of points on the table against Germany. We know Guillermo Ochoa could block a rock being thrown into an ocean.
Brazil does not look as good as they did four years ago. They should be one of the favorites by default and in the end I think Neymar gets them past a feisty Mexican squad.
Al-Kazzaz: Brazil did win their group, but they got off to a very disappointing draw against Switzerland and they just barely escaped Costa Rica. Brazil’s certainly loaded but we haven’t seen the best of them yet. Brazil has to work as a team and not rely solely on Neymar.
Mexico’s certainly capable of challenging Brazil. They did that four years ago and battled them to a draw. Guillermo Ochoa’s 17 saves are the most in the tournament. Mexico needs to do what they did against Germany which is counterattack and make it count. In other words, create a chance and SCORE. And, of course, inflict pressure and wear down the Brazilians.
6. What are three keys to another Japan upset as they face off against Belgium?
Townes: Japan should hope for a red card, a disengaged Belgian squad, and stellar play from Keisuke Honda. One of those things are controllable on the part of the Japanese. Belgium should steamroll this team as they are the top scoring team in the tournament with nine goals total.
Al-Kazzaz: Japan needs concentration, solid defense, and score.
Belgium’s attack is a terrorizing threat so Japan has to come up with effective defensive tactics. If Japan can focus and stay focused they’ll be able to read the Belgian defense and possibly launch some counterattacks.
Belgium will win. They won’t allow themselves to be upset by a team that is nowhere near their level. No excuses for Belgium.
7. Is Switzerland the best kept secret, thus far, in this tournament?
Townes: I have the Swiss winning first and foremost. Xherdan Shaqiri gets all of the pub as a lethal attacker, but Switzerland showed some promising qualities against Brazil.
Yann Sommer is only six feet in height, but he is top five in saves (10). Valon Behrami leads a very physical group of defenders that features speedster Ricardo Rodriguez. Granit Xhaka helps Behrami control the midfield, but he is more offensive-minded.
Al-Kazzaz: Switzerland’s run in the Group stage didn’t go so well, but they did manage to make into the knockouts meaning they have ways of finishing the job. They battled Brazil to a tie, which has to be considered a victory for them. They’ve certainly got the concentration, but they do make some mistakes as an own goal cost them a win in their final group game.
Sweden takes care of business. Sweden overcame odds and won their group for the first time since 1958. Sweden will score goals and practically beat the Swiss defense to a pulp.
8. Which team could be feeling the pressure to win more from their supporters between England and Colombia?
Townes: I think the pressure is greater in regards to Colombia. This team went to the quarterfinals four years ago. They, seemingly, have an easier path to the big game on July 15 as Brazil, France, Belgium, Uruguay, and Argentina are on the other side of the bracket.
However, I have England winning this game as Harry Kane is the tournament’s top scorer, thus far, with five goals. Colombia’s top scorer is a defender, Yerry Mina, with two goals.
Al-Kazzaz: Without a doubt, the pressure is on Colombia. Especially due to their superstar James Rodriguez injured again as it was reported he aggravated his calf injury. Colombia’s loaded with talent and it’ll take some team chemistry and mentality to get the job done.
England pulls through, but in a hard-fought effort as Colombia’s defense will inflict pressure and will frustrate them. In England’s case, they’ll need to work together as Kane will not be able to do it all on his own.