Saturday, 28 June 2014

#WorldCup knockouts

With the sixteen best teams of the tournament so far moving into the knockout stages of the World Cup, things are getting pretty interesting now.  So, which team is going to go the furthest?  Here are my thoughts on who to watch…

I sadly wasn't able to watch every single group match (with the kickoff times being in the evenings, I've often found I'm working when the games begin), but I have seen as many as I possibly can, and tried to catch up on other matches later, either by recording them or watching online.  The four sides which impressed me the most during the group stages were: Germany, Chile, France and the Netherlands.

Germany have been tipped to go far in this competition already.  They have a wealth of talent in all areas of the pitch, and some very technically gifted players; the one area in which they might be said to be lacking is in central attack, often lining up without a bona fide centre forward - but in veteran striker Miroslav Klose, they have a forward player already proven time and time again at the highest level available to bring on, should they need him.

The Germans' dismantling of Portugal 4-0 in their opening group game was a statement of intent from them, and they definitely have the quality in their squad to back that up.

Chile are maybe not the team that springs immediately to mind when one thinks of South American football, but they have been hugely impressive throughout their World Cup campaign so far.  The Chileans play an intensely high-tempo style of football with passion and fervour - current world Champions Spain looked worn out and punch-drunk after barely half-an-hour in their recent game against Chile, playing with an air of wearied resignation instead of their usual incisive passing game.

Tirelessly hardworking, Chile look utterly fearless both with and within the ball, refusing to be intimidated even by such illustrious opponents as Spain - but they have real quality, too.  Barcelona forward Alexis S├ínchez is always a threat in front of goal, whilst Eduardo Vargas' goal against Spain to put Chile 1-0 up has, for me, been one of the highlights of the entire tournament, so far.  A Round Of 16 clash against hosts Brazil this afternoon will be a stern test, but I don't expect Chile to be daunted by this prospect at all.

France are an unusual choice, perhaps.  They may have had a relatively 'easy' group out of which to get, but they way they have set about that has left no one in any doubt that this is a squad who can really play.  I think lots of people wondered how they would fare without star midfielders Franck Ribery of Bayern Munich (injured before the World Cup) and Manchester City's Samir Nasri (controversially left out by manager Didier Deschamps), but the French have really gelled as a team, and look very much at ease on the ball, working as a single unit to cut teams open as they push forward.

In Karim Benzema and Olivier Giroud, France have strong attacking talent in their squad, and with players like Mathieu Valbueno and Yohan Cabaye in midfield, they won't be short of service either.  I don't think France are anybody's favourite to win the tournament, but I wouldn't be surprised to see them reach the semi-finals, and their relatively young squad will undoubtedly be a force to reckon with in years to come.

Having provided the first (and still, so far, the largest) upset of this World Cup in coming from behind to beat holders Spain 5-1, the Netherlands established themselves as the tournament's official "dark horses" pretty early on.  Their fast, counter-attacking style of play has been hugely effective for them - but they've also shown themselves capable of hunting down a game when they go behind, and having the resilience to get themselves back into contention.

In Arjen Robben, the Dutch have a very special player indeed - someone with pace and technique, but also with the intuition and awareness of the game to be able to create something out of nothing.  Robben seems able to find space where there seemingly is none, and when the ball falls to him in the box, you feel something exciting is bound to happen.  A Round Of 16 match against Mexico is no easy task, but I expect the Netherlands to rise to the challenge, as they have done each time so far.

So, is the overall winner of this World Cup going to be one of these four teams, then?  Well, they all have a chance, for sure…  But, as is so often the way, things aren't quite that simple!

Plenty of discussion in the run up to this tournament centred around the fact that European teams don't win World Cups held in South America - and yet, three of the four teams I have picked are European sides!  Something doesn't add up here.  Well, whilst they may not have stunned us to quite the same extent during the group matches, only a fool would write off South American giants Brazil and Argentina at this juncture.

Brazil have world-famous footballing pedigree, and plenty of talent in their squad - including Barcelona forward Neymar, and Paris Saint-Germain defender Thiago Silva.  Perhaps even more significantly, though, they are playing on their home turf, in the universally recognised home of football, in front of their own adoring fans.  You can never discount Brazil, and even if they may not have the same strength of squad as, say, Germany, they are still an extremely good side - and spurred on by a passionate and exuberant home crowd, you can't say it would exactly be a surprise to see them still there or thereabouts as we move towards the business end of the tournament.

Argentina are another South American team with a proud history - but also another who didn't exactly set the world alight during their group games.  In their opening game against Bosnia and Herzegovina, had it not been for a very unfortunate Bosnian own-goal in the opening few minutes of the game, the first half would've been entirely dominated by the Bosnians, with Argentina on the ropes for large spells of the play.

However, Argentina can always rely on the truly remarkable Lionel Messi to dig them out of a hole - as he has done already, on a couple of occasions.  The rest of the Argentinian squad are hardly Sunday League players, but so far it has only Messi been who's really shone at this tournament; his mercurial touch may well be the difference for Argentina this time around - and like Brazil, it will hardly be surprising to see them progressing further and further through the World Cup.

So, there we have it.  Based on what I have seen so far, it is my belief that the winners of the 2014 World Cup will come from one of the six teams I have listed above.  However, these are purely my own thoughts and feelings about the matches I have watched, and should not be taken as anything more; please don't remortgage your house in order to place the entire value as a bet on one of these teams, just because of what I have written!  I can take no responsibility for any losses incurred as a consequence of such folly.

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