- France and Brazil remain on course for the semi-finals
- Argentina are more dysfunctional than their opponents
- Mexico can be dismissed as serious contenders
The novelty and exuberance of the World Cup has led people to hailing this year’s tournament in Russia as something special, but without a superb second phase then this edition of the FIFA showpiece will soon fade from the memory.
Yes, we’ve had drama and great goals. Fortunately, we have also had a classic match and some very absorbing encounters. But it’s really only what happens from now on that will determine whether Russia 2018 will stand the test of time.
Happily, there are some intriguing second round matches to whet the appetite. France v. Argentina, Uruguay v. Portugal, and Brazil v. Mexico are all first class knockout games to savour. They are also all in the same half of the draw, which more or less ensures blockbuster games all the way to the final.
Argentina have survived a moderate group by the skin of their teeth, but must now confront a France team that has progressed under the radar. Lionel Messi’s goal against Nigeria was surely the best of this tournament to date, but he’ll need to produce something similar if the South Americans are to trouble a French team that looks far too strong – at least on paper.
Didier Deschamps has never really convinced as coach, but his team look stronger across the spine than Argentina do. France has the better goalkeeper, better defence, and better midfield. Its forward line is not so inferior to Argentina’s to be materially disadvantaged.
Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe are more reliable than Gonzalo Higuain and whatever version of Sergio Aguero gets a run out. Basically, it’s all on Messi, because nobody can rely on Angel Di Maria and Paulo Dybala will hardly feature.
On balance, the chaos and hysteria of Argentina seems far more dysfunctional than whatever the French can hamper themselves with this year. If Deschamps underwhelms, how does one judge Jorge Sampaoli? Hardly favourably. Barring a Messi supershow – which you can never rule out – France should progress.
Whether they will face Portugal or Uruguay is anybody’s guess. There won’t be much in this clash of two well-drilled sides. If it goes to penalties, nobody will be surprised. Cristiano Ronaldo could, once more, be the difference.
Brazil and Belgium are warm favourites to meet in the last eight, with Mexico and Japan no match for their more illustrious opponents. The Mexicans, lauded for their evisceration of Germany, must now be reassessed for two reasons.
Firstly, we now know just how shambolic the outgoing champions were. That 1-0 win in Moscow looks less impressive by the day. Secondly, the Mexicans absolutely imploded when the heat was on against the moderate but admirable Swedes. Such fragility shows that they can no longer be taken seriously as dark horses. Neymar, who is not playing well, should fill his boots in a match where the Mexican inferiority complex is likely to be decisive.
In the so-called weaker section of the draw, Spain and Croatia look the form horses. However, they are scheduled to meet in the quarter-finals if they see off the Russians and Danes. That means opportunity knocks for Colombia, England, Sweden, and Switzerland.
If James Rodriguez is fit, Colombia will be the first real test of the hyped English who, to date, have played two Sunday morning league teams and a Belgian second string. The South Americans have the class to progress where they would be fancied to win against whichever unfashionable Europeans they meet.
A Colombia versus Croatia semi-final is not impossible, but Spain really should make the final from this half if they can cut out the defensive lapses that have plagued their tournament. Yet, it’s hard to really get behind the Iberians. There is a touch of the Germanys about them – lots of constipated possession and a hint of sated arrogance. The Russians really have nothing to lose.