- France look too strong for a Cavani-shorn Uruguay
- Brazil are far more of a team than Belgium
- England have enough talent to shade redoubtable Sweden
- Croatia are better than Russia – but prone to collapse
This has been a dramatic World Cup, but also one of poor quality. The second round produced one classic match, two gripping contests, and five mediocre to grim encounters that are, largely, best forgotten.
First, to the classic. France’s 4-3 win over Argentina was marvellous entertainment. Kylian Mbappe announced himself to the world – or at least to those who rarely watch Paris Saint-Germain – with a swashbuckling performance that tore a swathe through Argentina’s defensive rabble.
His dynamic run that resulted in the early penalty converted by Antoine Griezmann was reminiscent of the great Brazilian Ronaldo – or a stampeding herd of wildebeest. Unstoppable – except by foul means.
France’s comeback from 2-1 down was impressive, but questions need to be asked about how they found themselves behind in the first place. This was a desperately poor Argentinian team, the worst I can remember. France, who had dominated the first half without killing off the South Americans, only woke up when in danger.
Now they have the momentum for the quarter final against a Uruguayan side who were very impressive in seeing off Portugal. Edinson Cavani’s goals were things of beauty, but they conceded sloppily from a corner despite having a reputation for defensive excellence.
If Mbappe’s PSG team-mate Cavani is unable to take his place against the French, Uruguay are probably one foot out the exit door as he has looked their only in-form striker. Luis Suarez is woefully off his game, though his assist for the first goal against the Portuguese was wonderful.
The third very watchable second round game featured Roberto Martinez’s Jekyll and Hyde Belgium coming back from the dead against a game, but deeply naive, Japan. The former Everton manager praised his team’s resolve, but surely they should never have needed such reserves of steel to get over this moderate hurdle.
Kevin De Bruyne is playing badly, sulking his way through the tournament. He was at fault for one of the Japanese goals, ambling back into a defensive midfield position to admire his opponent’s mastery from distance. His attitude stinks and the feeling is that Belgium are very much less than the sum of their parts.
Martinez doesn’t help. His ridiculously sunny disposition will hardly do anything other than drive the likes of De Bruyne up the wall. Brazil, easy winners against predictable Mexico, will probably see them off with ease in their quarter final.
The South Americans look balanced but unspectacular. Unlike Belgium, they appear to be a team – with Neymar as the selfish individualist who may or may not do something special. Belgium, by contrast, seem to be a collection of individuals.
The so-called “weaker” half of the draw confirmed its status with four drudge matches in the last 16. Three games produced three 1-1 draws – all decided on penalties. There is really nothing between these teams.
England finally overcame Colombia, but were unimpressive in doing so. Without James Rodriguez, the Colombians decided to kick their opponents and ran into a team that cleverly played them at their own unedifying game.
Sweden will face England in Samara after a nondescript 1-0 win over Switzerland. That could be another penalty shoot-out – which would be a worry for the English. Only Argentina in 1990 have won two penalty competitions in the same World Cup and the vast majority of teams who have won shoot-outs at the World Cup have been eliminated in the very next round.
For all that, the Swedes seem very limited. True, they have mixed it successfully with Holland, France, Italy, and Germany in this edition of the World Cup, and they are well organised, but one suspects the English have that little bit more talent – even if it hasn’t really fired.
Russia’s surprise defeat of a Spanish team playing from memory means that Croatia, deeply ordinary in finally getting by game Denmark, will face an entire nation for a place in the last four. The Balkan team are a far more talented side than the hosts, but they’ve been known to falter when expected to prosper.
All in all, France, Brazil, England, and Russia seem to have the fabled momentum to propel themselves into the semi-finals. It wouldn’t be amazing if the two matches in the less celebrated half went to penalties again, but the French and Brazilians still look the class of the field. Only a fit Cavani stands in the way of an epic confrontation next week between PSG colleagues Mbappe and Neymar, with the winner likely to be crowned world champion.