The group stage of the 2018 FIFA World Cup is in the books and what a group stage it was. Many pundits and analysts around the world are already calling this the most entertaining World Cup to date and it is easy to see why. With so many thrilling performances, upsets, and wonder goals in between, the game’s biggest stars have far from disappointed so far in Russia.
48 games have been played already and in what seems like the blink of an eye, the field of 32 has been cut in half. We now have the 16 best teams in the world set to battle it out for a chance to become world champions. Instead of just previewing the eight matchups per usual, I figured I would switch things up a bit by ranking each match by watchability. My watchability formula (which I’m whipping up as I type this sentence) consists of a combination of how each team has looked through the “eye test”, the players that are involved in each matchup, and lastly the storylines that go along with each match. Without further ado, let’s get into it.
8. Sweden v. Switzerland
In a group in which many people chose Germany and Mexico to cruise through, it was the Swedes who topped group F. After calmly defeating South Korea in their opening match, Sweden nearly grabbed a point against Germany, but that was spoiled by a 95th minute beauty from Toni Kroos. Sweden got the last laugh however, as they dominated Mexico in their final group stage match and now head to the safer side of the bracket having won their group. In their way of a quarterfinal appearance are the Swiss, who finished 2nd in group E behind the heavily favored Brazilians. Switzerland haven’t looked amazing and have made some mistakes, including giving up a penalty in extra time against Costa Rica and handing them a point, in a game where the Swiss looked like the better team. Nonetheless, they find themselves in the round of 16 for the second straight World Cup and have a legitimate shot at reaching the quarterfinals. The key in this one will be defense. Neither side has phenomenal defending, and as they say, defense wins championships. I don’t see either of these sides winning this tournament, but they can certainly lengthen their stay with solid defending. In the end, I think Sweden will ride off of their 3-0 victory against Mexico and sneak past the Swiss, 2-1.
7. Belgium v. Japan
The face of Romelu Lukaku says it all. The Belgians have been blessed with their golden generation of footballers and are seemingly putting them to good use. Following a 1-0 victory against a substitute English side, Belgium became one of only three teams to win all three of their group stage matches. They soared past Panama and Tunisia, outscoring them 8-2, and now find themselves with probably the easiest matchup in the round of 16. No offense to Japan, but this one won’t be a contest. Japan did earn their spot in the knockout stages, but not by points or goal differential. After they were all knotted up in every tie-breaking category with Senegal, their fate was decided by the newest form of tie-breaking, fair play points. What are fair play points you ask? Simply put, when a team receives a yellow or red card, points are deducted from their fair play pot. Japan were handed four yellow cards to Senegal’s six, therefore putting Japan through. I don’t think FIFA thought they would need to use this, but they have and some people aren’t happy about it. Regardless, I don’t see any way Japan wins this game and I see Belgium winning this one with ease, 3-0.
6. Colombia v. England
A match that has some intrigue, England and Colombia are two pretty evenly matched sides looking to book their tickets to the quarterfinals. The biggest question mark in this game will be the health of James Rodriguez. Columbia’s star man was forced to leave their final group stage match against Senegal due to a calf injury and is questionable for Tuesday’s match. With or without him, Columbia will have a tough time stopping England’s attack. England’s best 11 will be fully rested and ready to go following most of them getting rest in their final group stage match against Belgium. Led by Harry Kane, the Three Lions’ attack may end up being too much for the Colombians. England failed to make it out of their group in 2014, so this is already an improvement for them. But they know they have a talented enough group to maybe make a little run at this thing, and that’s why I see them winning this one. It will be close and we may even see extra time, but I see England pulling this one out 2-1.
5. Croatia v. Denmark
Quite possibly the biggest surprise to most people are the Croatians. They steamrolled through group D, winning all three of their matches while only allowing one goal. Their landmark victory came against group favorites Argentina, whom they defeated handedly 3-0. Led by the midfield duo of Luca Modric and Ivan Rakitic, the Croatians are a darkhorse to win the whole thing. In their way stands group C runner-up Denmark. The Danes have yet to play their best game and only scored two goals in the group stage. They have what it takes to take down Croatia, but can they put them away if they get the chance? The key to a Danish victory will be control of the midfield. On paper Croatia has the upper-hand, but if Denmark can stymie the flow of Croatia’s attack, they’ll have a real shot at taking them down. This should be a close one, but I give the slight edge to Croatia. They are on a high right now and I don’t see that ending just quite yet. Expect Denmark to hang in their early and often, but Croatia will assert their dominance and grab a 3-1 victory.
4. Spain v. Russia
Some of you may be surprised that this cracked the top four, but it really isn’t much of a shock. The Spaniards speak for themselves, as they came into the tournament as one of the favorites and now find themselves with a somewhat easy path to the semifinals. Not so fast say the hosts, however. After they shocked everyone with a 5-0 thrashing of Saudi Arabia in the opening match, the Russians booked their ticket to the knockout stages after their 3-1 victory over Egypt in the second group stage match. A loss to group winners Uruguay put the Russians in a tough spot against Spain, but they have one thing that none of the other 15 remaining squads have: home-field advantage. No matter who you are going up against, having the crowd in your favor can pay dividends. I don’t expect it to bother Spain too much, but if the crowd can start loud and get louder, and Russia can grab an early lead, the Spaniards may get flustered a bit. This should be a very exciting matchup, but could end up being a dud. It all depends on if the hosts show up or show out. My guess is they show up, but it won’t be enough to beat a superior Spanish side. 2-1 to the 2010 champions.
3. Uruguay v. Portugal
Portugal’s biggest question heading into this tournament was can they give Ronaldo some help. The answer seems to be no, as CR7 has scored 4 of Portugal’s 5 goals, and single handedly grabbed them a point against Spain. In order for Portugal to advance, they need to start facilitating the ball more, and not just to Ronaldo. Someone sooner or later is going to have to step up and score some goals. This may be the case, or Cristiano will continue to do what he’s done for years and put this team on his back. There’s no clear favorite in this one, but Uruguay are riding on the coattails of a perfect group stage record. They are the only side who have yet to give up a goal, as Fernando Muslera has virtually stood on his head when needed to. He will absolutely need to be at the top of his game against Portugal, as we all know Cristiano Ronaldo is not afraid to fire shots from anywhere. This one will need extra time and penalties in my eyes, and anything can happen when a game is decided from the spot. It’s tough to predict, but I want to see Portugal win this game, just to see some more of Ronaldo.
2. Brazil v. Mexico
Perennial favorites Brazil meet up with the questionable Mexicans in this round of 16 clash. Brazil took care of business in group E, winning two and drawing one, all while allowing just one goal in a 1-1 draw to Switzerland. Despite this near perfect start, there’s concern in the Brazilian camp over the health of Marcelo. Brazil’s left back was forced to leave the match against Serbia due to a back injury, which the team doctor says could have been caused by the mattress he was sleeping on in one of the team’s hotels. Whatever the cause of injury, the Brazilians will hope to see him fit enough for the knockout stages. Opposing them will be a Mexican side who after a torrid start in their first two matches, were halted by Sweden in their final group stage match. In order for Mexico to move on, they’ll need to go back to the style of play that landed them three points against Germany and South Korea. They need to play fast paced and put plenty of shots on target. Unfortunately for them, the Brazilians play a similar type of way, so their defense has an idea of what to expect from the Mexicans. This one should be very fun to watch, as both sides will be going at each other for the full 90. The fast pace of play will favor the Brazilians in the end, and they’ll grab a tough but deserving 3-2 victory.
1. France v. Argentina
This was an easy choice for me. One of the tournament favorites in France are set to take on the newborn Argentines, led by non other than Lionel Messi. Argentina were close to death, but an 86th minute goal from Marcos Rojo saved them from elimination. Now they find new life, but have no time to rest, as they face one of the best all around teams in the tournament in France. The French did not look their best at times while topping group C, but have the talent to win this tournament. The game plan for each team should be simple in this one. France should continue to play their game and control the midfield with Paul Pogba. They’ll look to feed Antoine Griezmann and exploit Argentina’s defense, something Croatia did with ease. For Argentina, they need their other top forwards to make plays, all while continuing to ride off of Lionel Messi. Sergio Aguero has been virtually invisible on the pitch so far, and Gonzalo Higuain has been a lost cause as well. It is obvious that Messi cannot do everything himself, so he needs some type of help from him teammates. If Argentina can play a complete game, they should really challenge France. I know Messi is hungry for a major trophy, but he won’t be getting it this year. I really want to pick Argentina, but France are simply just better than them as a whole. Argentina may push this one into extra time, but ultimately it will be the French that will advance with a 2-1 victory.