Now that we’ve determined which teams will progress to the knockout rounds, let’s take a look at what the second round has in store. The World Cup is always full of very difficult matchups at every phase of the tournament. To win, a team must peak at the perfect moment, be cool under pressure, and have the ability to adapt to the many different playing styles that are effective throughout the world. There will be some surprises below, but not without good reason.
Let’s get started.
ROUND OF 16
France vs. Nigeria - France should come out on top of this match up. While Nigeria could be an African surprise in the tournament, most likely they will fall at the hands of the French. Nigeria’s coach, Lars Lagerback, only took the helm in February after original coach Shaibu Amodu was demoted to a lesser position after leading the team to third place in the African Cup of Nations. France, however, is a fairly stable team in terms of coaching. That experience will give France the edge as Raymond Domenech should instinctively know what strings to pull should the team need a boost as the game progresses. Nigeria winning would be a surprise, but would also require a collapse by France.
England vs. Ghana - Another European powerhouse will advance in the Round of 16 matchup between England and Ghana. While Ghana has one of the most enviable midfields in the tournament, England’s is not too shabby either; and the defense and striking force of the English should cancel out Ghana’s midfielders. England should be open to new styles of play under Coach Fabio Capello, plus the team should be very dangerous on counter attacks with Wayne Rooney and Jermain Defoe up top. England shouldn’t have too much trouble dispatching the Black Stars.
Netherlands vs. Paraguay - The Netherlands were a powerhouse in European qualifying, winning every game. Bert van Marwijk has had a perfect reign at the helm of the Oranje, and the speed and skill his players possess should easily knock off one of this year’s more impressive South American sides. Paraguay has always been strong defensively, but has started to have some attacking success lately as well. The Netherlands, however, are very patient and technical. Their ability to complete passes and maintain possession while moving the ball forward, along with constant pressure, should break down the Paraguayans over the 90 minutes.
Brazil vs. Chile – This will be an all-South American round between the Group of Death winners Brazil and Group H runners-up Chile. Chile turned in a very impressive qualifying performance, but they still finished second behind Brazil. Chile’s side is also the youngest South American squad in the tournament. Over the past few years Brazil has truly regained its flair and led South American qualifying while also winning the Confederations Cup. Their experience and talent will overpower the Chileans, who should be thrilled to have progressed into the knockout phase after a solid run.
Argentina vs. Uruguay - Another South American match up pits Argentina against the Uruguayans. Defeating Costa Rica in a qualification playoff booked Uruguay’s ticket to South Africa, but Argentina qualified, albeit torturously, without having to rely on a playoff tie. Argentina changed coaches in that qualifying campaign, but the plethora of superstars on the squad helped move the team through. Uruguay will be up against the team that had a quarterfinals appearance in the last World Cup, on a continent thousands of miles away. Argentina may prove to be too much for Los Charruas.
Germany vs. United States - In a rematch of the 2002 quarterfinal, Germany and USA will meet, assuming the USA advances and Germany wins their group. In 2002 the Germans overpowered a relatively inexperienced American side with a 1-0 victory. The Germans reached that final but were defeated by champion Brazil. If the Americans find a style of platy that suits their talent and they stick to the plan, the team will give Germany their share of problems. The chances of all the pieces falling into place at the perfect time for the USA are slim though. The Germans have the international experience to understand exactly what to do in almost any situation, and with back-to-back appearances in the semifinals, Germany should be able to overcome whatever the USA can throw at them.
Italy vs. Cameroon – The Round of 16 match between Italy and Cameroon should be a great one to watch. Cameroon could spring a surprise on the Azzurri with a well-timed Samuel Eto’o strike, and that may be enough to rattle the Italians’ cage. Since Cameroon has not appeared in the knockout stage since 1990, Italy will certainly have the upper hand. The defending champions mostly play in the same domestic league, which happens to also be one of the best in the world. As a result, the Italians have their own unique, graceful brand of soccer, but they can also draw a number of fouls against a team that is not familiar with their tactics, like Cameroon. Unless the true hope for the African continent can stun the Azzurri in the early moments and keep them on their heels for the remaining time, it will be Italy in their second straight quarterfinals appearance.
Spain vs. Portugal – Get ready for a shocker… Either of these sides could take the tournament overall and it is unfortunate that they will meet so early in the tournament. Portugal has a lot of talent, including Cristiano Ronaldo, and they may be peaking at the right time. Spain has firepower of their own, but they have also seen their star striker affected by injury late in the club season. Spain was incredibly stingy at the back through qualifying, but they were also beaten in the Confederations Cup; and remarkably, Portugal has allowed comparatively fewer goals than the Spaniards over their recent matches. Several injuries could threaten Spain’s effort after three injured players were selected to the squad and Fernando Torres won’t even be fit until after the first match. If Portugal gels at the right time, I feel they can stun FIFA’s No. 2 ranked team. It is really too bad that this match up couldn’t have been the South Africa’s Final as it pits two of the world’s three best teams against one another.
France vs. England – Once again the quarterfinals are dominated by Western Europe and South America. The first group sees England face off against France. Capello’s tactics and style, when coupled with England’s fitness, should produce exciting one-touch soccer against the more errant Bleus. Off-field scandal may take the focus off the soccer and France will have to double their efforts just to overcome the tabloids. England has historically underachieved after strong qualifying campaigns, but they have an excellent chance of making the semifinals in 2010 over a distracted France team that has shown inconsistency and cracks throughout their qualifying campaign. England has a marginally better win percentage than France at the moment, but they are a better-scoring team than Les Bleus. England will just have to hope that they don’t have to resort to penalties after regular play. Their hopes can easily be dashed by the random nature of the penalty shoot-out, which France has the ability to top.
Netherlands vs. Brazil – Only in a tournament like the World Cup can two amazing teams face off against one another in the quarterfinals. Brazil has regained its swagger and is rightfully ranked at the top of the world while the Netherlands has been playing a pressure-filled, methodical game. The flair of Brazil’s stars will always overcome a methodical, break-your-opponent-down kind of game. For that reason, the Oranje will have to wait another four years before they may achieve the glory they feel they deserve. Brazil should come out winners without needing penalties given their greater win percentage and high goal output.
Argentina vs. Germany – By emotional standards, the Germany vs. Argentina match should be a classic, but in reality it may be quite different. Argentina doesn’t quite have the flair of Brazil, and the tight German play should be able to break down the Argentines. Argentina may have the stars necessary to attract headlines and garner a strong team on paper, but coach Maradona probably doesn’t have the experience to extract it on the field. Argentina had a relatively disappointing qualifying run and has allowed more than a goal a game over their last 14 matches. The addition of attacking play to Germany’s arsenal was enhanced by Coach Low and was on display in 2006, as well as during Germany’s most recent qualifying run. The absence of Captain Michael Ballack won’t hurt the Germans as much, as say, losing Lionel Messi would to Argentina. Germany gets the nod in this round.
Italy vs. Portugal – Fresh off of their upset of Spain; Portugal should come to the semifinals brimming with confidence. Italy will definitely be up for the task at hand, but the advantage the Azzurri had over Cameroon will vanish against Portugal. The two play similar European-style soccer and are both adept at winning free kicks in the attacking half of the field. Italy quietly went about qualifying, and Portugal advanced by way of the playoffs. In the end, the Portuguese have played fewer games at this point than the Italians, but have a higher win percentage with a vastly superior goal difference. Portugal is becoming the surprise of tournament at this point.
England vs. Brazil – Forty-four years of hurt is England’s chant in 2010, and in 2014 it will be 48 years of hurt since they will face Brazil in the semis. No matter how great the strides taken by England have been, they still lose out to Brazil. In November, Brazil topped the English 1-0 in a friendly match in Doha Qatar. The prior match between the two, 2007 in London, was played to a 1-1 tie. Brazil also has 13 wins in their last 15 games, while England has only won six of nine. With Brazil playing more often and better than England, the Samba Kings will book their spot in the final as the favorites to win the tournament after emerging from the toughest draw and a difficult bracket.
Germany vs. Portugal – Some are expecting a repeat of the 2002 World Cup Final between Germany and Brazil, but Portugal again should prevail in this matchup. The Portuguese, under Carlos Queiroz, have won eight of their last 10 matches while Germany has only won six. Portugal has simply been performing better than most other teams recently, and that level of play should be evident again in South Africa. The team is scrappy when it needs to be and can score goals with the best of them while also keeping their net clear. Germany has either lost or tied prominent teams, including a loss to Argentina in Munich, in their past 10 matches while defeating inferior ones, while Portugal has beaten solid teams like Bosnia-Herzegovina while keeping clean sheets in their last six matches. Portugal has the edge, but the game will be awfully close.
Brazil vs. Portugal – The last time these two teams met was in Brasilia in 2008 and Brazil destroyed the Portuguese 6-1. This match won’t be a blowout like that match was, but Brazil should still come out on top. Brazil’s 13 wins out of the last 15 played came against stiff competition like Italy, Argentina, Paraguay and the United States. Portugal’s recent matches, while not against rollover opponents, were not of the same caliber. Simply put, despite Portugal’s incredible run to this point, Brazil has the conditioning necessary to secure their sixth triumph. The final should be close, but while Portugal can go home with heads held high, Brazil’s ability to take advantage of any opportunity will probably prove to be the deciding factor.