After a rollicking series of 48 group games at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, we have reached what is often called the “business side” of the tournament. The minnows have been separated from the sharks, and we have a situation where the teams can no longer tie. It’s a situation very similar to the NCAA’s March Madness: win or go home. And in some cases, that plane ride is a long, lonely trip home full of second-guessing. But there’s no second-guessing that the games in the first two rounds of the knockout stage have been full of excitement and high drama, despite there being fewer goals scored. Without further ado, we bring you our thoughts from the rounds of 16 and 8. Our thoughts on the USMNT will be coming in a separate post, now that we’ve had more time to fully digest their result against Belgium.
Chile vs. Brazil
The South American rivals kicked off the Round of 16 in thrilling fashion. Entering the game, nobody would have predicted that David Luiz’s curls, Toronto FC goalie Julio Cesar, and a 119th minute Chilean shot off the crossbar would help the hosts into the quarterfinals. Brazil played very offensively and created many great opportunities, but the quality of Chile’s chances were more or less equal to that of Brazil. Both sides did not shy away from fouling and both flopped constantly, leading to 51 total fouls in a somewhat choppy affair. Julio Cesar’s performance in the PK shootout will be the biggest memory after he made some poor decisions against the Netherlands in the 2010 World Cup. This time around, the Toronto FC keeper made two key saves to help his team win the shootout. Brazil looked vulnerable, which bodes well for the remaining teams, but they were still able to advance to the quarterfinals. A nation can breathe easy…for now. — Nick Barton
Colombia vs. Uruguay
I already wrote about James Rodriguez once before, so no need to reiterate how skilled he is. Rodriguez may be receiving all the credit, but the Colombian team is much deeper than just the star from Monaco (anyone remember how much Colombia was going to miss Falcao?). David Ospina has come up big in critical moments for Los Cafeteros. Mario Yepes is 38 and is still running with the likes of Edinson Cavani and other younger strikers. While Colombia’s team has been impressive, the win must be taken with a grain of salt because Uruguay did not truly show up to play Saturday without Luis Suarez. Uruguay looked a step slower than Colombia during the game and Diego Forlan had nothing left in the gas tank. Four straight wins for Colombia is a great confidence boost for the team. As Brazil awaits, Colombia should not feel like underdogs as they have appeared to be one of the best teams in the tournament to this point. — Nick Barton
Netherlands vs. Mexico
We’ve established, with the help of Tim Howard, that football is cruel. We’ve watched the U.S. escape the Group of (near) Death in the strangest of fashions, proving that football is weird. On Sunday, in steamy Fortaleza, a bald blur fell to the Earth in the 92nd minute, and we learned football has a special way of dividing as many as it unites.
It was only a matter of time before Arjen Robben’s runs down the right would finally catch some Mexican defender out and create a spark. Fresh off a Dutch equalizer just minutes before, Robben once more marauded to the byline in added time, and his sharp cutback caused Mexican captain Rafa Marquez to lunge for a desperate tackle. Marquez instantly regretted the move – Robben had slithered back to his left, and any challenge like that in the area is asking for trouble. Especially considering his vantage point, it was no surprise referee Pedro Proenca pointed to the spot.
By the same token, it was clear that Robben had gone to great measures to embellish the nature of the infraction. Few grown men fall to the ground, under any level of duress, with arms extended and mouth agape. Fewer still fall to the ground under as little contact as Robben suffered from the Marquez challenge, which, depending on your opinion, was either minimal or none at all.
Klaas Jan Huntelaar would convert from the spot and propel the Netherlands to an exceedingly nervy 2-1 win over Mexico. How that penalty was earned, though, was a major referendum on diving in football. The solution to the problem is unclear, though, partly because the footballing world has such a difficult time defining the problem. Kirk Goldsberry at Grantland had one possible solution to create less incentive for players to dive in the penalty box. Foul or flop? At this point, who’s to say? — Peter Barston
Costa Rica vs. Greece
And Los Ticos just keep on chugging. After a late equalizer from Socratis Papastathopoulos (if that’s not the name of the tournament, I’m not sure what is), the Round of 16 match between 10-man Costa Rica and Greece went into extra time. Costa Rica were definitely the better side before going down to ten on Oscar Duarte’s second yellow card of the match. And Greece, as they did in the Group Stage to make it to the Knockout round, eventually took advantage. It wasn’t pretty, but after creating most of the chances in the late moments of the game, Greece deserved an equalizer.
Extra time passed without a goal, and the game turned to penalties, a neutral’s delight, to decide the game. Only one penalty was missed during the shootout, as Theofanis Gekas had his attempt saved by Costa Rican keeper Keylor Navas to set up Michael Umaña’s finisher. Penalties are a cruel (and mostly random) way to end matches, but the sheer joy on the faces of the Ticos and their fans cannot be understated. Costa Rica has taken several very valuable scalps (Uruguay and Italy) in this tournament on their way to the quarterfinals, and they have definitely earned their spot in the last eight. And the future is bright. Keylor Navas is 27 (young by goalkeepers’ standards), forward Joel Campbell is 22, and defender Giancarlo Gonzalez is 26. Bryan Ruiz, star of yesterday’s match, will be 32 come the next World Cup, but the Ticos are here to stay. — Carl Yedor
France vs. Nigeria
Props to Nigeria for continuing their fearless play in the knockout round against France. It was almost enough. Almost. This was the first of four straight Round of 16 games where the floodgates remained shut for the majority of the game before finally swinging wide open late. The French were just too good, and they deserved to be moving on in the tournament. Too many players possess power and pace going forward for the French to be effectively bottled up against a team like Nigeria, and for that reason I think none of the quarterfinalists can really claim a true matchup advantage against them. — Matt Bell
Germany vs. Algeria
Against Algeria, Per Mertesacker’s oft-maligned slowness nearly lost the game for the Germans. Manuel Neuer is great coming out and distributes the ball phenomenally, but one of these times he’ll misjudge his close-out by a second or two, or he’ll slip, or he’ll fail to clear a 50-50 ball, and Mertesacker will be standing there—20 yards from the ball—with his hands on his hips, and nobody to blame but himself. Germany doesn’t have a viable option behind Mertesacker at center back. The French like to play in crosses with Valbuena and their fleet of world class outside backs, but in Friday’s match against Germany, I think we’ll see more through balls up the middle for Karim Benzema to chase down. — Matt Bell
Argentina vs. Switzerland
Another game, another late bit of magic created by Messi the maestro. While Messi was not the one putting the ball in the back of the net this time (that would be Angel Di Maria, who will sorely be missed in the semifinals), he certainly drew in the defenders and opened up enough space for Di Maria to slot home. Switzerland gamely defended with all their might and little spark plug Xherdan Shaqiri continued to drive up his transfer value by being the only real source of ideas for the Swiss attack. I hadn’t heard of Shaqiri coming into the tournament, so naturally, I looked him up after some of his impressive performances in the group stage. The answer? He plays for Bayern Munich, but only made ten appearances (seven of which were as a substitute). There are rumors that he will be making his way to Liverpool this summer. But, man, Bayern is loaded. — Carl Yedor
Brazil vs. Colombia
In short, James Rodriguez has been the best player at Brazil 2014. This is not a particularly bold statement considering his tournament-leading 6 goals. It is certainly not one that will win me a chance scouting footballing talent around the globe. As I sit here and ponder Colombia’s exit, though, I can’t help but think this World Cup has just lost its brightest star.
Sure, Thomas Muller, Lionel Messi, Arjen Robben, and company might have something to say about that, but it is Rodriguez that has stood out above all these notables. Colombia was never discounted at this tournament. With the loss of Falcao, though, the spotlight was suddenly dimmed on the South Americans. Every time a new entrant had stolen the show at the beauty pageant – Netherlands, Costa Rica, Belgium, etc. James has made sure the stage hands brought the attention back to those tap-dancing Colombians.
It is clichéd to even qualify this as a cliché, but James’s impact has been felt everywhere on the pitch. As a deep lying playmaker, he has peppered pinpoint balls out wide and up field like an automatic weapon has been attached to his left foot. He’s scored golazos and simple tap-ins, headers and outside the box shots as the focus of bombarding Colombian forays on the counter. If nothing else, he has been instrumental in providing the viewing public with more and more chances to see the Colombians sway and dance as one. For that alone, we should praise him.
It’s fair to wonder what might have been if Falcao had recovered in time for Brazil. Would James have feasted even more with another star to divert the attention away from him? Or would his performance have been good but not great, a Batman in any other color demoted to Robin status? It is fair to wonder these things. It is also fair to mourn the departure of Colombia. Now, we wave goodbye to the man who brought global attention to J’s that sound like H’s and the simple beauty of soccer: sometimes, it’s really just one man out there. The others are just understudies. — Peter Barston
Argentina vs. Belgium
Lionel Messi played a superb half of soccer to set the tone early against an overmatched Belgian side. It was one of those games where your jaw dropped every time he touched the ball because you were either a) in awe as he zig-zagged his way past four enclosing defenders, or b) unable to believe he was actually—get this—dispossessed of the ball. Messi proved once again on Saturday why he is the best in the world, regardless of what Cristiano Ronaldo feels (sad, perhaps?). Gonzalo Higuain’s eventual game-winning goal was made possible by Messi running circles around the Belgian central midfield with the ball seemingly superglued to his foot.
Kevin De Bruyne has a lot of Clint Dempsey in him, and it was on display again this weekend. Like Dempsey, De Bruyne seems to always have a shot in the back of his mind, and if he feels the goalie is out of position, is not afraid to strike on goal from any distance, angle, or foot. With Romelu Lukaku playing above him as a glorified version of Dempsey’s Jozy Altidore, the Belgians have found another potent source of offense when wingman Eden Hazard struggles to create it elsewhere (as he did mightily in this World Cup). As much as the United States’ loss to Belgium has put a four-year-long sour taste in my mouth, I can’t say I’ll never play with Belgium again on FIFA. These two are too fun to pass up. — Matt Bell
Germany vs. France
Classic, classic result from the Germans. If one can be romantic about the past style of German soccer (not that I’m saying I am), this would be a game that brings back some usually quite successful memories. The Germans scored the game’s only goal on a Mats Hummels header from a set piece, his second of the tournament. Personally, I think it’s a good thing that the days of boring, brutally efficient results from the Germans are for the most part gone. But in a knockout style tournament, efficiency is exactly what you want and need. Idealism can (and should) be replaced by pragmatism, which is what made the dominance of Spain’s tiki-taka so enthralling to viewers everywhere. Spain took their Barcelona-bred tactics and put on a show on the biggest stage in world soccer. However, they are clearly the exception to the rule. Nobody wants to have to work for one goal and then defend for their lives to hang onto that lead. It isn’t nearly as fun. But it works. And it usually wins. Germany marches on. — Carl Yedor
Netherlands vs. Costa Rica
Arjen Robben may get grief for his tendency to dive at the lightest of touches, but he has probably had the best tournament of anyone still playing. All he does is create opportunity after opportunity for the Netherlands by marauding up and down the wings. Robben will continue to thrive as long as Robin Van Persie can find himself finishing what the Bayern Munich midfielder delivers. But we already knew that. On Saturday, we found out that Wesley Sneijder might have three of the best shots of the tournament. Unfortunately for him, two hit the post. We saw Jermain Lens get called for offsides thrice in a short time frame, reflecting the offensive aggressiveness that ignites the Netherlands as they hound in on goal. Most importantly, we learned that Louis van Gaal made one of the most impactful substitutions in World Cup history. It was not necessarily a decision made based on intuition or statistical analysis, but a tactfully-made one that allowed backup keeper Tim Krul to study his opposition prior to the PK shootout. The Dutch look like the underdog of the final four teams, but with a solid offense and Dirk Kuyt playing some variation of left wing back, it will be tough for Argentina to prevent the Dutch from another World Cup Final appearance. Even with a loss, this team will be remembered for great performances in the last two World Cups. That won’t be enough in Holland, though; all they want is to claim victory for their nation on the world’s biggest stage for the first time. — Nick Barton
Images courtesy of The Daily Mail, mlssoccer.com, Bleacher Report, Getty Images
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