Croatia, Mexico and Belgium loom large in knockout round
June 29 at 10:21 AM
Croatia midfielders Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric. (Gabriel Bouys/Getty Images)
The 2018 World Cup, more than anything, will go down as the tournament that busted the Goliaths. Smaller nations are better now than ever, providing unprecedented challenges to the consensus âTier 1â contenders, who no longer have the luxury of skating through minnows in the group stage.
Son Heung-Minâs empty net goal, sealing a 2-0 South Korea win over Germany, was the exclamation mark on both South Koreaâs upset of the champs (who needed a win to get out of Group F) and a tournament filled with new difficulties at the top. Perhaps the qualifying failures of such front-runners as Italy and Chile were precursors to a World Cup of this nature. Brazil needed a result against Serbia to get out of its group on the same day that their 2014 semifinal foe, Germany, was eliminated. Both Spain and Portugal struggled with upstart Morocco and came dangerously close to conceding one of the two knockout spots in Group B to Iran. Argentina, home to the best soccer player in the world, is a whole different case entirely.
Brazil may still be the best of them, but France and Spain have fatal flaws, and that leaves the World Cup as open and unpredictable as ever. Here are three countries that might end up outperforming the biggest in the world.
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In a lot of ways, Croatia is a simple team. Theyâre solid across the board, with threatening targets on set pieces an d a team-wide organization that combines the defensive solidity of Iceland and Argentinaâs willingness to possess the ball. Three group stage wins against three vastly different opponents show a tactical flexibility not often seen from other budding contenders.
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They controlled the game against Nigeria and Iceland, completing 512 and 535 passes, respectively (dominating possession in both games), and conceded the ball to Argentina, completing just 386 passes to Argentinaâs 520.
However, Croatia is a simple team only in its organization and shape, which does not carry an easy-to-define label such as âbuild from the backâ or âhigh-press.â But the world-class central midfield duo of Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric is coach Zlatko Dalicâs base, and each has the ability to construct games to his liking through expert passing and movement. And they dominate the middle of the field.
Modric and Rakitic each have 1.7 key passes (passes leading to a shot) per game, tied for second on the team, and Modric has hit 3.7 accurate long balls per game, the most of any Croatian field player (Rakitic has 3.3 accurate long balls a game). They are the possession fulcrums for Croatia as well as the distributors, tasked with finding runners up the field.
The game plan is to get Modric and Rakitic on the ball as much as possible, especially with chances to break lines and disjoint the oppositionâs shape. Croatia lets Rakitic handle the ball deep and Modric handle it higher up the field as a connector in the final. They break out through wingers Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic, who often have space to run as a result of the midfieldâs influence. The willingness of Rakitic and Modric to drift to both flanks often enables full backs Ivan Strinic and Sime Vrsaljko to create overloads alongside the wingers.
Croatia faces Denmark, a team that also features a high-caliber midfielder in Christian Eriksen, in the round of 16. The Group D winners have been able to steal goals well in this tournament â" through set pieces, especially against Nigeria, and opportunistic pressing, which killed Argentina. Denmark scored two goals in three games. The matchup favors the Croats.
There are two Mexicos to consider. One is the fast, skilled, disciplined side that schooled Germany in their opening game, the team that man-marked Toni Kroos out of existence and had too many odd-man rushes on Manuel Neuer to count. This is the team that plays hard for Juan Carlos Osorio, absorbs the atmosphere provided by their amazing supporters and jumps into speedy counterattacks at every opportunity.
The other is the team that lost, 3-0, to Sweden in a game they desperately needed to win, the one tha t represents what can go wrong with Osorio at the helm. The team is either obsessively tinkered with, to the point that players are playing uncomfortably out of position, or it falls into a state of disorganized complacency, which is what happened against Sweden.
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There is evidence, however, that suggests Mexicoâs performance against Sweden was an outlier. The team completed 185 passes into the final third, compared to just 94 by Sweden, suggesting that they should have generated more threatening shots than they did. Of El Triâs 20 shots, just three were on target. Itâs likely that their luck would turn if they create a similar amount of chances.
El Tri has too much talent to not be considered a legitimate contender in this favorite-drained World Cup, and overlooking that victory over Germany would be a mistake â" they managed 13 shots and 99 passes into the final third against Germany despite protecting a lead for a large portion of the game. Those three points give hope that Mexico can overcome Brazil in a tough round of 16 match, likely by sitting deep defensively and aiming to get numbers forward in transition.
But the good version of Osorioâs team, with skill vibrantly on display and the attackers humming with confidence, has to show up. In the past, that has been no guarantee.
As hard as it is to anoint Belgium a âTier 1â team based on demolitions of Tunisia and Panama, there is no question that Roberto Martinezâs squad has a lot of talent, enough to make a significant dent late in the competition.
More so than the other nations seen as group favorites, the Red Devils performed without a hint of difficulty or doubt in Group G. They blew away Panama, 3-0, in the first game and poured five on Tunisia in the second, confirming a spot in the knockout stage without a hitch. This is in contrast to teams such as Portugal, which barely escaped Iran with a 1-1 draw, and France, which didnât have an easy time in any of its three group games.
Panama and Tunisia are not Iran and Peru, to be sure, but there is something to be said for making your way through the matchups you were given. Escaping the group without significant difficulty speaks well of a teamâs ability to get results later in the tournament.
Colombiaâs 2014 quarterfinal run (in which they almost knocked out the hosts) was preceded by three wins in a Group C that, with Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan, was not especially difficult. The Netherlands, who scored 10 goals and won all three games in a difficult Group B in 2014 and ultimately went out on penalties in the semifinal, can attest as well.
Belgium has built confidence through those early wins, too, with striker Romelu Lukaku (four goals) firing on all cylinders and Kevin de Bruyne maintaining his majestic Manchester City form in central midfield. The Red Devils look confident and aggressive on the ball, having little trouble breaking down bunkering teams and generating attacking opportunities.
This World Cup looks as likely as any to have a first-time winner, and Belgium could well be that team. The Red Devils already know the usual challengers are either out or weakened. The door is open.
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