What was the VAR doing?
A colleague of mine told me it was time to move on from the Socceroos familiar lament and stick my neck out over which country is going to be the one to hold aloft the big gold trophy on July 15th.
Given that the possible options have now been neatly halved by the ending of the group stages, I figured my neck can take it. So here goes…
Despite the fact that it feels like this has been a World Cup of shocks, the only team that hasn’t progressed to the knockout stages who most pundits might have expected to is Germany. A case could be made for Poland under-achieving, given their qualifying form.
Argentina and Spain got there by the slimmest of margins. Africa has been unfortunate not to have a representative in the last 16, given Nigeria’s very late concession to Argentina and Senegal’s elimination based on receiving more yellow cards than Japan.
With ten European countries taking up residence in the last sixteen, it might not be too radical to suggest that by the time we get down to the last four, it could well be a wall-to-wall Euro-fest, which is going to mean a few upsets to get there.
For what it’s worth, having cast my bloodshot, grainy eyes over the Round of 16 and the possible progressions, I’ve come up with, after a lot of hand-wringing and mental recall of the feast of football I’ve already ingested, a semifinal showdown between France versus Belgium and Croatia versus England.
In my crystal ball, France will have to overcome two South American opponents on the way to the last four. Argentina versus France in the last 16 is a matchup between two teams who have not shown their best, though in France’s case it has been getting by on doing enough, while Argentina looked unlikely to advance until the final five minutes against Nigeria.
I expect France to beat Argentina and then also beat Uruguay. I’m tipping the Uruguayans to sneak past a Portugal side who looked fantastic early but have faltered since, and an over-reliance on one CR7 might not get them past a solid Uruguay, who are the only team in the last 16 not to have conceded a goal.
Belgium are the team who will have to cause a mighty upset to progress, as they look to be heading for a quarter-final showdown with Brazil. But the Belgians, who should progress at Japan’s expense in the Round of 16, are equipped to trouble a Brazil side who have looked a little “un-Brazil-like” in the winning of their group.
Brazil versus Mexico looms as a test for the five-time champions but I favour them to win there. In fact, the possible Belgium versus Brazil quarterfinal could be the match of the tournament.
Croatia are now looming as the dark horse of the tournament. They have been the form side of the group stages, evidenced by a slashing 3-0 win over Argentina. I think they’ll cruise past Denmark and will come up against a Spain side who have flattered to deceive.
Spain should end the home fans hopes by beating Russia but Croatia have their own golden generation blooming right now and I’m tipping them to eliminate one of the pre-tournament favourites and take their place in the semi-finals.
England were in the easiest group of the tournament as it panned out, given that their final group game against Belgium was almost a race to the bottom. However, there is no denying that English fans, for so long ever hopeful and then predictably crushed, have reason to think this squad can bury some of the ghosts of the past.
I’m predicting them to defeat Colombia, who are not the same side without a fully fit James Rodriguez, and go on to meet Switzerland, another of the Cup’s surprise packets, in the quarterfinals. While the Swiss have belied their reputation as football artisans with some wonderful attacking intent against Serbia (one of the best games of the tournament), their key players will be well-known to England’s domestically-based squad.
Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka played for Stoke City and Arsenal respectively in the last Premier League season and much of the Swiss progress has revolved around their exertions, even when those exertions included non-FIFA-approved goal celebrations.
That’s not to say the Swiss don’t have strengths elsewhere, and that’s why I think they’ll end Sweden’s rollercoaster tournament at the Round of 16 stage.
So that’s my final four. As to a winner? Belgium to beat Croatia in the final and continue an odd anomaly of World Cup years ending in “8” producing a brand-new world champion.
Given my disastrous form in a work tipping competition, feel free to take these observations with a grain of salt. Hope my work colleague is satisfied.