If perennial powerhouse Germany not making the knockout round at the World Cup had been the only bizarre thing that had happened, this tournament would still be pretty bizarre.
The strangest thing, though, might be the distribution of teams in the knockout round, which begins Saturday. Half of the bracket contains Ronaldo and Messi and Neymar (and Portugal and Argentina and Brazil to go with their three superstars), pretournament favorite France, high-flying Belgium, motivated Mexico and dark-horse candidates Uruguay.
The other half has South America’s fourth-best team, Colombia, and seven European teams that collectively failed to even make the quarterfinals at Euro 2016.
Mexico, the last North and Central American team left standing, is a little disappointed to find itself playing Brazil in the round of 16. This was supposed to be the year that Mexico found its way into the quarterfinals for the first time in 32 years. It defeated Germany, led its group comfortably after two games, and needed just a draw against Sweden to win the group and earn a game against Switzerland.
Instead Mexico collapsed, lost 3-0, and needed South Korea to pull off a miraculous victory against Germany (a draw also would have been enough) to even make the knockout round. Given Brazil’s confident performance in its final group game, the Brazilians have to be the tournament favorites now, with Mexico facing another Round of 16 exit.
France faces two potentially difficult games to reach the final four. It would have to defeat Argentina, then the winner of Uruguay and Portugal. France may well be the slight favorite of that quartet, but not by much All four teams will feel like they have a legitimate chance of making the semifinals.
In the other half of the bracket, Spain can hardly believe its good fortune. The Spaniards only won Group B after they scored a stoppage-time goal in their final game, while Portugal gave up a stoppage-time goal at virtually the same time. Thanks to those results, Spain has drawn games against Russia and, if it wins, then the winner of Croatia and Denmark. Croatia has been very good this tournament, and Russia is playing at home, but anything except a berth in the semifinals would be a major disappointment for Spain.
The other favorite for the semifinals — I can hardly believe I’m writing this — is England. The typical England team, weighed down by outsized expectation to the point that its players can hardly pass the ball, has gone missing. In its place is one that’s been lethal from set pieces and has the tournament’s leading scorer in striker Harry Kane. It’s confident of defeating Colombia, especially after standout Colombian attacker James Rodriguez left the last game with an injury. England hasn’t won a knockout-round game at a major tournament since 2006, but has to be the favorite to take its next two.
This tournament has proved that anything can happen. But come the knockout round, the best teams usually find a way. We’ll watch to see if this World Cup has more surprises to offer.
• Apart from the favorites, the teams with the best chance to spring World Cup upsets are Uruguay and Belgium. Uruguay hasn’t allowed a goal, and forwards Luis Suarez and Edison Cavani seem to be getting untracked. Let’s remember that Uruguay finished ahead of Argentina and Colombia in qualification for this tournament, an impressive achievement. Belgium, too, is undefeated, though its biggest mistake might have been defeating England in its group-stage match, thus earning a spot in the more difficult half of the bracket.
• It’s impossible to be certain where the U.S. would have ended up in the World Cup draw, had the team scored one more goal against Trinidad and Tobago and qualified for the tournament. That said, the seeding would have been where Tunisia’s was, which might have put the Americans in with England and Belgium. They probably would not have made the knockout round.
• Interim manager Dave Sarachan, who has coached the U.S. men’s national team since its qualification failure, will stay in charge of the team through the end of 2018. Sarachan, who is unlikely to be in the running for the full-time job, has mostly focused on giving young, unproven players a chance. The approach has given American fans hope for the future.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
World Cup: France vs. Argentina, 9 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 9. France is undefeated but has yet to impress anyone. Argentina barely made it to the knockout round, its players may or may not be revolting against coach Jorge Sampaoli, and the team seems strangely lifeless. That said, this is a mouthwatering knockout-round matchup.
World Cup: Uruguay vs. Portugal, 1 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 9. Uruguay comfortably won the World Cup’s weakest group but now has to play striker Cristiano Ronaldo and 10 others wearing the same jerseys. He carried Portugal to the knockout round. Can he take his country further?
World Cup: Spain vs. Russia, 9 a.m. Sunday, Ch. 9. Russia’s high-flying start to the tournament crashed and burned in its group-stage finale against Uruguay. But nobody really wants to play against the tournament host. Especially not Spain, which looks like it might collectively be four years past its best.
World Cup: Croatia vs. Denmark, 1 p.m. Sunday, Ch. 9. Croatia dealt with a tricky group by winning every game, defeating Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland without allowing a single goal from open play. Is this finally the year that Croatia’s so-called “golden generation,” despite being on the wrong side of 30, finally breaks through at a major tournament?