Last 16 Previews: World Cup 2018
A word, first, on the brilliance of this World Cup so far. It all started a day early too, with the sacking of a manager before a ball had been kicked. Since then we’ve had Spain and Portugal clinging on by a thread as the ref watched the drama on TV along with us; Germany crashing out in the group stage for the first time since 1938, when the World Cup was only eight years old - won twice by Uruguay forty years before Luis Suarez was even a glint in the devil’s eye; AND Argentina rescued by a wonderful goal from a titan of European football, in a game where Lionel Messi also scored.
But what do all of those have in common? The underperformance of big teams. The group stage was made flesh by the jitteriness of the traditional powerhouses. That’s over, and where are your Gods now? From tomorrow we have to watch all those teams who weren’t very good play each other. Football coming home is looking like it’ll be scant reward for the unwatchable games we’ll have sat through if Brazil, France and Spain don’t get their act together enough that they beat England.
France v Argentina
In theory, the standout tie. It could be Lemar, Mbappé and Griezmann playing three-on-three basketball against Messi, Aguero and Dybala (if they play). Or, it could be Marcos Rojo and Paul Pogba fighting over the last bag of peas in an Asda cheered on only by Jose Mourinho.
Messi’s second touch for his goal against Argentina could become one the defining moments of his career, along with the ‘Maradona’ goal and the header against United (from the man who couldn’t head the ball.) Or, it could become a footnote epitomising his international career – solo brilliance in a team game. If Messi is allowed to shine, he can beat this France side, managed by this France manager, pretty much by himself. If he does though, what then? Kicked off the park against Uruguay in the quarters?
Uruguay v Portugal
Ooooft. It’s a fixture that feels like a punch to the gut – metaphorically, certainly, and probably also literally. The biggest, ‘please football administrator demi-Gods, can they both lose?’ since the FA Cup final. In fact, who would you rather see fight to the death Hunger-games style? Ronaldo and Suarez or Mourinho and Conte? Who would win? Please do email in.
There’s been a lot of talk about big dick energy of late, but this will simply be a pitch full of big dicks focusing all their energy on diving, kicking, acting and generally destroying the game it’s taken over one hundred years to build. Each kick erases from the collective memory one of Puskas’ goals or Pirlo’s passes. Every dive and a million videos of a Maradona jink or an Il Fenomeno finish spontaneously combust. Just get it over with lads. I don’t really care who wins. I don’t want to be a part of it.
Spain v Russia
While Spain are kind of managerless, Russia are either incredibly well drilled by Stanislav Cherchesov, or receiving a chemical helping hand (ALLEGEDLY). So, maybe this game isn’t quite as lopsided as it might look at first. All the Hierro jokes have been done, but Spain actually need something much simpler; how about a goalkeeper? They’ve conceded five goals, in three games, from six shots on target. I’ve heard that David De Gea’s quite good for Man United. Why isn’t he playing - is he injured?
That said, Spain should have enough. They’ve shown flashes of what they’re capable of, like the five minutes either side of Isco’s strike against Portugal. Unfortunately, they’ve also shown themselves mostly to be an even drearier, slower and more boring version of their 2010 incarnation. Wake me up when they’re out.
Croatia v Denmark
Croatia, arguably the best team in the tournament so far, come up against a side booed off in their last match for crimes against football who have scored a total of two goals and frankly ghosted their way this far. But can they go any farther? (And yes, there were two Schmeichel jokes there). Surely there’s only one winner here?
Brazil v Mexico
The most interesting last 16 game? Or a walk in the park for Neymar et al against a team who lost 3-0 to Sweden? Group F was such an LSD trip that it’s difficult to know where either of the teams emerging from it will go now.
Carlos-in-a-North-London-band-living-off-daddy’s-trust-fund-Vela and Hirving Lozano have looked talented but also wasteful. Hmm, imagine if they were playing a team who have looked exactly the same? This game could finish 3-0 either way and it wouldn’t be entirely surprising. Given that we’ve got Brazil winning the whole damn affair though… Brazil to win.
Belgium vs Japan
Japan are playing in this game because they received fewer yellow cards than Senegal. Belgium are playing in this game thanks to Adnan Januzaj. It’s hard to work out which one of those is a stranger reason.
Still, this should be an entertaining one. Japan play fair and with flair. Belgium have scored ten goals so far. Michy Batshuayi is a born entertainer, on and off the field. He’ll likely be replaced by everyone’s new favourite pancake-demanding goal-machine, Romelu Lukaku, fed by Hazard and De Bruyne. Should be a good ‘un. You’d have to think Belgium will have enough. Will England come to rue resting Kane and Sterling et al?
Sweden v Switzerland
Sweden got through by virtue of beating Mexico 3-0… who beat South Korea 2-1… who beat Germany 2-0… who in turn beat Sweden 2-1. Sweden could be anything.
Switzerland, by contrast, will probably not be much, but might they be just enough? There’s a distinctly Arsenal flavour to the Swiss squad actually; Xhaka, Lichtsteiner and… Johan Djourou (who will forever play for Arsenal, don’t email). But will they be the Arsenal that won the FA Cup and kept Wenger his job, or the Arsenal that finished sixth and finally finished him off? It's time to get your aircraft banners out Switzerland fans. Switzerland through to face… England?
England vs Colombia
Well, we’re definitely going to lose aren’t we? This is the most difficult game between England and a spot in a World Cup semi-final so it’s simply not conceivable that we could win. Falcao will obviously make a glorious return to ‘England’ after his disastrous spells with United and Chelsea. He’ll be coming home. And football won’t.
But wait… this England team are different right? It’s the team of hope, of Gareth, of Harry, of Fin-essé, of Raheem, of Ruben, of… John. Bring on Sweden-Switzerland!
Will the last 16 be as good as the group stages? It’ll have some job. Will Hierro?