Time to take a deep breath. The World Cup has a day off today as we reset to make the transition from the group stage to the knockout round. Just 16 of the 32 teams that made the trip to Russia remain in the world’s greatest tournament. And because we’re an obedient internet operation that follows all the rules, we have arbitrarily ranked the remaining 16 teams in full-proof power rankings.
Like any power rankings, the nature of it is completely subjective and eligible for VAR correction for clear and obvious errors. But we’ve gone for a combination of impressiveness in the group stage and likelihood of making a deep run towards the semifinal and final. We’ve grouped the teams by probability of actually lifting the trophy in Moscow. And unlike most World Cups, there are actually a majority of teams that should still feel like they have a legitimate chance to be there at the end.
16 – Japan, 2nd Group H (vs Belgium July 2)
Japan may be the most fortunate team to make the second round thanks to the insanity of a “fair play” tiebreaker where they accrued less yellow cards than Senegal through the group stage. They also happened to greatly benefit by notching a victory over Colombia thanks to playing with a man advantage for 87 minutes. They advanced to the knockout round thanks to an embarrassing 1-0 defeat to Poland that was called a farce and a disgrace for its lack of late-game competitiveness. Manager Akira Nishino claimed mission accomplished by saying, “We did not go for victory but we just relied on the other match. That was slightly regrettable but I suppose at that point I didn’t have any other plans.” What an inspiration!
15 – Russia, 2nd Group A (vs Spain July 1)
In fairness to Russia, they’ve probably already exceeded expectations as the host nation. The 3-0 defeat to Uruguay probably brought them back to earth after a 5-0 drubbing of Saudi Arabia and a 3-1 win against Egypt. Winger Denis Cheryshev of Villarreal has been one of the breakout stars of the tournament with three goals after starting on the bench for the first game. It would be one of the biggest upsets in the history of the tournament if they are able to advance past Spain to the quarterfinals. Unless of course Vladimir Putin is mysteriously named as the VAR for the match, of course.
14 – Denmark, 2nd Group C (vs Croatia July 1)
The Danes did well to advance out of their group, but did so in perhaps the least impressive fashion of all the knockout round participants. Peru thoroughly outplayed them in the opener but somehow failed to get on the scoresheet. Then came a draw against Australia and the only 0-0 draw of the entire tournament against France to secure qualification for both teams. Their two goals are the lowest total of any team to make it to the knockout round.
13 – Mexico, 2nd Group F (vs Brazil July 2)
Maybe this is a little harsh on El Tri after their famous victory against Germany to open the tournament. But there are two major things working against Mexico. The first is a really bad 3-0 loss to Sweden that almost shockingly sent them out of the tournament after two very impressive victories. The second is the fact that they’re unlucky enough to draw Brazil as their Round of 16 opponent. If Mexico hopes to have any chance, they’re going to have to be clinical on the few counter-attack chances they will receive and Guillermo Ochoa will have to pull off a performance ala Tim Howard against Belgium. The Mexican keeper led the group stage with 17 saves.
12 – Sweden, 1st Group F (vs Switzerland July 3)
11 – Switzerland, 2nd Group E (vs Sweden July 3)
This knockout round matchup between two European nations who haven’t met in 16 years may be as close to a coinflip as you can get. Both have fairly stout defenses, but it all might come down to which team can carve out enough half-chances to scrape out a goal. That’s where Switzerland should have the edge with the flair of Xherdan Shaqiri and the deep strikes from midfield of Granit Xhaka.
Sweden was hugely impressive against Mexico in bouncing back from their stunning last-second defeat to Germany. And Switzerland claimed a great result in earning a draw against Brazil. But whoever does advance out of this matchup likely lacks the firepower to go much further in the knockout round.
The Former Winners
10 – Argentina, 2nd Group D (vs France June 30)
Nobody had a more dramatic group stage than La Albiceleste. Their star player Lionel Messi is under a kind of pressure that probably only LeBron James has felt in the world of sports recently. The supporting cast of talented players has been falling short. And there seems to be some kind of mutiny happening against the manager. It took an astonishing 86th minute volley from centerback Marcos Rojo to earn qualification in a 2-1 win over Nigeria. Given everything that is seemingly working against Argentina, it might just take a miracle for them to get past France in the top Round of 16 matchup. But the thing about Argentina is that they have just enough talent to actually pull it off. This is a team that could lose their next game 4-0… or they could just win the whole thing.
9 – Uruguay (1st Group A, vs Portugal June 30)
La Celeste certainly benefitted from being in the weakest group by far at the World Cup by easily running through Group A. While the dynamic duo of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani will always be the star men up top, the most important thing for Uruguay was the fact that they didn’t allow a goal in three group stage games. Uruguay so far is the only team to accomplish that feat this year. But was that due to a suddenly stout defense or a lack of real competition? We’ll find out how they will stand up to Cristiano Ronaldo and reigning European champion Portugal.
8 – England (2nd Group G, vs Colombia July 3)
It’s England. It’s the World Cup. You just know it’s going to end in heartbreak. The only answer is when. It was a bizarre group stage for England as they needed a stoppage time winner from Harry Kane to dispatch of lowly Tunisia. Then they battered Panama 6-1 with the biggest scoring output of the tournament. Finally, they “won” the rest-fest against Belgium by losing 1-0 and getting sent to the easier half of the draw. That’s balanced though by a much sterner Round of 16 test against Colombia. Win that game and it could be a trip to the semifinals that awaits. While England have had a few young stars shine, this World Cup has been the breakout international tournament for Tottenham Hotspur striker Harry Kane with 5 goals in 3 games. If England does make a decent run, he could score the most goals at a World Cup since the original Ronaldo netted 8 for Brazil in 2002.
7 – Colombia (1st Group H, vs England July 3)
They didn’t win it four years ago, but Colombia won a lot of fans in the 2014 World Cup when they made a run to the quarterfinals before being knocked out by host nation Brazil. Los Cafeteros have every chance of doing one better this time around. Colombia may have the most impressive single game performance so far at this year’s World Cup with their scintillating 3-0 win over Poland in their second group stage game.
Surprisingly, centerback Yerry Mina leads the way with two goals but of course Colombia’s hopes will hinge on the health of Bayern Munich star James Rodriguez. It’s encouraging that Colombia was able to beat Senegal even though he had to exit the game in the first half. But Colombia will need the 2014 Golden Boot winner if they hope to ultimately go all the way.
6 – Portugal (2nd Group B, vs Uruguay June 30)
Portugal have a chance to win the World Cup because they have the most transcendent player in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo. An opening hat trick against Spain including his magical free kick shows everything that he and his team are capable of… but that’s not the whole story with Portugal. It never is. As majestic as the heights of Ronaldo are, let us not forget that Portugal were just one good chance away from being supplanted in the knockout round by Iran.
Which Portugal will we see in the knockout round? How many goals can Ronaldo contribute to carry this team? Whatever happens, each game Portugal plays will be must-see TV, especially if a quarterfinal matchup against Messi and Argentina comes to fruition.
5 – France (1st Group C, vs Argentina June 30)
Perhaps it’s appropriate that France plays Argentina to kick off the knockout round because both teams are truly capable of anything. Much like Argentina, France always seems like they play to less than the sum of their parts. Even though they boast some of the best players in the world – Mbappe, Griezmann, Pogba, Kante, Dembele, Fekir, Lemar, etc. – Les Bleus always seem reluctant to turn it loose. If they ever did fully put it together, France would be the tournament favorite. But the one thing they do have going for them is that their pieces are so solid all over the pitch that they should be able to go far in spite of themselves and in spite of a tough draw.
4 – Spain (1st Group B, vs Russia July 1)
The theme of this year’s World Cup has been the compettiveness of it and the fact that the pre-tournament favorites had notable struggles in the group stage. Look no further than former champion Spain, who let in five goals, scraped through a 1-0 victory over Iran, and drew with Morocco. We know Spain can score and with Diego Costa they have a bullish target man who can set up the fluid play around him. It’s not the tiki taka made famous in their championship run, but it’s still effective and fun to watch. The biggest surprise were those defensive struggles, especially the howler by David De Gea against Portugal. Those issues can’t duplicate themselves if Spain hope to win their second World Cup.
3 – Croatia (1st Group D, vs Denmark July 1)
At the other end of the spectrum, who would have thought Croatia would have been the best team by far in the group stage. Group D was considered by many to be the Group of Death before the tournament and Croatia made it look like a preseason warm-up. Their +6 goal differential was second only to Belgium and they faced much stiffer competition.
Real Madrid star Luka Modric was brilliant but the group stage proved that this is no one man band. Croatia is deeply talented with good players from all around the major European leagues. Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic from Serie A giants Inter Milan and Juventus will be the key men in the knockout round to help out the midfield in the goalscoring column. Best of all for Croatia is their draw. If they can get past Spain, it would likely be either Colombia or England that would be all that would stand in their way from reaching a World Cup Final.
2 – Belgium (1st Group G, July 2 vs Japan)
Could this be the golden moment for Belgium’s golden generation? Of all the teams in Russia, they may be the best from top to bottom. There may still be question marks about their three man backline, but it might not matter. Belgium can outscore anybody thanks to a sizzling Roman Lukaku and the skills of Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens, and Kevin De Brunye. If that’s not enough, there’s another wave of attackers off the bench like Michy Batshuayi (as long as he doesn’t seriously injure himself celebrating any more goals, of course).
oh no Michy 😂🙈 pic.twitter.com/O9QhPSyHyT
— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) June 28, 2018
— Michy Batshuayi (@mbatshuayi) June 28, 2018
Belgium certainly looked the part in demolishing Panama and Tunisia in the group stage and they even won against England, when a defeat may have been best for their long-term interests. A quarterfinal showdown against Brazil awaits in a matchup that would be fitting of the final itself.
1 – Brazil (1st Group E – vs Mexico July 2)
Finally we arrive at the favorite. Brazil has the flair. They have the skill. They have the goals. Whether it’s Pele and Garrincha or Ronaldo and Ronaldinho or Neymar and Coutinho. But what is most important for their hopes to lift the World Cup once again is that they show some toughness and a willingness to battle hard through adversity. The 7-1 defeat to Germany on home soil has motivated this team to lift that trophy for four years now and it’s clear from Neymar’s tears after defeating Costa Rica that this tournament means everything to them. They were frustrated by the likes of Switzerland and Costa Rica in the group stage and may be better off starting with two strikers up top and bringing on Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino to partner Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus in attack.
It hasn’t gone perfectly for Brazil. But that may be the most encouraging thing of all in truth. The more Brazil can triumph over adversity, the more they can conquer those demons of 2014 and win the World Cup once again.