10 | Croatia: They were far from phenomenal for most of the opening stage of the competition, but the Croats were decisive when it mattered most. A pair of 0-0 stalemates along with a 4-1 thrashing of Canada saw the 2018 finalists finish second in their section. They will take on Japan in their round of 16 clash. While they may be happy to have avoided Spain, Croatia will be in for a tough task even for a resilient Japanese team.
9 | Morocco: Watch out for Morocco. They had excellent support throughout the group stage. Wins over Belgium and Canada plus a draw against Croatia saw The Atlas Lions concede just once. Their squad is bursting with talent and, should they play their cards right, they could make a deep run. The one problem for Morocco is their next opponent, Spain. After winning your group, receiving La Roja in your next match is rather unfortunate. Yet, there should be plenty of belief within the Moroccan side that they can better the Spaniards.
8 | Japan: Giant killers. Hajime Moriyasu’s charges managed the unthinkable twice, coming from a goal down to beat Germany and Spain. It’s a remarkable achievement for the Blue Samurai. In their seventh successive World Cup, they now face Croatia, is this their chance to finally break past the round of 16? It’s something that has eluded them on every occasion beforehand.
7 | Netherlands: The Dutch won Group A without losing a game, but performances have not been stellar from Louis van Gaal’s side as wins over Senegal and Qatar plus a draw against Ecuador did the trick for the Dutch. In-form PSV attacker Cody Gakpo scored in each of the matches, gaining even more attention than before. A defensively solid American team will be the next task for De Oranje, who have finished on the podium in their last two World Cup finals appearances. Thrice have they fallen in the final. Could this be their year?
6 | Portugal: While they may have thrown away a lead against South Korea in their last match, it is hard not to see Portugal as a legitimate favourite in the knockout stage after squeaking past Ghana before impressing against Uruguay to top Group H. Cristiano Ronaldo became the first player to score at five World Cups, an inspiration for the Portuguese as Os Navegadores face Switzerland in the round of 16. In their seven previous World Cup showings, Portugal always reached the semi-finals when they recorded two wins or more.
5 | England: Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions have the joint-most goals of the 16 teams left with nine, although all those came in comfortable wins over Iran and Wales. They are one goal away from double digits, which bodes well historically. In the two World Cups where they found the net 10 times or more, they went on to win in 1966 and finish fourth last time out. Senegal is the next opponent for the English, who have their sights set on improving upon their semi-final defeat to Croatia in Russia back in 2018. The side has quality all over the pitch, but it is now a matter of staying consistent and getting the job done.
4 | Spain: La Roja failed to build on their 7-0 demolition of Costa Rica. Despite leading both Germany and Japan, they failed to hold on, drawing to the former and losing inexplicably to the latter. So, instead of topping their section, Luis Enrique’s men had to settle for second, leaving the Iberians with a fascinating tie with Morocco. In what is a repeat match from the 2018 World Cup, the Spaniards will be in for quite the task. Back then, it ended 2-2, with Spain having to come from a goal down twice. With Morocco improving considerably since, La Roja will have to be at their best.
3 | Argentina: There is no better way to bounce back from one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history than winning your other two games without conceding. Lionel Scaloni’s Argentina stepped up when it matter most and produced three halves of quality football to recover from their mishap. La Albiceleste will once again have the favourite role against Australia. It would be another incredible scalp should Argentina fail to defeat their AFC counterparts. Should they keep the performances up, they are a solid shout to claim their third world title.
2 | France: Les Bleus had the luxury of resting their starters for the last group game against Tunisia. While they did fall 1-0, it matter little to Didier Deschamps’ men as wins over Australia and Denmark gave them top spot in Group D. Next for the defending champions is Poland, who have rarely impressed in this tournament. France did lose their only World Cup meeting against the same opponents back in 1982, that match being the third place playoff. Expectations will be high for France to get past this stage.
1 | Brazil: Like France and Portugal, Brazil were already through after two games. Despite defeat at the death by Cameroon, that did not stop the Seleção from winning Group G. At their best, Brazil are a fun team to watch, and were justifiably pre-tournament favourites. Now they face Korea, who they’ve never met competitively, but it goes without saying that the record world champions are expected to progress here.
David Parkes | GWFN