And so we have our first rest day. After two weeks of excitement, controversy and, above all, goals, the identity of the last sixteen of the 2014 FIFA World Cup is now known.
The fascinating thing about this tournament is that a clear favourite is yet to emerge. The hosts have been unimpressive, the reigning champions eliminated and the world’s best player seems to be single-handedly dragging his team through games with little input from the manager.
What are the questions regarding tactics, personnel or form that each knockout round qualifier needs to address?
Fernandinho for Paulinho?
The pressure on Luis Felipe Scolari has been gradually increasing throughout the tournament to abandon his loyalty to his Confederations Cup-winning side of last summer and look to other options in the squad to halt a stuttering start from Brazil. Paulinho has been on the receiving end of a lot of team’s criticism following a club season that tailed off badly following injuries during the winter and although Scolari has staunchly stuck to the troops that he placed his faith in twelve months ago, the Tottenham midfielder’s time may be up. He was replaced by Fernandinho at half-time during Monday’s 4-1 win over Cameroon and the substitute capped a strong showing with a late goal. The Manchester City man probably offers more to the team at present and should start against Chile, though if anyone is stubborn enough to persist with Paulinho it’s probably Scolari.
How to stop goals from crosses?
Four years ago in South Africa, Chile were unceremoniously dumped out of the competition by a Brazil side that hadn’t yet hit top gear and they’ll be keen to avoid a repeat this time around in similar circumstances. Jorge Sampaoli’s team have impressed so far but have a glaring weakness that the hosts will be looking to exploit. Chile’s opening game against Australia seemed to going so well after racing into a two-goal lead before the Socceroos began to utilize Tim Cahill’s aerial prowess to worry the South Americans’ central defenders. Gary Medel (5’6″) and Gonzalo Jara (5’10”) have both had indifferent careers in English football and comprise a defence that is highly susceptible to balls played into the box. Things were easier in their second game due to Spain’s reluctance to sling crosses into the box but the Netherlands took the lead in the group-topping decider through a simple Leroy Fer header following a corner. Thiago Silva, David Luiz and Fred will be licking their lips in anticipation, especially since there’s no obvious solution available to Sampaoli.
Yet to be tested
Group C was widely seen as the most open in the competition and although Colombia were favourites to win it, few would have expected them to breeze through the pool with the ease they did, particularly after Radamel Falcao was ruled out of the competition through injury. As it happened, Greece, Ivory Coast (a late flurry aside) and Japan proved cannon fodder for José Pekerman’s outfit with James Rodríguez arguably one of the three best players we’ve seen at this tournament so far. The concern for the Argentinian manager however is at the back, where a central defensive partnership of Mario Yepes and Cristian Zapata have yet to be truly tested. The absence of Luis Suárez will have the Colombians breathing a sigh of relief, though the pace of potential replacement Abel Hernández will have the 38-year old Yepes sweating.
Can they avoid a Costa Rica re-run?
Without Luis Suárez for their opener, Uruguay were abject, throwing away an early lead in the second half at the hands of much-unfancied Costa Rica to put their participation in the competition in severe doubt. Their talismanic frontman was back for the game against England and scored a brace in a much-improved performance but his suspension for the remainder of the tournament poses a headache for Oscar Tabárez and his backroom staff. Veteran Diego Forlán started the opener but perhaps the best option for the last sixteen game with Colombia would be to introduce the pacy Palermo striker Abel Hernández, scorer of four goals against Haiti in last summer’s Confederations Cup, as a direct replacement for Suárez with Edinson Cavani continuing in his deeper role. The PSG star may have less defensive obligations than he did against England and Italy as Colombia lack a deep-lying playmaker of the class of a Steven Gerrard or an Andrea Pirlo.
Does Deschamps know his best team?
There were few surprises in the starting eleven Didier Deschamps named for the opening group game with Honduras and after France impressed during their 3-0 victory, it was a surprise to see the manager shuffle the pack next time out, with Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba left out of the side to face Switzerland. In came Moussa Sissoko and Olivier Giroud and both scored in the resounding 5-2 thrashing of the Swiss. With qualification all-but secured, the ex-Marseille, Juventus and Monaco coach made a further six changes against Ecuador but a less impressive performance at the Maracana probably means a return to one of the elevens used in the first two games. It’s likely that the midfield trio of Yohan Cabaye, Blaise Matuidi and Pogba will be reunited leaving Deschamps with one big decision to make: Griezmann or Giroud?
Can their midfield compete?
The Nigerians responded well to a dour performance in their 0-0 draw with Iran to beat Bosnia Herzegovina and place themselves in pole position to qualify from Group F behind Argentina, with whom the played out an entertaining 3-2 loss on Wednesday. In the second and third games of the group, Stephen Keshi elected to pair John Obi Mikel with Ogenyi Onazi at the base of a 4-2-3-1 with Peter Odemwingie playing as more of a second striker than a third midfielder but against the midfield power that France offer, a more disciplined player may be required to press Yohan Cabaye. Ramon Azeez started the Iran match but was part of a midfield that offered no creativity when breaking down the Iranian’s massed defence. That said, he might be Keshi’s best option for this last sixteen tie.
Four centre backs
Germany’s problems at international level over the past six years are so can be summed up by the notion that their best right back, left back and holding midfielder is the same player: Philipp Lahm. While we’ve become accustomed to skipper being shunted from side to side in the defence to accommodate a less-talented player on the opposite side, now that Joachim Löw is using him in his club position, he has two vacant full back roles to fill. In the group games, these positions have been filled by Jerome Boateng and Benedict Howedes, meaning that the back four is entirely comprised of centre backs (making Germany similar to Belgium in this respect). Neither have looked entirely comfortable, though Boateng is clearly happier to be playing on his strong side and provided a couple of useful crosses against the USA. Howedes on the other hand can resemble a horse that has broken onto the field when he marauds forward and hasn’t looked at home when defending either, particularly in the second game against Ghana. His contribution going forward can be best summed up by a foul he conceded in the second half of yesterday’s win over the US when he overran the ball and ended up ploughing into an opposition defender because he wasn’t able to stop himself.
Lessons learned from Belgium
The North Africans have been one of the surprises of the tournament and are the first country from their region to make the last sixteen of a World Cup. They were hugely impressive in their beating of South Korea in their second game and got the point they needed against a poor Russia side to advance but Vahid Halilhodzic will be rewatching his side’s opening defeat to Belgium ahead of their meeting with Germany in an attempt to rectify some of the problems that led to the group winners’ late goals that saw them turn that game in Belo Horizonte. The Desert Foxes generally play forward-thinking, positive football but clearly set their stall out in the group opener, particularly after taking an early lead through Sofiane Feghouli. Throughout the match, they dropped deeper and deeper and were eventually undone by two Belgian substitutes, leaving them with nothing to show from a match where they should at least have obtained a point. Algeria have been better in this tournament when playing on the front foot but the clash with Germany will probably see them out of possession for long periods. Halilhodzic needs to find the blend between defensive solidity and maintaining an attacking threat if his side are to cause an upset.
Louis van Gaal has proved himself to be the most tactically flexible of the 32 coaches at this World Cup thus far; he used his new 3-4-1-2 system to hammer Spain, allowing his outside centre backs to track the runs of Spain’s wide forwards all over the pitch before switching to a more orthodox 4-3-3 during the 3-2 win over Australia. He shuffled his hand again whilst simultaneously rotating his squad for the final group game against Chile, employing what was at times a flat back five and tight Catenaccio-style man-marking to the South Americans’ midfielders. Against Mexico, who themselves play with three at the back, van Gaal’s choice of system will be fascinating. If he goes like-for-like, expect a tight, cagey affair. Should he opt for a 4-3-3, however, it should be enthralling – Mexico’s wing backs will have space to rampage forward but will leave their defence exposed three against three against the Dutch’s considerable attacking talents.
How do they stop Robben?
Another of the tournament’s surprises, Mexico qualified in disarray but have arrived in Brazil a well-drilled and entertaining side to watch. Miguel Herrera has answered pre-tournament questions of blending the home-based players he knows so well with the stars playing in Europe by coasting through Group A unbeaten at the expense of a talented Croatia side. Against the hosts in their second game, Herrera’s back three defended manfully against Neymar and they will be required to do so again when facing Robin van Persie and particularly Arjen Robben, the tournament’s form player. The Bayern Munich forward has ripped both Spain and Chile apart at times during the group phase and poses the threat of genuine pace whether playing up front or from the right. Herrera probably won’t be able to detail an exact plan to stop the flying Dutchman until he sees how the Netherlands line out but except plenty of body-on-the-line blocks when he cuts inside to shoot from range.
A bridge too far?
The surprise package of all surprise packages thus far, Costa Rica fans must be pinching themselves at the prospect of a last sixteen tie with Greece in Recife. After a miraculous group stage in which they went undefeated against former World Cup winners Uruguay, Italy and England, Jorge Luis Pinto’s next test is to navigate the tricky test of a last sixteen game where they are probably favourites. The magic of their campaign thus far has somewhat overshadowed what a clever tactical job Pinto has done. The Ticos were expected to defend deep with their 5-4-1 system but have actually been quite proactive with wing backs Christian Gamboa and Junior Diaz taking it in turns to star in the Uruguay and Italy games respectively. Few expected the Central Americans to get this far and nobody would have predicted a meeting with Greece so the challenge is now to manage expectation and get past a side that is probably more defensive than their own.
Back into their shell?
Watchers of international football over the past ten years will be all-too familiar with the Greek style of play so their 2-1 win over the Ivory Coast in Group C’s dramatic final round was quite a surprising display of progressive football. So what next? Fernando Santos has gradually moved Greece forward from the ultra-defensive Euro 2004 mentality but the point remains: this is a nation that favours reactive football. It’ll be interesting to observe how Greece approach this tie with Costa Rica as both sides will be keen to regard the other as favourites. If Santos approaches the game in the same manner with which they tackles the Ivorians, their quality should tell. You wouldn’t bet against a plan similar to that used against Japan to unfold, however.
Will the system function better with Aguero?
There are conflicting reports about the state of Sergio Aguero’s fitness and his ability to participate in the rest of the tournament but most sources are unanimous in ruling him out of Argentina’s meeting with Switzerland in Sao Paulo. While the Manchester City’s partnership with Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuain was successful in qualifying, it hasn’t flourished thus far in Brazil and El Kun’s absence against the Swiss may actually suit Alejandro Sabella. If they stick with the 4-3-3 Messi is apparently so keen for them to play with, a space opens up for one more forward, likely to be Ezequiel Lavezzi, who replaced Aguero when he went off against Nigeria. Lavezzi is something of a bizarre player – extremely hard working and pacey but infuriatingly poor with his final ball. The PSG attacker is a decent ‘system player’ though, and may offer more balance to the attack if less overall quality.
Hiding to nothing
The Swiss’s reputation as a tournament team with a water-tight defence took a severe blow with their 5-goal capitulation at the hands of France in Salvador and there is surely those who dread a repeat against Argentina in the last sixteen. While the Argentines have stuttered at times in this World Cup, there is nothing opposition teams dread more than stepping onto the pitch in the knowledge that they are up against an in-form Lionel Messi. With four goals in three games thus far, the Barcelona forward has already conjured up two match-winners against Bosnia Herzegovina and Iran before sticking two past Nigeria before being taken off early in the second half. What can Ottmar Hitzfeld do to stop him? It’s hard to find an answer.
Who plays up front?
To most English football observes, Christian Benteke’s pre-tournament injury wasn’t seen as a major blow to Belgium’s World Cup chances. The Aston Villa giant had had a mediocre Premier League season and Romelu Lukaku seemed a better bet anyway, given his Everton form. The crucial 2-1 win in Croatia aside though, it was Benteke who had let his country though the qualifiers and his hold-up play is superior to that of his junior. Lukaku has had a tough time thus far and may have fallen behind Lille striker Divock Origi in the pecking order ahead of his side’s clash with the USA. In their final group game, Marc Wilmots used Kevin Mirallas as his lone front man before Steven Defour was dismissed but it’s unlikely that he’ll opt for that in the last sixteen. The manager also has the option of using Eden Hazard as a false nine should he consider Origi, 19, too raw for a World Cup start.
Although many neutrals have got behind the Americans following whole-hearted displays in Group G, their ultimately irrelevant loss to Germany yesterday indicated the problems affecting Jurgen Klinsmann’s side. Only in the final couple of minutes did his side create meaningful opportunities and a lack of creativity may be their undoing against a defensively solid Belgium side. Even against Ghana and Portugal, when they impressed, creativity was usually provided by the forward bursts of right back Fabian Johnson who is likely to have the threat of Eden Hazard lingering behind him should he dart forward. Without Jozy Altidore, Klinsmann is forced to deploy Clint Dempsey as a lone front man where he was isolated badly against the Germans.