Round of 16: A look at the top storylines ahead in the 2018 World Cup
After 48 games, 122 goals and boat-loads of drama, we’ve made it to the 2018 World Cup knockout stage.
Of the 16 remaining nations, some have seen their stock rise and surprise many to make it to the next round, while others lived up to expectations - even if just barely - to make it out of the group stage.
Regardless of previous performance, it’s a fresh slate for the remaining nations, but now it’s win or go home. Every game is a final, the pressure is raised, and teams will leave everything on the line.
Let’s take a deeper look at the upcoming Round of 16 matches, and their top storylines:
France vs. Argentina, 10:00 a.m., Kazan
The knockout stage kicks off with a match that on paper is worthy of a World Cup final. Lionel Messi and co. take on Les Bleus featuring Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann.
But while both teams are in this round, neither has really lived up to expectations. France barely edged Australia and Peru and then tied Denmark, while Argentina needed heroics from Messi and Marcos Rojo to arrive in the second stage.
It all leads to this crucial match, which could see Argentina’s shaky defense implode once again. It’s perhaps best summed up by Argentine newspaper Diario Ole and French sports giant L’Equipe with opposing covers. “He (Messi) will pass (to the next round) by Ole and “he will not pass” by L’Equipe.
Uruguay vs. Portugal, 2:00 p.m., Sochi
On paper, it’s a battle of Luis Suarez vs. Cristiano Ronaldo, but in reality, this game will be determined by two teams who are much more comfortable while their opponent has the ball, preferring to counter at pace and take advantage of set piece opportunities.
With both teams content to sit and defend patiently, it will be interesting to see how this game pans out. Does Uruguay take the initiative, like they did against Saudi Arabia? Or does Portugal string 10 or more passes together before finding Ronaldo in the middle or Quaresma on the wing.
Spain vs. Russia, 10:00 a.m., Sunday, Moscow (Luzhniki)
The host nation surprised many with eight goals in its first two games to ensure a place in the knockout stage, but now Russia faces its biggest test against Spain.
La Furia Roja hasn’t been at top form in Russia, with Iago Aspas saving Spain in its last match against Morocco with a draw to ensure qualification to the next round. A defeat coupled with an Iran win would have sent Spain home.
That being said, even with an interim manager (Fernando Hierro) in charge, Spain should have enough talent to find a couple of goals and take care of business. But Russia will leave with its head held high.
Croatia vs. Denmark, 2:00 p.m., Sunday, Nizhny Novgorod
The Vatreni have been one of the star nations of the tournament, winning all three matches pretty comfortably and cruising into the knockout round.
Croatia now faces a fellow European opponent with a singular star in Christian Eriksen, and should Croatia mark him out of the game, it’s tough to see Nicolai Jorgensen and Yussuf Poulsen creating chances for themselves. Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic will meanwhile run the show for Croatia in midfield.
Brazil vs. Mexico, 10:00 a.m., Monday, Samara
It’s the big one.
After two games, Mexico looked like a lock to win its group, but a 3-0 drubbing to Sweden put Mexico on the verge of missing the knockout round all together, and they needed a prayer and two goals from South Korea to get over the line past Germany.
Regardless, if Mexico wants to play in El Quinto Partido (the fifth game), they’ll have to go through Brazil like everyone predicted.
And it’s possible! Brazil hasn’t truly convinced media and fans alike so far at the World Cup, and with Neymar’s antics and tears at the end of the match against Costa Rica, the pressure to win could be getting to him. Meanwhile, Brazil is without Dani Alves and could be without Marcelo, leaving them a bit limited at wing back, an area that Mexico could exploit.
Belgium vs. Japan, 2:00 p.m., Monday, Rostov
After crashing out in the World Cup quarterfinals in Brazil 2014, Belgium looks like the real deal now. Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku are in fine form and with other stars such as Dries Mertens, Eden Hazard and Jan Vertonghen all playing their roles, it will be difficult to see the Red Devils not getting past Japan.
But the Blue Samurai have been a joy to watch at the World Cup, and even though they edged out Senegal on fair play points, they have shown they’ll give anyone a game.
Sweden vs. Switzerland, 10:00 a.m., Tuesday, St. Petersburg
Like Uruguay, no one defends better to spring a counter attack and win 1-0 better than Sweden. The Scandinavians used their physicality and brute strength - and some clinical finishing - to take down both Mexico and South Korea, while nearly taking a point off Germany.
The game plan is simple and Sweden appear to be able to execute it.
So can Switzerland, made up of a diverse squad filled with creative players, be able to break them down? It will be up to the diminutive but fun Xherdan Shaqiri to find the spaces between defense and midfield, threading passes to Blerim Dzemaili and Haris Seferovic.
Colombia vs. England, 2:00 p.m., Tuesday, Moscow (Spartak)
The one big question ahead of this game could determine its outcome. Is James Rodriguez available to play?
The BBC reported that the Bayern Munich midfielder was to undergo an MRI this weekend to determine the severity of his ongoing calf injury, and if Rodriguez, who was substituted off in the first half of Colombia’s game against Senegal, can’t play, Colombia will be at a severe disadvantage. Juan Fernando Quintero is a brilliant player, but Rodriguez is the heart and soul of this team, and without him, Radamel Falcao may be running circles, waiting for good service into the box.
Meanwhile, Gareth Southgate quietly has England in a fantastic place to make a deep run, should the Three Lions get past Colombia first.
England has looked decent, and certainly clinical at times, though a reserve England lineup couldn’t stand up to a changed Belgium squad last time around. But with Harry Kane on the field, who has scored five goals at this tournament in two games, England always has a chance. Let’s see if the Three Lions can exceed expectations and move on to the World Cup quarterfinals.