By Jeremiah Paschke-Wood | Only Love Soccer
After a very enjoyable group stage that saw lots of favorites and heavyweights go down in flames (Ha ha, England, ha ha), the first knockout round of the World Cup saw a bit of a return to normalcy. Of the teams remaining in the competition, only Costa Rica and Colombia have not reached the quarterfinals before. However, two out of the three “dark horses” remain still alive in Belgium and Colombia. With that in mind, here’s a question for you: Can you still be considered a “dark horse” if everybody is picking you as a possible dark horse? Wouldn’t that just make you a favorite?
On to the teams…
Brazil. The Selecao (that’s Brazilian for “soccer team, I think) are the prohibitive favorite. Playing at home, with one of the better players in the world (Neymar) and the rest of the team composed of players that ply their trade at the likes of Paris St. Germain, Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona, the Brazilians are expected to win this tournament. They SHOULD win this tournament. But will they? Only once in the last 8 World Cups has the host won (France in ’98). And, aside from Neymar, the team has been relatively poor, particularly the forward line of Fred and Jo, certainly one of the weakest ever on a Brazilian World Cup team. Looking at past champs, almost every one has a couple world stars on the team. This Brazil team has Neymar, and … I guess Thiago Silva? Players like Oscar and Bernard might be held in the same regard as the likes of Socrates, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, et al one day, but that day has not come yet. But maybe it will if they win this tournament. Still, Brazil hasn’t lost a competitive match at home since 1975, so… Odds: 2-1
Colombia. The Cafeteros (Umm…cafetaria workers?) were named one of those oft-referred-to “dark horses” prior to the tournament, and along with France have probably have been one of the two most convincing teams in this tournament. They have the tournament’s bright shining star so far in James “Pronounced ‘Ha-Mess'” Rodriguez and attacking talents like Jackson Martinez and Juan Cuadrado and have poured in goals against both good and bad teams alike in this tournament. All this despite missing forward Falcao, generally considered one of the best, if not the best forwards in the game, for the entire tournament through injury. Also, and this is why you should cheer for Colombia: Today is 20 years to the day after Colombian defender Andres Escobar was murdered after his own-goal – against the U.S., of all teams – knocked favored Colombia out of the 1994 World Cup. With that said, Colombia’s defense is led by a 38-year-old centerback named Mario Yepes who is virtually immobile, and has only beaten Brazil twice in history, anywhere, and only scored 11 times against them in 25 appearances. Odds: 16-1
The Netherlands. Die Oranje (The Dutch like oddly places J’s) have been probably the most Jekyll/Hyde of the remaining sides in the tournament. Their tag as potential winner has been in place since they crushed defending champ Spain in the opening match, even though they’ve been outplayed for large stretches of all four matches in this tournament, including the first half against Spain, until they were saved by my wife’s favorite goal of all time. They can be ruthless in attack thanks to the likes of Robin Van Persie and Arjen “I’m falling!” Robben, but their defense, led by Ron “I play for Aston Villa, there I said it” Vlaar is suspect, and usual talisman Wesley Sneijder is getting old and becoming increasingly ineffective on the world stage. There is something to be said for teams that are willing to attack no matter who they’re playing, though, and Robben can probably win this tournament all on his own, as much as I hate him for constantly flopping. Odds: 8-1
Costa Rica. La Sele (or ‘Ticos,’ if you like) should truly be the neutrals’ choice as the team to cheer for, particularly if they’re American. For one thing, they’re the only North American team left after the U.S. and Mexico bowed out this past round. They were also really, really, really not expected to get this far. Here is ESPN’s evaluation of their chances, prior to the tournament:
With a conservative game plan and little offense to speak of, the Ticos could look more like they’re playing not to lose in Brazil. That will cause headaches for opponents, and maybe result in a draw or two. It won’t be enough to avoid the cellar in Group D.
Ouch, ESPN, though in their defense, I tweeted this halfway through Costa Rica’s initial match. Costa Rica knocking out the Dutch and making the semifinals would be the equivalent of Utah State reaching the NCAA Final Four, or the Cleveland Browns’ making the playoffs, amiright bros?! *high five* Though unlikely, it’s not impossible. Keep in mind that this team is undefeated in four matches against three former World Cup winners and one European Cup winner already. Goalkeeper Keylor Navas has been one of the best in the tournament, and Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell have been thorns in the side of opposing defenses. On the downside, the previously mentioned Bryan “Not quite good enough for Fulham” Ruiz and Joel “I’m an Arsenal player, honest! Yeah, I know, I’ve never played for them…” Campbell are probably their two best outfield players. Odds: 32-1
France. I’ve gotten so used to Les Bleus struggling in big tournaments in the last 8 years that I just naturally expected this team, especially missing Franck “The World’s Most Handsome Man” Ribery, to limply advance to the knockout round and then get beaten by, oh, Iran. But shockingly, they’ve played like Les Bleus of old, steamrolling pretty much everyone except for Ecuador, who they didn’t have to beat anyway, since they’d already hammered Switzerland and Honduras in their previous matches. It’s not an exaggeration to say that France has been the best team in the tournament so far. Now as to whether they’ll be able to beat Germany, that’s another question. One thing about being in a group with Switzerland, Ecuador and Honduras and facing Nigeria in the knockout round is that none of those teams would be considered world powers by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it probably wouldn’t be a stretch to say that not a single player from any of those teams would make the German team. But with that said, France are historically strong against Germany, winning 11 of their 25 matches (this includes West Germany, by the way), and it’s not as if the Germans have been dominating anyone so far in this tournament, besides Portugal, anyway. Odds: 8-1
Germany. Die Mannschaft (I never get tired of that nickname) are probably the second-favorite to win this tournament after Brazil, and they looked the part in shredding a “surprisingly” mediocre Portugal team in the opener. Since then, though, they haven’t looked so hot, conceding two goals against Ghana, barely breaking a sweat against the U.S. and nearly losing to a valiantly defending Algeria side that I really hoped would win that match. On their day, Germany have more experience and ability than anyone left in the tournament, but also are developing a bit of a worrying tendency to lose in the next two rounds no matter who they’re facing. They also don’t have a striker as good as France’s Karim Benzema or Olivier “I Score Goals With Handsome” Giroud, nothing against Miroslav Klose, who has been probably the best forward at the World Cup in a generation but is getting fairly long in the tooth, or as they say in Germany, “wie Sie sagen, jemand ist alt in Deutsch.” However, the likes of Miroslav Ozil, Mario Gotze, Thomas Muller and Toni Kroos represent probably the best creative midfield in the world at this moment, so most teams would take the trade-off. Odds: 4-1
Argentina. La Albiceleste were and continue to be my pick to win the tournament, even if they haven’t been overly convincing so far. The thing is, they have the world’s best player in Lionel Messi, and he has been convincing, and that’s why I’ll keep picking them, even if literally no one else on the team, no matter their level of stardom in world football, has done much positive in any of their matches so far. For the record, the team is 4-0-0 in this World Cup, scoring seven goals and conceding three, two of those against Nigeria in a match neither team had to win, necessarily. Of the seven goals, Lionel Messi has scored four, assisted on two and served up the corner on the other one that eventually resulted in a goal. He’s good. How bad has the rest of the team been? Well, their forward line (excepting Messi), which combined for 83 goals this season between four players, has 0. Angel Di Maria, the highly rated Real Madrid winger, has one goal – the winner against Switzerland – but that goal came from 13 shots in a match where I’m going to optimistically say he had one successful cross out of 20. Against Switzerland, the team that gave up 5 goals to France. And offense is Argentina’s strength. But it always comes back to Messi, who apparently has to win the World Cup to be considered a true great, but even if he doesn’t is pretty much always great. And if things play out like they have so far, he might continue to win matches on his own heading further into the tournament. Odds: 4-1
Belgium. De Rode Duivels, yes the team that knocked out our boys in red, white and blue, err…white polo shirts…is the final team in the quarterfinals. Like France and Argentina, they’re undefeated in the competition, albeit against lesser teams, unless you count the U.S. as a favorite, which no one does, sadly. The Red Devils are similar to Brazil in that they have an array of stars-to-be playing at big clubs around the world. But unlike Brazil, they don’t have Neymar. Instead, they have Kevin “Pronounced Dey Brown, apparently” De Bruyne. Belgium has done a lot of huffing and puffing in the group stages and against the U.S. in the round of 16, as their array of young attacking talent has mostly flailed away with crosses and shots but not scored a lot of goals. Against Algeria they were losing most of the match before rallying late. Against Russia no one did much of anything and then they rallied late. Against South Korea, no one really did much of anything and they rallied late. Against the U.S., Belgium took shot after shot, couldn’t beat Tim Howard and then rallied and won it in extra time. Against Argentina, Belgium will probably not have the possession or attempts on goal that they have had against anyone so far, so if they start as slowly and ineffectively as they have in their first four matches, they’ll be in trouble, particularly if Aguero/Di Maria/Higuain finally wake up and start playing football. But maybe Argentina’s array of stars will sleepwalk through this match too, and Belgium will find the cutting edge they’ve lacked so far. Maybe. Odds: 16-1