The knockout rounds of the 2018 World Cup are here. There is plenty of heavyweight power remaining, and there were only a few surprises getting here. In fact, 14 of the 16 teams favored to finish top two in their groups advanced–the exceptions being Sweden instead of Germany, and Japan in place of Poland. That should make for some tight games, and we have very few outright mismatches. Here’s how we rank the games.
#1 FRANCE vs. ARGENTINA (SATURDAY, JUNE 30)
The only Round of 16 matchup between two prior World Cup champions and two of the pre-tournament favorites. Neither has looked in top form yet, as France has won two one-goal games and had the only scoreless draw of the group stage with Denmark, while Argentina survived serious danger to advance in the final minutes of the third match.
But as we’ve learned in previous World Cups, if you give a champion a chance, they can re-discover form in the knockout rounds. Expect a slugfest, and the winner is the favorite to reach the semifinal out of their quadrant.
#2 URUGUAY vs. PORTUGAL (SATURDAY, JUNE 30TH)
Two teams that have been near the pinnacle in recent years and shown they have knockout game moxie. Portugal won Euro 2016 despite coming out of the group stage with three draws, surviving several close games in extra time and penalties. Uruguay is back in the World Cup knockout round, and many of these players were part of the 2010 semifinal run.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez, and Edinson Cavani also give this match as much attacking talent as any match.
#3 COLOMBIA vs. ENGLAND (TUESDAY, JULY 1)
Will James Rodriguez be fit enough to play? His calf injury kept him from starting the opener against Japan, and he had to come out again in the third match against Senegal, after several brilliant moments in the rout of Poland.
His status could go along way in determining this one, but even without him, Colombia have a chance. England was able to roll over Panama and got the late goal against Tunisia necessary to advance. It’s a young side that could build confidence with a good performance here. I expect a tight game into the final minutes.
#4 BRAZIL vs. MEXICO (MONDAY, JULY 2ND)
Brazil always seems capable of putting on a show. Mexico came out with an inspired performance against Germany in taking it right at the defending champs, though their last match against Sweden left much to be desired. The question is which Mexico will we see? The team that will be decisive and quick in counterattack, or the team that scored one more goal over the last 180+ minutes of action, and will pack it in against Brazil?
Mexico has reached the knockout rounds now seven straight times in the World Cup. The flip side, though, is that they lost the Round of 16 game in each of the previous six tournaments. Brazil makes the prospect of seven straight more likely.
World Cup Round of 16 Matchups and Schedule
#5 CROATIA vs. DENMARK (SUNDAY, JULY 1ST)
Croatia may have been the most impressive team in the group stage, scoring 7 goals and being one of the three teams to take maximum points (Uruguay and Belgium being the others) out of a tough group. Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, and Ivan Perisic give them quality in attack and make Croatia a darkhorse to advance to the final. Denmark, meanwhile, have Christian Eriksen and one of the best goalkeepers in the tournament in Kasper Schmeichel. Expect a slugfest.
#6 SWEDEN vs. SWITZERLAND (TUESDAY, JULY 3RD)
Sweden have been giant killers, knocking Netherlands out in World Cup qualifying, eliminating Italy in the World Cup playoff, and (despite losing to them late head-to-head) advancing instead of Germany out of the group stage.
Switzerland showed their quality and toughness in playing Brazil to a draw. They’ve been ranked in the top 10 in the FIFA rankings. This one will likely involve the teams coming out cautious and defensive but opening late.
#7 SPAIN vs. RUSSIA (SUNDAY, JULY 1ST)
Russia won the first two matches in blowout fashion, but when they had to play Uruguay, the only knockout round caliber team, they “are what we thought they were.”
Spain, meanwhile, got a late goal to draw with Morocco, and were not overly impressive in the group stage, though they will be seen as the favorites on their side of the draw. Spain has experience losing to an un-fancied home World Cup side, falling to South Korea back in 2002. I’m not ruling out an upset but the more likely result is that Spain controls the match.
#8 BELGIUM vs. JAPAN (MONDAY, JULY 2ND)
One of the most impressive teams in the group stage–and I think an underrated team that can win it all–goes against probably the least impressive team in the group stage and a decided underdog. Japan’s win came in a game where they played 11 v. 10 for 87 minutes (and played 1-1 after getting the PK with that advantage). They looked dour against Poland.
Belgium rested Romelu Lukaku in the finale but he should be back, and they will be capable of dominating. Japan is going to get off the bus with it already in park, playing for PKs from the outset. This will go one of two ways–a frustrating, boring match where Belgium struggles to finish, or Belgium jumping on Japan early.