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SPORTS | 30-06-2018 10:54

World Cup title race wide open after dramatic end to group stage

Europe and South America dominate knock-out phase – but Germany’s absence is undoubtedly the biggest news.

The thunder-clapping Icelanders have gone home, along with the Egyptians and Peruvians. Now comes the business end of the World Cup, a European- and South Americandominated club that rejects most new applicants as unwanted members of the hoi polloi.

Only six countries have won the World Cup in the last 50 years, but a thrilling group stage in Russia has increased the possibility of a fresh name at least making it to the final.

The group stage is the crossroads of cultures, a mixture of multitudes filled with happiness and hope. But then comes the knock-out stage, where football’s biggest powers normally prevail. This time out the first phase, which featured just one goalless draw and a record number of penalties, has been marked by Germany’s stunning exit – the team’s earliest in 80 years.

Ten European nations reached the round of 16, matching 1998 and 2006 for the most since 11 in 1990, the record since the current format began in 1986. Four South American teams have advanced, plus Mexico and Japan. For the first time since 1982, no African team made it past the first round.

History is instructive: Europe have earned 41 of 64 quarter-final berths and South America have taken 16 since 1986. Among the other regions, Africa and CONCACAF got three apiece and Asia one.

Winnowing to the inner sanctum becomes even more pronounced after that: Europe filled 23 of 32 semi-final spots and South America eight, with South Korea in 2002 at home becoming the only outsider to reach the final four.

Among 20 previous World Cups, Europe has lifted the trophy 11 times and South America nine.

Germany’s departure was the biggest group phase jolt. Projected by many as the first repeat winner since Brazil in 1958 and 1962, Die Mannschaft have become the fourth champion in five tournaments to exit early.

FIFA has favoured the bottom of the bracket with far easier travel, with the Russia-Spain winner headed from Moscow to a quarter-final in Sochi, then potentially a semi-final and the final in the capital. The winner of Colombia v England in Moscow goes to a quarterfinal in Samara, then would be on track to finish at Moscow.

WHAT TO WATCH OUT FOR

Of the half-dozen winners of the trophy since 1970, Germany have gone home, while Italy, of course, never even qualified. Meanwhile, France and Argentina play each other next, so only one will make the quarter-finals. That leaves Spain and Brazil, with the latter fresh from topping their group at a 10th consecutive World Cup even if they have been slow-burners so far. Neymar has not yet captured his best form, but the five-time champions have other matchwinners, not least Philippe Coutinho, and have looked strong at the back.

“This team created high expectations because of what we did in qualifying and in friendlies. But now we are at a World Cup, it’s a new cycle, a new format,” said coach Tite this week in an attempt to keep feet on the ground.

The standout last-16 tie on paper pits France against Argentina, two teams who laboured through the group stage – in the Albiceleste’s case they were lucky to advance at all.

“We didn’t start in the best way. We got ourselves into a real mess,” admitted Javier Mascherano, while France coach Didier Deschamps still seems incapable of getting the very best out of his talented squad.

The Albiceleste might be happier than anyone at Germany’s elimination, having been knocked out by them at each of the last three World Cups. But they could find themselves on a collision course with Brazil in the semi-finals, as they lie on a side of the draw that features countries totalling 10 World Cup wins between them.

European champions Portugal are there too, and if Cristiano Ronaldo’s side beat Uruguay in what could be a real battle of attrition in Sochi, the Real Madrid star might find himself up against Messi’s Argentina in the last eight. It would be a mouth-watering tie.

However Uruguay, to date, are the only team not to have conceded a goal, and recent World Cups have tended to be won by the side with the best defence, with Spain letting in just two in their victorious 2010 campaign.

Along with England, Spain are the only past winners in the other side of the draw and they face Russia in Moscow on Sunday, with question marks surrounding their back line, and the form of goalkeeper David De Gea.

“Obviously we can improve. Five goals in three matches is not the way forward,” said coach Fernando Hierro of their defensive record, as it remains to be seen if Spain were right to sack Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the tournament.

Croatia are possible quarter-final opponents for Spain, however. They won all three group games, and a run to the semis like in 1998 is not beyond them, although coach Zlatko Dalic had a warning for his team before facing Denmark.

“It’s all great for the history books in Croatia but if we don’t win against Denmark, when someone asks you what you did, what can you say? Nothing,” he said.

Meanwhile, England might feel a route to the last four is opening up nicely, despite Thursday’s defeat against Belgium. But Colombia are not to be taken lightly in what manager Gareth Southgate has called England’s “biggest match in a decade.”

And if Germany’s exit has taught us anything, it’s that nothing should be taken for granted. Every team, it seems, is a contender. Just the way it should be.

 

 

The line-up for the last 16

Saturday, June 30

11am: France v Argentina (Kazan) 

3pm: Uruguay v Portugal (Sochi)

Sunday, July 1

11am: Spain v Russia (Moscow) 

3pm: Croatia v Denmark (Nizhny Novgorod)

Monday, July 2

11am: Brazil v Mexico (Samara)

3pm: Belgium v Japan (Rostov-on-Don)

Thursday, July 3

11am: Sweden v Switzerland (Saint Petersburg)

3pm: Colombia v England (Moscow)

 

 

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