The Last 16 have become the Last 8, so let’s rank those teams that are no longer with us, just as I did for the group stage, going first by a result, and if necessary by previous criteria, with their change in ranking from 2014 indicated also.
16. Mexico (Beaten 2-0) (-2)
Poor, poor Mexico. Going out at the Second Round stages, for the seventh straight tournament, must be torturous, but here they are again. Easily dismissed before a ball was kicked, they stunned everyone with the strength of their counter-attacking and defending against Germany, accounted for South Korea without too many problems and then, when things seemed set-up for them to top the group, they messed it all up against the Swedes in farcical fashion.
The result was a tie against Brazil, and there the level Mexico are at showed. For ten minutes or so, they dictated the pace of things, but from there it was withstanding a siege, and just waiting for the goals to come. Come they did, and Mexico, with either aging or inexperienced attacking options, had no answer. Being the best team in CONCACAF is nothing to sneer at, and it isn’t unfair to say that Mexico are top 16 and not top 8 material. But the inability to get over this hump is now as much psychological as anything.
15. Switzerland (Beaten 1-0) (-4)
It was not to be again for Switzerland, a side that has unquestionably managed to assemble a very talented squad, but have hit a wall in terms of how far they are able to go in tournaments of this nature. The good half of the equation was in evidence in the group stages, where they rallied to draw with Brazil then shut them out, came from behind to beat Serbia, and then dealt with Costa Rica. Pre-tournament concerns of a lack of firepower seemed to have been misplaced, and there was genuine expectations of further progression.
But against Sweden that perceived lack of firepower, and a certain lack of composure, raised its head again, and when they did concede, they were only able to really manufacture one decent chance to level. Despite dominating large stretches, that was all she wrote, and this must be considered a serious disappointment. Having only done it once, in the 1954 World Cup they hosted, do Switzerland have it in them to get to the quarter-finals of any tournament ever again?
14. Portugal (Beaten 2-1) (+4)
You never really got the sense that the European champions were contenders here, even with Ronaldo, even with a relatively straight-forward route to the knock-out stage. It was Ronaldo’s genius that got them through a brilliant encounter with Spain, and his sense for goal that got them through a gruelling slog with Morocco, but the deficiencies in the team were laid bare by a haphazard final group game against Iran, where they came dangerously close to crashing out.
Punishment for finishing runner-up was Uruguay, and Portugal couldn’t handle a younger tight-knit team with more than one superstar willing and able to step up and mask the problems. Ultimately, this overall performance would seem to indicate that 2016 was a bit of a fluke, and that Portugal are in for a phase in the doldrums once Ronaldo takes an inevitable step back from international competition.
13. Japan (Beaten 3-2) (+16)
Oh, what might have been. To be up by two against one of the tournament favourites after an hour was a dream for a Japanese side that had changed coach just a few months before and had struggled in pre-tournament friendlies. But in the group stage, Japan turned it on and rarely looked back, in an impressive opening win against Columbia (even if it was against ten men for 88 minutes) and in a hard-fought but very deserved draw against Senegal. The nature of their defeat to Poland, and the way they ceased playing after 80 minutes to preserve their disciplinary record, rankled with some, but they were just playing the game that FIFA had made.
Against Belgium, they defended strongly, took their chances when they came, and were good value up to the last quarter. Even when they conceded, even when Belgium equalised, Japan did not just retreat into a shell, but kept exploring up-field and looking for goals. In the end, that’s what cost them, as they were too adventurous for that late, late corner, and allowed themselves to be devastated on the break. A very admirable tournament performance from Japan, who will hope this effort proves an inspiration for succeeding tournaments.
12. Argentina (Beaten 4-3) (-10)
What a mess. From FA to manager to the players, this is a tournament to forget for Argentina, riven with discord and struggling to be anything like the team that finished runner-up four years ago. From the first, with their inability to break Iceland down in the second half of their first game, it was clear Argentina had problems, and then they were ripped apart by Croatia. Elimination beckoned, but with Messi apparently running the team, Rojo’s near-last gasp volley saved the day in an otherwise unexceptional showing against Nigeria.
They were always going to be up against it with France, bur raised their game enough that they made a battle of it for over an hour, with Di Maria having his only decent show of the tournament. But France, and Mbappe, were just two good, and not even a late rally by a bafflingly benched Aguero could save the day again. Perhaps this is Messi’s last ride in the blue and white, and if so it is a very underwhelming one.
11. Denmark (Beaten in PSO, 3-2) (NA)
This was about as much as the Danes could hope for, realistically. A difficult group started out with unexpected positivity with an easier-than-anticipated victory against an out-of-their-depth Peru, before the limitations became obvious in that 1-1 draw with Australia. Denmark lacked enough effective forward options, and over-relied on Eriksen for their play-making, as evidenced by the facile nature of their final game draw against the French.
Croatia were too much of a test, even with the early goal. The rapid concession of an equaliser should have set-up a barn-burner, but instead Denmark withdrew and regressed, and should have been beaten before full time and full time in extra time. The heroics of Schmeichel in goal (despite clear and obvious infringement of encroachment rules) kept them in it still further, but the better team progressed. Would Ireland have done any better? Unlikely, but Denmark did not set the world alight either.
10. Spain (Beaten in PSO 4-3, +1 GD) (+13)
The moment the manager drama started, Spain were sunk in terms of aspirations to win the tournament. They should have been good enough to see the game out against Portugal, but didn’t, with uncharacteristic errors from the likes of De Gea. They should have been more than good enough to blow Iran away, but struggled. They should have been able to ease past Morocco, but got sucked in to a bad-tempered slug-fest. But they did still top the group, on the back of Ramos’ solidity, Iniesta’s passing and Costa’s finishing.
The reward was the apparently easy tie against the hosts, but once Russia clawed it back to level terms, Spain seemed incapable of using their wide array of attacking talent to any effect, and then unexpectedly fell short in the shoot-out. Would things have been different without the manager swap? Almost certainly, but we’ll never really know. What we do know is that Spain now have three tournament flubs in a row to go with their three wins in a row, and might be back to their pre-2008 status as consistent under-achievers.
9. Columbia (Beaten in PSO 4-3, +3 GD) (-9)
It’s a very high placing for a side that only occasionally showed what they are capable of. The fluke red card within two minutes of kick-off against Japan had a decided effect on that game, and Columbia didn’t have the legs to play for so long with ten men and still get a result. They bounced back in thrilling style against Poland, but then showcased frailty yet again when they struggled to break down Senegal, especially once James Rodriguez went off the field.
Their showing against England demonstrated a lack of penetration in midfield and cutting edge in attack, and their ill-discipline tells its own story. When they were finally able to impose themselves on the game, they got extra time and maybe should have gotten more, but the penalty shoot-out outcome was not unjust. This is a regression for a side that was considered among the dark horses before a ball was kicked.
How did I get on with my Second Round predictions: six of eight! And overall that means my prediction rate is 33/56. 59%! A slight increase!
Predictions for the quarter-finals then.
Uruguay have started playing to the level they are capable of, bit-by-bit, and were very impressive in Portugal game. But the same could just as easily be said for France, whose 4-3 win over Argentina belied how much they bossed the majority of that match. I think I fancy Les Bleu to get their defensive issues sorted while maintaining an attacking threat, and they should be too much for Suarez, Cavani and co. Prediction: France
Notwithstanding their critic-defying run to this point, you have to feel that Russia will hit the plateau sooner rather than later. They got a little lucky against Spain and were able to shut down an ineffective attack, but Croatia may be a different proposition, having a survived a scary challenge from the similarly defensive minded Danes. I think Modric is more incisive on his own than half the Spanish team were, and that’ll be the difference. Prediction: Croatia
Belgium really need to wake up and treat the tournament seriously now, having survived a terrible scare against Japan. They have the players, they now need to play like a team. Brazil have impressed at times in the tournament, and you can never treat a side with their array of attacking talent too casually. But it strikes me that Belgium can match them man-for-man, and if they play to their fullest capability they can win. Prediction: Belgium
They didn’t impose themselves on the game as much as they should have, but Sweden were still able to overcome Switzerland in a hard-fought encounter. A deflection got them a goal, but it was the incredibly tight defence that got them the win. Will that be enough against England? It’s a much tougher challenge, and I think that the quality of England’s attack will be more potent that the Swiss. Too potent. Prediction: England.