As many finished their Sehris yesterday morning in Pakistan, the last match of the Round of 16 concluded at the World Cup, with Belgium edging out the USA to book their place in the quarterfinals. As a result, we now have the following quarterfinals to look forward to in a couple of days:
France vs. Germany – Friday 4 July, 9pm PST
Brazil vs. Colombia – Saturday 5 July, 1am PST
Argentina vs. Belgium – Saturday 5 July, 9pm PST
Netherlands vs. Costa Rica – Sunday 6 July, 1am PST
For those who have watched all or, at least, most of the matches religiously, the two-day break before the quarterfinals is chance to catch up on sleep and to temporarily reconnect with the world. However, it is also a moment to reflect on what has been a remarkable round of matches.
For the first time in World Cup history, all the teams that won their respective groups, during the group stage, have gone on to win their respective Round of 16 matches and have progressed to the quarterfinals. However, as those of you who saw the matches would profess, the quarter-final line-up could easily have been very different. Many matches which seemed to have clear favourites turned out to be nail-biters. 5 of the 8 matches went into extra-time, including 2 that had to be settled by penalties.
The hosts Brazil were inches away from elimination against Chile in the dying seconds of extra-time, when Chilean substitute struck a fierce shot from 25 yards out which beat the keeper but was saved by the crossbar. Brazil went on to win the resultant penalty shoot-out, again aided by a Chilean penalty miss that came off the post. Following the match, Pinilla decided to get a tattoo signifying his miss with the caption “one centimetre from glory”.
Brazilian players celebrate
Pinilla hits the crossbar for Chile in the dying seconds Pinilla's tattoo of his near-miss against Brazil
Schurrle scores Germany’s first
The likes of Germany, Argentina and Belgium too had to rely on extra-time to ensure progression. Germany were given a run for their money by Algeria, who during the first half at least, seemed to out-run and out-work the Germans, especially in midfield. They had to rely on goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, coming out of his box numerous times, playing sweeper-keeper, to keep the Algerians from scoring. Schurrle and Ozil scored two goals in extra-time, and despite the Algerians pulling one goal back right at the death, the Germans had done enough to progress.
Messi and Di Maria celebrate Argentina's winning goal
Argentina looked short of ideas for most of the match against Switzerland. They had relied on Lionel Messi to get this far, and it seemed, for most of the match, that it would require yet another moment of inspiration from the Barcelona forward if Argentina were to progress further. And it was Messi, eventually, who took the ball in midfield, ran into the box, and setup Di Maria to score the winning goal for the Argentines in the 118th minute. The drama didn’t end there as the Swiss struck the post in the remaining moments of the match, but the Argentines managed to cling on to their 1-0 lead.
Belgium, considered one of the dark horses of the tournament, didn’t have a smooth ride against the USA either. Despite attempting 31 shots during the regulation 90 minutes, they were unable to hit the back of the net against the USA. When the Belgians finally managed to score, first in the 93rd minute, and then again in the 105th, it seemed it was all over, but the Americans soon replied by getting a goal back in the 107th minute. A tense finish followed in which the Belgians had to rely on one of the misses of the tournament from USA’s Wondolowski to win the match.
De Bruyne scores for Belgium in the 93rd minute USA’s Wondolowski misses the chance to take the
match to penalties
The Netherlands may not have needed extra-time to go through against Mexico but that is not to say they did not have their hearts in their mouths in the final minutes of the match. After a wonderful strike from Dos Santos in the 48th minute, the Mexicans led the match for most of the second half. The Dutch were staring elimination in the face, when Sneijder popped up to equalize in the 88th minute. The match then seemed headed towards extra-time when Robben managed to win a controversial penalty – seen by many as a dive – in the dying seconds of the match. Klaas Jan Huntelaar duly converted the penalty to keep the Oranje on track. France and Colombia had relatively smoother sailings, both winning 2-0 against Nigeria and Uruguay respectively. Colombia’s James Rodriguez scored, arguably, the goal of the tournament with a fantastic chest and volley from outside the box.
Robben wins the penalty for the Netherlands James Rodriguez’s wonder-strike for Colombia
After having topped the ‘group of death’ – containing England, Italy and Uruguay – Costa Rica continued their World Cup fairy-tale with a win against Greece. Like Brazil though, they had to rely on penalties to progress.
Beyond determining the quarter-finalists, the matches of the Round of 16 also had two notable themes. Firstly, goals seemed harder to come by in the knockout stage, especially following the free goal-scoring we had seen during the group stage. 6 of the 8 matches were goalless at half-time while 3 of those were still goalless at the full-time whistle. This was partly because of the cautious approach taken by most sides, especially in the early part of the matches. Given the knockout nature of the matches, sides seemed keener on establishing control of the pace of the game and not conceding, than being too adventurous in the pursuit of goals. Belgium-USA was an exception though. Very little of that match was played in midfield. We see a total of nearly 40 shots in the regulation 90 minutes, yet it finished 0-0 at full-time and had to go to extra-time. That was mainly due to the heroics of USA keeper Tim Howard.
And this leads us to the second notable theme of the round. This has been the World Cup of the super-hero goalies for the underdogs. This was emphasized even more in the knockout stages. We have seen remarkable keeping performances in the last few days from Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa, Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas, Algeria’s Rais M'Bolhi, and USA’s Tim Howard. Against Belgium, Tim Howard became the keeper with the most saves made (14) in a World Cup match since 1966. The performances of these keepers have gone a long way in ensuring tight matches, which otherwise may have been more one-sided.
Guillermo Ochoa Keylor Navas Rais M'Bolhi Tim Howard
All in all, the Round of 16 made for fascinating, edge-of-the-seat viewing. It also emphasized a key lesson from the group stages – that it is futile to make any predictions in this World Cup. Even with only 8 teams now left, this tournament is still wide open with no clear favourites. And that is part of the fun. Here’s to hoping that the best World Cup in recent memory continues to get even better.
The author is an ex-investment banker, currently managing a TV station and a college, and a self-proclaimed football pundit who loves to ramble about the ‘beautiful game’ to anyone willing to listen. He tweets @BilalAKayani and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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