And so the knockout rounds have begun ... crashing out so far are the United States, England, South Korea and Mexico, with Uruguay, Ghana, Germany and Argentina moving one step closer to eternal glory. So here’s a recap of those round-of-16 games already played and a preview of the other half left.
Uruguay vs. South Korea: Not a big name match-up, but a thrilling match to start the knockout rounds with. Two vastly different styles came together: the South Americans, with their heavy dose of possession and attacking flair against good combination play and fantastic work rate of South Korea. Two goals, the latter an absolute wondergoal, from Uruguay’s Luis Suarez was enough to propel them into the quarterfinals. South Korea made a tremendous push, but it just fell short. Suarez had been largely disappointing thus far, failing to emerge from the shadow of fellow striker Diego Forlan, but has showed up at the right time. A big-time scorer in the Dutch League, Suarez will most likely have earned himself a big transfer to European football from Ajax. Uruguay switched to three in the attack since their opening game and the introduction of another forward, Edinson Cavani, has opened up more space for Suarez and allowed Forlan to drop a bit deeper and take on the responsibility of playmaker for Uruguay. They look a force to be reckoned with come the quarterfinals.
USA vs. Ghana: The inability to start strong at the beginning of a period, once again, was the Yanks Achilles heel as they fell to Ghana, 2-1, via overtime. They came out flat at the beginning of the game, being completely played off the pitch before Kevin Prince-Boateng’s first half goal, before coming back with a resilient second-half performance. Yet they failed to capitalize on the momentum that came with Landon Donovan’s PK goal after Clint Dempsey was taken down in the box and were forced to pay the consequences. Asamoah Gyan exposed the United States lack of athleticism in the back and scored a fine individual goal to condemn the U.S. to an early flight back home to the states. This time it was too late to stage a final comeback and the lack of available substitutions left sealed the deal. Once again, Bob Bradley’s tactical decisions have to be called into question ... Why is Ricardo Clark on the field, let alone on the 23-man roster? Time after time he has been given opportunities and failed to justify them. A turnover waiting to happen, his giveaway in the first half was eerily similar to Claudio Reyna’s in 2006 against ... you guessed it, Ghana, and once again the United States have been sent home by the Black Stars. In the end, the United States didn’t deserve to go any further, they lack a consistent goal scorer, like Gyan, a creative force in the middle of the park, as well as lacking center backs with the ability to handle top level forwards. You can only ride luck so far, and you can’t be missing that many pieces of the puzzle and expect to advance to the quarters of the World Cup. Credit to Ghana though, the only African team to advance came out of the gates blazing. They might miss the calming influence of superstar Michael Essien, but seeing Inter Milan star Sulley Muntari ride the bench shows you how deep they really are. U-20 World Cup Champs in 2009, they’re much stronger than the team in 2006 and will be a handful for Uruguay in their quarterfinal clash to come.
England vs. Germany: Fierce European rivals with lots of World Cup history against each other, this was the first true clash of heavyweights in the knockout rounds. This was, just as it’s always hyped up as, ‘England’s World Cup’. The influence of manager Fabio Capello, the final piece to the puzzle, England was supposedly ready to justify their claims as a World Cup favorite. Germany however, is a tournament team and they always have been. Having made it to the semifinals in their home country in 2006, Germany looks ready to take the next step following their drubbing of England earlier today. Two early goals from two written-off strikers got the ball rolling for the Germans and they never really looked back. Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski, only having scored a handful of goals all season between the two of them, both rewarded the faith of manager Joachim Loew and provided great goals to shock England. England pulled one back through Matthew Upson and were cruelly denied an equalizer when Frank Lampard’s shot clearly crossed the line before heading in 2-1 down at halftime. Germany put the game away mid-second half via two goals from youngster Thomas Muller and the better team won. There will continue to be a lot of whining from the Brits following the game, but if any of them watched the whole match, it will be clear to them that Germany was a level above them and were scoring at will. Going into the quarterfinals, Germany looks stronger than ever. Largely synonymous with physical, defensive minded play, this younger version of Germany looks a bit like a hybrid. They still have the size and grit in back in the form of Per Mertesacker and Arne Friedrich, but on the offensive side of the ball they look as exciting and dangerous as ever. The accomplished passing and tackling provided by central midfielders Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger allows Germany to basically attack with a front four. Mueller and Podolski provide width and support for Klose up top, while Mesut Ozil pulls the strings while roaming all around the field. They’re going to be tough to stop.
Argentina vs. Mexico: South American soccer against North America’s best imitation of South American soccer is what this game offered. Mexico was bright in the first 15 minutes or so and looked the most likely to score, but I always had confidence that Argentina was destined to win this game. They had an easy time qualifying from the group stages and just needed a bit of time to settle in and find their footing against a higher level of opponent. And for a second time in the same day, a controversial goal was provided. This time Carlos Tevez opened the scoring, heading in Lionel Messi’s chip. Replays showed Tevez had clearly started from an offside position and Mexico began to self-destruct on the spot. Surrounding the assistant referee who was at fault, imploring (to put it nicely) with him to change his mind, you just had a feeling that it was only going to go downhill from there for the Mexicans. Before you knew it, Gonzalo Higuain had pounced on a moment of indecision from Ricardo Osario and was composed enough to round Oscar Perez and pass in from about six yards to give Argentina a two-goal cushion. By the time Carlos Tevez pile-drived home a third, Mexico looked ready to concede. A late consolation from Manchester United’s new signing, Javier Hernandez, was a day late, dollar short. Argentina, a team so many had questioned leading into the World Cup has now won every game they’ve played this tournament and look ready to avenge their ’06 penalty kick loss to the German’s. Diego Maradona might not be a tactical genius (although his three-pronged forward attack has worked wonders thus far); one thing he clearly has done is brought an immense feeling of team unity to Argentina. The players are rarely not hugging, smiling, or offering a customary, congratulatory kiss on the cheek to fellow teammates. Their match-up against Germany is a match you cannot afford to miss.
This weekend has already spoiled us with great matches, but Monday and Tuesday offers plenty of great games to come as well. The attacking flair of the Dutch prepare to face off against the staunch defense of Slovakia, while FIFA’s number one ranked Brazil prepare to do battle against dynamic South American neighbors Chile to round up Monday’s action. Tuesday brings a match of two surprise knockout round teams: Paraguay and Japan and the much-anticipated match-up of European powerhouses Spain and Portugal. The Netherlands, buoyed by a newfound width in attack due to the return of talisman Arjen Robben look likely victors over Slovakia, but will have to be careful to shut down tournament joint-top scorer Robert Vittek and find a way through a defense anchored by Liverpool center back Martin Skrtel. Brazil will most certainly be favorites against Chile and will certainly be happy to welcome back Elano, Kaka and Robinho to the starting 11. They will need striker Luis Fabiano to be clinical with his finishing to avoid an upset, because Chile will offer a lot of danger in attack. A big match-up will be winger Alexis Sanchez for Chile against both outside backs for Brazil, Maicon and Michel Bastos. Paraguay will most likely move through as well to continue South America’s domination of the tournament so far. Japan will put up a good fight, but in the end I think Paraguay’s front line will be a bit too much to handle for them. Last but not least, Spain will most likely come through victorious against Portugal in the final round of 16 game on Tuesday. Portugal have a water-tight defense and haven’t lost in 19 matches, but Spain’s embarrassment of riches in attack provide them with more than one key to unlock any defense. David Villa’s red-hot form will most likely continue and if Fernando Torres finds any semblance of his form from Euro 2008, Portugal will bow out. Portugal’s only hope rests in the shape of Cristiano Ronaldo. Having finally scored in the 7-0 thrashing of North Korea, he’ll have to build on that momentum for Portugal to sneak into the quarterfinals.
The win-or-go-home stage of the tournament has begun and now all of these nations are really ready to lay it on the line. It’s can’t miss stuff; so start calling in sick, set your DVR’s, or tune in on ESPN3.com in your cubicle...