The knockout phase of the 2022 World Cup is about to begin with some familiar names absent and shock teams in the second round. Most of the world’s elite players remain in contention, but as World Cup history shows, the second round can be a graveyard of champions.
Netherlands vs USA
Netherlands have been efficient rather than exuberant in topping Group A. Star striker Memphis Depay has been short of form, but PSV sensation Cody Gakpo has stepped up with three goals and Davy Klassen has impressed from his attacking midfield position. Where the Dutch do have an embarrassment of riches is in the back three with Virgil Van Dijk leading a steely defence who’ve only conceded once. A concern for Netherlands will be their implosion at the same stage of the European Championships after they appeared to be in control.
The USA have also conceded just one goal (and that came from the penalty spot). The key to their progression has been an energetic midfield press with Tyler Adams protecting the back four. The US managed just two shots on target in their first two games, but the attack flowed better in their must win encounter with Iran. That victory came at a price with star attacker Christian Pulisic getting injured scoring the winner. If Pulisic isn’t fully fit Brendan Aaronson is the likely replacement who offers energy and ball carrying but not quite the dynamism of Pulisic.
The key battle will be in central midfield where the Americans will be hoping to impose their high pressing style, whilst the Dutch will look to breakthrough the press with Frenkie de Jong orchestrating play. If Pulisic plays this could go to extra time but without him the US lack the penetration to hurt the Dutch defence. The Dutch are the better side at keeping the ball and as the game wears on that could prove the difference.
Prediction: Netherlands 1-0 USA
Argentina vs Australia
After a rollercoaster of a group campaign Argentina and Lionel Messi are still standing. After a dismal defeat to Saudi Arabia and sailing close to the wind against Mexico, Argentina found their range against Poland to win Group C. Lionel Scaloni has needed to adapt and change during the tournament with striker Julio Alvarez providing a better foil for Messi than Lautaro Martinez and young midfielder Enzo Fernandez stepping into the first eleven. Of course Messi is still the main man and his moments of magic are key to Argentina’s title hope.
Australia produced two stunning upsets to qualify at the expense of Tunisia and Denmark as celebratory flares lit up Melbourne in the small hours. The Socceroos are a tough defensive team, exemplified by Harry Souttar but with a counter attack able to cause anyone problems as France discovered on matchday one. They don’t have the star names of previous tournaments but veteran forward Mathew Leckie whose goal beat the Danes is enjoying a fine tournament.
Australia will need all their defensive resilience to keep out an Argentina team for whom momentum is building. Messi will be the centre of attention but Alvarez looks the a likely match winner for Argentina. Saudi Arabia showed Argentina’s defensive frailties and they lack the anchoring midfielder which could leave them open on the counter from Leckie. If Australia can keep Argentina close the likes of Awer Mabil and Ajdin Hrustic could make an impact of the bench. However defeat here for Argentina here would rank alongside North Korea taking out Italy in ’66 in the annals of World Cup shocks.
Prediction: Argentina 3-1 Australia
France vs Poland
France have swayed from the sublime to the ridiculous but have overcome the champions curse that took out Germany, Spain and Italy. When they’ve got it right Kylian M’bappe has threatened to turn this into his World Cup with Ousmane Dembele providing an electrifying mirror of pace and skill down the opposite flank. France have however been prone to lapses, illustrated by their slow start against Australia. Didier Deschamps picked a reserve team against Tunisa and suffered a defeat that showed the injuries France suffered before the tournament could cost them further down the line.
Poland qualified by the skin of their teeth after edging Mexico on goal difference and fewer yellow cards in Wednesday night’s defeat to Argentina. They may not have been convincing but this will be Poland’s first World Cup knockout game since 1986 and they do have the man for the big occasion. Robert Lewandowski’s joy at scoring his first ever World Cup against Saudi Arabia remains a defining image of this tournament and for all his club honours it showed just how much he wants to deliver for his nation.
Poland will look to play on the break but they need to show more ambition when they get the ball than they mustered against Argentina. Lewandowski will take his chance if Poland can create one for him and goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny will need to continue his fine form if Poland are to spring a shock . The French should however win this, Deschamps will though be wary of a repeat of his team’s shock exit against Switzerland at the same stage of the Euros last summer.
France 3-1 Poland
England vs Senegal
England topped Group B with a 3-0 hammering of Wales that again showed off their array of attacking talent with Marcus Rashford and Phil Foden grabbing their chance to impress. England have already hit nine goals in Qatar, a national record in the group phase. One player not amongst the goals is Harry Kane, but the 2018 Golden Boot winner does lead the tournament in assists. England’s defence has held better than expected with the much maligned Harry Maguire finding form alongside John Stones.
Senegal overcame Ecuador to dramatically book their place in the knockout phase thanks to a brilliant strike from skipper Kalidou Koulibaly. Scoring has been Senegal’s principle worry in the absence of star man Sadio Mane, with their main threat coming from Boulaye Dia who’s enjoying a good season in Serie A. Two players who haven’t enjoyed a good club campaign are Chelsea pair Koulibaly and Eduoard Mendy both of whom are finding life easier in the national team, however kay midfielder Idrissa Gueye is suspended.
England have never lost to an African team but few expect this to be an easy ride for the Three Lions. Whichever wide pairing England go with in attack, Senegal fullbacks Ismail Jakobs and Youssouf Sabaly will be under huge pressure to contain England. The key selection dilemma for Gareth Southgate is where does he play Jude Bellingham, with the teenage midfielder looking comfortable as a ten ahead of Declan Rice and Jordan Henderson, that could mean a first start alongside Rice for Kalvin Phillips. Senegal’s problem remains the lack of goals from open play without Mane, but they have experience in tournament football from their AFCON triumph and have enough to maker this a tight encounter.
Prediction: England 1-0 Senegal
Japan vs Croatia
Japan stunned the world to beat both Germany and Spain to top Group E. It proved a rollercoaster with those unexpected come from behind wins sandwiched by a poor display in defeat to Costa Rica. Manager Hajime Moriyasu made inspired substitutions to turn both Japan’s games with European giants on their head with Ritsu Doan making himself a national hero. Japan have never progressed beyond the round of 16 at a World Cup and their will be painful memories of 2018 when they surrendered a 2-0 lead to Belgium to go out to a last gasp goal.
Croatia may not have sparkled as brightly at they managed in 2018 but they are now a team accustomed to tournament progression and long time manager Zlatko Dalic is proving an adaptable coach. Making the final in Russia was based around the technical brilliance of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. This time the bedrock of the side has been a stout defence that conceded just once in the group with young centre back Josko Gvardiol the hero against Belgium.
For all the defensive heroics its Modric who remains the main man for Croatia and how influential he can be against the high octane pressing of Japan will be key. Croatia’s other great veteran Ivan Perisic has also looked sharp and Japan will have to stay tight on Perisic when he drifts in from the left. Moriyasu has big selection calls to make with, Doan has twice scored coming off the bench but was ineffective as a starter against Costa Rica. Moriyasu left longstanding midfield lynchpin Wataru Endo out against Spain in favor of Ao Tanaka but may bring the experienced hand back to handle Modric. Both these teams are easy on the eye but can miss chances, this one may provide the tournament’s first penalty shoot-out.
Prediction: Croatia 1-1 Japan (Japan win on penalties)
Brazil vs South Korea
Brazil have made solid but unspectacular progress thus far, with two narrow wins followed by defeat for the reserves to Cameroon. Brazil do look to have another gear to go to when needed in attack with an enviable array of players in attack. One player missing from those options is Neymar, who missed the last two games and isn’t certain to make it in time for their second round game. Defensively they’ve looked rock solid with Alisson barely tested but stiffer challenges lay ahead. Brazil then confirmed they’d suffered further injury problems with Gabriel Jesus and Alex Telles ruled out of the tournament.
South Korea qualified dramatically with Hwang Hee-chan’s injury time goal against Portugal sending them through at Uruguay’s expense. South Korea have improved through the tournament and shown incredible resolve to come from behind to qualify for the knockout phase. It was star forward Son Heung-min who broke forward and played in Hwang for the winner and Son’s quick recovery from injury has proved vital in South Korea’s progression.
Even without Neymar, Brazil should have too much quality for South Korea and their starters should be fully charged having being rested against Cameroon, South Korea by comparison have just four days to get ready for the game of their lives after their draining win over Portugal. South Korea will be dangerous on the break, however it’s hard to see Brazil falling this early.
Prediction: Brazil 3-1 South Korea
Morocco vs Spain
Morocco’s run to the knockout phase isn’t entirely unexpected. Morocco have only lost twice in their last 16 games and have a robust defence marshalled by Romain Saiss and Nayef Aguerd. Unsurprisingly right-back Achraf Hakimi has been exceptional but the Morocco’s attack has hugely benefited from the return from the international wilderness of Hakim Ziyech. The Chelsea winger has added a cutting edge to a hard working team and Morocco deservedly topped their group.
Spain have reminded everyone of their brilliant 2010 team in the group phase, they’ve also reminded the world of their defensive lapses of 2018. Their passing has been joyful with Sergio Busquets orchestrating behind Pedri and Gavi who look like the new Xavi and Iniesta. However Germany and Japan got amongst the Spanish midfield and forced mistakes which point to the young Barca duo being on a learning curve. The defence also has questions to answer with Rodri in an unfamiliar role and a high dependence on veteran fullbacks Jordi Alba and Cesar Aspilicueta.
This will only Morocco’s second ever knockout game at the World Cup, their first ending in late heartbreak via a Lother Matthaus free-kick. Spain will dominate possession but Morocco will be comfortable with that and will be confident of opening Spain up on the break through Hakimi and Ziyech. This will be a game of few clear cut chances and Spain will remember how that kind of encounter did for them in Russia four years ago. The often criticised Alvaro Morata has been in-form thus far for Spain, if he’s clinical Spain should edge this one.
Prediction: Morocco 0-1 Spain
Portugal vs Switzerland
Portugal were tipped by many to be strugglers, partially due to the Cristiano Ronaldo saga that hung over the team’s arrival in Qatar. Yet Portugal look a more cohesive unit than they showed in qualifying or at Euro 2020. Ronaldo hasn’t been stellar but his free agent status hasn’t been a distraction. Bruno Fernandes has been the main man with two goals and two assists and despite the odd lapse the defence has looked good enough.
The Swiss came through a tough group with a thrilling 3-2 win over Serbia guaranteeing their progress. That win was made more impressive by doing it without long standing goalkeeper Yann Sommer. Switzerland remain a redoubtable side with Xherdan Shaqiri yet again turning on the style at a major tournament and the dangerous Breel Embolo providing the cutting edge this team had previously lacked.
The Swiss shattered their glass ceiling of the last 16 by stunning France at Euro 2020 and will be confident of doing the same to Ronaldo and company. This could turn into an attritional contest with neither side prepared to gamble. That will suit Portugal who have the knack of winning in extra time and they may just do it again to sneak through.
Prediction: Portugal 2-1 Switzerland (AET)
Team of the Group Stage:
Van Dijk (Netherlands)