Continuing World Cup Month, we take a look at the five things we learned from the Round of 16.
Man, it’s been tense. To think it took us 11 games to see our first draw, now we’re going to extra-time in almost every game. Group Stage is your freshman year, where everything is new and exotic and exciting. Now you’ve reached the endgame of long nights and final decision. One false step and you’re home with nothing. So long Chile, Uruguay, Greece, Mexico, Nigeria, Algeria, Switzerland and the USA. It was fun while it lasted. Let’s, in the time-honored reality show tradition, look back at the highlights, and look forward to the quarter-finals ahead.
Goalkeepers > Strikers
For a tournament with a Motley Crue-esque level of Goals, Goals, Goals, strikers haven’t had as much joy as you might think out in Brazil. Of the top 10 scorers, only Karim Benzema is a proper Number 9. All the glory thus far has gone to the men further back and cutting in from the wings, but for this round you have to go even further back to find the heroes. Perhaps it’s the tight nature of the games or the onset of extra-time and penalties that’s brought it on, but the Round of 16 was owned by the goalkeepers.
Tim Howard broke the record for most saves in the World Cup with his one-man, Gandalf-they-shall-not-pass performance against Belgium. Keylor Navas did a similar job on the Greeks, thwarting Samaras, Mitroglou et al repeatedly before pulling off a penalty save to win it for Costa Rica. A tearful Julio Cesar gained redemption for his mistake in 2010 by bringing Brazil through the shootout. Keepers are often overlooked in the grand reckoning – only one, Lev Yashin, has ever won the Ballon d’Or – so let’s give out some (g)love where it’s due.
James Rodriguez is as Good as He Looks and Brazil Should be Afraid
Not content with picking up our nomination as the star of the Group Stage, James Rodriguez seems intent on making Brazil 2014 his own personal audition for the club of the world’s best players. His first against Uruguay was a masterpiece, a spinning chest-control and volley in one movement, complete with the ever-aesthetic clip off the bar. His second was everything Colombia are about, a team move started by the quietly brilliant left-back Pablo Armero and finished by Rodriguez. After the groups, we wondered how good he was going to go on to be; against Brazil on Friday, we might just find out.
Germany and Argentina Need to Improve
For all Algeria and Switzerland put in immense team performances in the Round of 16, in the end the sheer weight of quality told. Both excelled in defense, and threatened going forward, but, as the cliché goes, the difference between the top sides and also-rans come the end is the ability to put the ball in the net.
Keeping Argentina’s attack under wraps for 90 minutes is mighty impressive, but unless you put it in at the other end, you only buy yourself 30 more minutes of defending. Messi was shackled brilliantly by the Swiss, and overshadowed at the other end by Xherdan Shaqiri, but in the end he made the goal that put the albiceleste through. Algeria superbly contained a poor Germany, who needed a big performance from Manuel Neuer, but eventually they prevailed, the difference coming from their hugely stronger bench. Both will know they need to buck their ideas up; Belgium and France have more than enough star names of their own to punish them.
Louis van Gaal, Tactical Genius?
We saw the first cooling breaks of this World Cup in the tie between Mexico and the Netherlands, and inevitably our first claim of a manager exploiting them to his ends. Louis van Gaal certainly has the resume to suggest he’s the tactical magician he thinks he is, but his comments that he incorporated the heat-induced stoppages into his game-plan seems a little far-fetched; his Dutch team looked like they were running through treacle at points, the Mexicans coping far better with the heat in Recife.
What van Gaal could feel proud of though, is his introduction of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar for Robin van Persie. The physical striker changed the dimension of the Dutch attack, and laid on Wesley Sneijder’s equalizer before converting a penalty himself to win. Manchester United fans might worry about their new coach’s willingness to bench the talismanic RVP, but they can be reassured by the timing of the winning goal: the fifth minute of injury time, or Louis-time, as they might start calling it.
Losers can be Winners
We’ve lost 8 more nations in this round, but it’s hard to think of any that will be going home too disheartened. Chile depart having lost to Brazil for the third successive Round of 16, but in the knowledge that they played some inspiring stuff on the way, and will always have their thrashing of Spain in Maracana to cherish. Mexico, too, go home at this stage for the sixth consecutive time, but they too have won many admirers, for their style, their manager and, of course, their goalkeeper, though the last-gasp manner of their defeat will hurt.
Algeria and Switzerland go in the knowledge that they pushed two of the favorites into extra-time, and could have won. Nigeria were brilliant for an hour against France and will only perhaps be disappointed with the way that they lost their heads after they went behind. Uruguay will wonder what could have been had their star striker not lost his. Even the Greeks, put out by a Costa Rica side reduced to 10 men, return to Athens having far exceeded expectations, by reaching the knockout stages, their best-ever World Cup result.
Above all the United States go home to not only to a nation that has woken up to football, but also to a world that has accepted them as a proper guest at the party. More Americans have watched this tournament than any before, and the color and noise of the U.S. fans in Brazil has endeared them to a world that had been skeptical about the American enthusiasm for “soccer.” The U.S. team showed all the fighting spirit, resilience and commitment that their fans expect. Come 2018 in Russia, they can, and will, expect even more.
Mauricio Pinilla – For not dwelling on his misses.
Colombia – For not only playing well but dancing brilliantly.
Check out the rest of our World Cup Month features here.