So we are nearly at the start of the real competition. A look back at the first three pools, the darlings, and the flops.
France. The hosts may not have been at their best so far, but their post 89th minute form ensure they are still right there in terms of favouritism. In Reunion Island’s finest they have Dimitri Payet who is having a Hollywood scriptwriter’s dream of a year. Pogba has run a bit tepid at times, but despite still having to call upon Evra, they are still pretty good at the back.
Switzerland: Summed up by the crap nature of their shirts. Hopefully they will not make the quarters, and a round of 16 tie with Poland is a good chance to catch up on lost sleep.
Albania: Exhibit #1 of the charming underdogs. Except they are not really that charming. Unlikely to progress
Romania. .Surprisingly dross.
Wales. Have become now everybody’s second favourite underdog darling. They over-bloated nature of this competition has given us a flawed format has not always been ideal, but they have given us Wales. Unlike Portugal and Sweden they have worked out how to use their attacking star well, and that’s by not always using him.
Aaron Ramsay has been superb. And the tactics have been even better.
The Can Wales do a Leicester City? calls start this weekend.
England has actually been OK; just that they haven’t been able to turn that into results. The skittery approach to selections has not helped, and they now pay a large price for resting players against the Slovaks.
Rooney seems to have turned up to this tournament with his head on the right place, but no matter how hard Roy hopes, he is not a midfielder, and there is something gruesomely fascinating watching him approach a tackle.
They should make it through to the Quarter-final where they will likely face the hosts. We know what happens there.
Slovakia. Even the All Whites drew against this lot.
They have done OK, considering a back four with a collective age of about 150. Somehow, they have squeezed into the final 16, but it is likely that will be that.
Russia. What a blight on the tournament. Take your sports minister, your fans, their rocket launchers, and your meldonium home with you, and think about you can possibly make your World Cup 2018 come across like anything other than the most avoidable sporting event of all time.
Germany When Schweinsteiger creaked in a 92nd minute winner in the opening round against Ukraine nobody thought much of it. As it turned out that goal was the difference in ensuring the World Cup champions finished top of what was a pretty turgid pool, even though that throws them in the tougher half of the draw.
When you think about 98% of the footage circulating during the tournament to date has been of Joachim Low’s personal hygiene routines you realise there hasn’t been a lot to talk about on the pitch.
As with all German sides, the competition starts now.
Poland have been a bit hard to fathom. They’ve made it out of the group without any special moments to remember, and without Robert Lewandowski having a shot on target.
Still, like the Germans, they have gone through group play without conceding a goal. Italy is the only other side to match that, and they still have a game to play.
Northern Island. The plucky Ulstermen are also through to knockout play courtesy of that frustrating third place qualifying spot, and being in the same group as Ukraine. That is likely to be perceived as Mission Accomplished for a side that includes Aaron Hughes, who sits on the bench for Melbourne City.
Ukraine. A bit like Russia, only without the horrific stuff off the park; there has to be a political metaphor there somewhere.