So picking the Round of 16 went to form, and for the first time the top teams all progressed. Not without dramas though, 5 of the 8 went to Extra Time, and 2 of those to penalties. The hosts were a cross-bar from being knocked out, the Dutch left it extra extra late, Argentina was two minutes away from penalties against a country that neighbours Germany and, bizarrely, the USA won the hearts of the world.
And Greece were eliminated.
So the big guns make it through to the Quarter finals, and three of the fixtures are of Final quality.
The World Cup is won by the team that wins its last four matches. Results to date count for nothing. And the two most successful teams in World Cup history both play teams who have been more impressive to date. Yet they are still favourites because nobody ever picks against Brazil and Germany. And there will be a lot of talk over the weekend about history.
So out come the tea leaves to make four predictions, and only one of them is with any confidence.
Germany 1 – 1 France AET (Germany 5-4 on penalties)
Mouth-watering. Old friends meeting each other a round earlier than normal.
France keen to avenge the atrocities of the 1980s; Germany expecting to march through as of right.
You would think that history would favour Germany but it is not as clear cut as that. While form to date is irrelevant on the day, this French team has been pretty special. They may miss Frank Ribery one day, but they sure haven’t missed him yet. Cohesive, seemingly happy, rushing it up and down through the midfield there has been something reminiscent of the 80s team about this.
And when France clicks they really click. Since 1938 France has either not qualified, not made it out of their pool (usually bottom) or made at least the Semi Final. So perhaps they can lean on a bit of history too.
Germany, on the other hand, have appeared increasingly flat. Perhaps they are pacing themselves. So ruthless in dismembering 10-man Portugal in the first round they have not done much since. And who would have thought they would have needed to resort to acting the goat when taking a free kick to overcome Algeria in the Round of 16.
They will be hoping that extra 30 minutes of exertion against Algeria won’t come to haunt them as they roll the clock down towards penalties in this match.
Brazil 1 – 2 Colombia (AET)
The heart is probably over-ruling the head here, but Colombia have added romance to this tournament. Not only because of their celebrating dancing and their attacking intent (only the Netherlands) have scored more, but because of the uninhibited spring about the way they have approached things. They have been demonstrably superior compared to the hosts to date.
However, people will note that this is the furthest Colombia have gone with a World Cup, and history will dictate Brazil will progress. And that’s where it can be taken either way.
In both of the last two World Cups the best match has been the matches when Brazil got eliminated. At Quarter Final time.
In 2006 Zidane played arguably his best match as France swarmed all over Brazil who got away only one shot in the entire match. Last time the Dutch stormed from behind to win 2-1. So, when it comes to history, as far as the players are concerned all they will have is Quarter Final elimination experience.
If Brazil concentrates on hacking down marking Jimmy Rodriguez heavily they might find that counter-productive. Colombia has a lot more to offer than the tournament’s best performed outfield player, and as long as they don’t freeze they should make it through.
And, despite their jacked up draw, that extra time against Chile must have drained the tank a little bit.
Argentina 1 – 1 Belgium (Argentina 4-2 on penalties)
Who would ever have thought that a Belgium v USA Round of 16 match would go down as a World Cup classic? Especially when the first 90 minutes were good, but not great.
The dark horses / band wagon riders have not really lived up to the hype, but they reach the Quarter Finals with four wins under the belt. And with a curious tactic of leaving it to their substitutes to score most of their goals.
The Argentines have been surprisingly reliant on their FIFA pin-up boy so far. That is actually a fact, and not just because every time he makes a regulation 5 metre pass the commentators pass it off as a moment of genius.
History says that Argentina are the favourites here but, like Brazil, this recent history constitutes two Quarter Final defeats against a European side with black, red and yellow in its flag. One thing for certain, this Golden Generation Belgium side won’t be as paranoid as when the same two sides met in the semi-final in 1986.
It will be interesting to see if Belgium tries doing a hack job on Messi in a way that the Dutch would in the same situation. The Swiss got away with heavy man marking for 188 minutes during the week.
Also in Belgium’s favour is that Lukaku looked angry when he came on against the States. Nothing like an angry young striker.
Whatever happens, this one promises to be a ripper
Netherlands 2 – 0 Costa Rica
Costa Rica has been great in this tournament; remember how they beat both Uruguay and Italy.
But they were out on their feet at the end of 120 minutes against Greece, and they will rightfully go home proud of their first Quarter Final appearance. And so we will say goodbye to Navas, one of the many outstanding Goalkeepers on display at this World Cup and provider of one of the great penalty saves ever in that Round of 16 shoot-out.
The Dutch will be hoping to not pick up too many yellow cards here.