John Dykes reckons this has been the best World Cup since the 2002 edition but with the Round of 16 coming fast and furious, it is time to get serious.
It was a fortnight that blended into a seemingly endless day and night of football. The Group Stage has come to an end in Russia, 16 teams have gone home and 16 remain. Now, with barely any time to rest up, our thoughts and energies turn to the business end of this World Cup.
I use that term deliberately. Business, rather than fun because although this should be where the fun starts, a nagging voice in my head is telling me we’ve probably had our fun already. And, boy, it has been fun! I’ve loved this World Cup more than any since 2002, when Japan and Korea co-hosted a tournament with a distinct difference.
We have seen so much late drama, often aided and abetted by VAR that at times this World Cup has come across more like a scripted TV show than a sporting tournament. From a seemingly-unhinged Diego Maradona to the travails of Neymar, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and the curious case of poor, friendless Jorge Sampaoli, it has also been populated by a truly charismatic cast.
Germany’s Group Stage exit was shocking, Africa’s underperformance (climaxing in a tired Senegal team’s unfortunate dismissal on Fair Play grounds) was disappointing but Asian teams made up for it by delivering some superb individual (Son Heung-min) and team (Japan, Iran) performances. Then there was that extraordinary first half in the England-Panama game that had fans, not just English either, pinching themselves to see if they were really awake.
As the Group Stage ended, we were excitedly debating VAR’s pros and occasional cons, rating the best goals (I don’t remember a World Cup producing this many long-range beauties) and also coming to terms with THAT last 15 minutes in the Japan-Poland match.
So, what next? Well, there are two potentially outstanding Round of 16 match-ups: France versus Argentina and Brazil against Mexico. In both cases, there will be markedly contrasting styles on show, plus a stellar cast of individuals. I expect France to win but I am less confident when I forecast that Brazil will do the same.
At the other end of the scale, Sweden and Switzerland have not excited me much and their clash could be a far tougher watch, along with Uruguay versus Portugal (although Edinson Cavani and Suarez could run riot against the European Champions’ defence).
Russia-Spain could be a bit of a blow-out as the hosts might have run out of juice after their lively start and I fear that Japan could go down heavily against Belgium unless they can shake off the self-inflicted negativity surrounding their peculiar final group game. I have loved watching Croatia (the best team thus far) and expect them to keep it up against Denmark.
The toughest game to call? Colombia vs England. I still believe it made sense for England to focus on the “weaker” half of the draw, as it appears to offer a better chance of making it to the semi-final. But the flipside to that was that it meant they have to play a tougher Round of 16 game than Belgium. England have problems defensively but if their rested attackers, especially Harry Kane, come out firing against coach Jose Pekerman’s side, they may just have the edge.
Here’s to Saturday’s return of live World Cup action. Just don’t expect it to be quite as freewheeling and fun as what we have witnessed so far. Unless, that is, VAR has the final word.