The 2022 World Cup Round of 16 standings originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
The beauty of the World Cup is in full effect.
Qatar certainly performed well in the group stage with a plethora of impassable upsets, score lines and drama, but none of that is going to fade anytime soon.
Thanks to the chaos provided by the eight groups, the round of 16 should be no different. Now, there are no second chances. Every second, every detail and every mistake will matter.
One mistake could end a nation’s World Cup journey, whether it’s a David or a Goliath. Harnessing that one pivotal moment a game could provide could send waves of jubilation to millions around the world, while the other set of fans drown in despair.
Japan did this to Germany. Morocco did this to Belgium. Saudi Arabia almost did this to Argentina.
With a new run of eight matches in store over the next few days, we rank the round of 16 from worst to best:
8. France versus Poland
The defending champions showed their class against Australia with a 4-1 defeat before earning a 2-1 win against ultra disappointing Denmark. But France’s biggest question mark was answered in their 1-0 defeat by Tunisia: how good are they without Kylian Mbappé?
Mbappé came off the bench in the second half and shone once again, but it wasn’t enough to withstand a defeat to a team France should have beaten with their B rotation. That concern shouldn’t arise against Poland, a team who tends to sit down and play for the second ball because he doesn’t have the technical quality to hold possession for decent periods.
Poland exited Group C with performances more disappointing than convincing, and Wojciech Szczesny can’t do much between the sticks. France should take care of business here.
7. Argentina versus Australia
Lionel Messi is built for TV entertainment, but Argentina has yet to resemble a World Cup contending nation. That can certainly change however long he lasts in the tournament, but his loss to Saudi Arabia coupled with an unconvincing win over Mexico brought on by the individual brilliance of Messi and Enzo Fernández is overshadowing the squad’s flaws.
He relies too much on Messi’s pursuit in the central areas to pull the strings, the midfield lacks balance and struggles to play progressive football and the backline is shaky in the face of heavy pressure. The Green Falcons pulled off the upset, but Mexico and Poland were unwilling to take the game to them and suffered the consequences.
How will Australia exit? The Socceroos went toe-to-toe with France in the first half of that match, but opted to get defensive in the second half despite being 2-1 down to protect goal difference. They might not have the quality on paper to get the win, but they can worry Argentina if they are aggressive from the start and maybe, can be do the unthinkable against Messi and Co.
6. Morocco versus Spain
Morocco escaped Group F unscathed by beating Belgium and Canada and drawing against Croatia. The Atlas Lions are the biggest dark horse of the 2022 World Cup so far, but their maiden prize for first place in the group came at a cost: a match against Spain.
Usually, when a team finishes first, they get a favorable draw against the next group’s runners-up, but Japan’s defeat in Group E has pushed Spain down to the bottom of the table. Spain’s setup is pretty straightforward: they’ll look to widen the ball and wait for the right opportunity to score, no matter how long it takes, and their effective ball-pushing typically sees them hold possession almost immediately.
The problem is Spain’s final product. Costa Rica’s 7-0 record covered their ability to regularly create chances against teams with a superior defensive structure, which came into play in a 1-1 draw against Germany and a 2-1 defeat against Japan. Morocco will have to hold on and capitalize on the few moments that will arise to pull off yet another historic upheaval.
5. Brazil vs. South Korea
Brazil and South Korea played a friendly in June, and it was absolute domination for the Seleção. Brazil won that game 5-1 in a match where most of the key players took the field for both nations.
This time around, Brazil are entering the matchup with two strong wins against famous international killers in Serbia and Switzerland and had the luxury of fielding an all-new B-team against Cameroon to secure first place in Group G, regardless of defeat. The main talking point for the Brazilians will be the state of Neymar, who missed the last two group stage matches with a sprained ankle. The Seleção has the depth to get through certain matches without him, but the sooner he gets better, the better.
South Korea, on the other hand, emerged as a remarkable dark horse after beating Portugal 2-1 in the Group H final, overcoming Uruguay and Ghana in the group. The Taegeuk Warriors did not have star fullback Son Heung-min on the scoresheet, but his late assist against Portugal proved crucial for them to progress to the next round. It will be a mammoth task for South Korea to upset Brazil but he has shown he can be clinical in the penalty area if he can get there.
4. England versus Senegal
It’s the Three Lions against the Lions of Teranga. These two nations have never met in international competition, adding to the intrigue of this fixture that extends to the quality of the players on both sides.
Senegal may lack the quality and depth on paper to upset England, but they gave the Netherlands 84 minutes of good fighting and showed their resilience against Ecuador to advance into Group A without their star player. Sadio Mané. In his absence, Ismaïla Sarr rose to the occasion on the left wing despite him having played on the right for much of his young career. Chelsea pair Kalidou Koulibaly and Eduoard Mendy will also need to be flawless as both have experience playing against most of the England squad in the Premier League.
England have one of the most balanced teams on paper and on the pitch, but it is manager Gareth Southgate who is optimizing the talent pool at his disposal. Barring a draw with the United States, England comfortably managed to finish top of Group B without Harry Kane scoring a goal. Expect England to have the majority of possession as Senegal look to step on the gas on the counterattack.
3. Japan versus Croatia
Without considering the upset factor, this is probably the most evenly matched round of 16 match. While the previous matchups have obvious potency and an underdog, this one is between a former Darkhorse and a current Darkhorse.
Croatia’s run to the 2018 World Cup final is still engraved in the minds of many fans. The midfield trio of Luka Modrić, Marcelo Brozović and Mateo Kovačić are still dominating midfield just as they did in their spectacular run four years ago, with Joško Gvardiol emerging as the nation’s rising star at left centre-back. However, Vatreni’s lack of finalists in the final third resulted in two draws in group play and they are liable to be out if they fail to turn things around.
Japan, on the other hand, beat Germany and Spain with two comeback victories. Samurai Blue has to think: if we can do it against them, why can’t we beat anyone else? In those victories, Japan allowed possession (just 17% against Spain) but used their depth of attacking outlets to get what matters: the win. Let’s see if Japan has another key reversal in store.
2. United States versus Netherlands
Much like some of the powerhouses that have already been eliminated, the Netherlands are one of the remaining teams that have not shown convincing exits. Senegal took the Dutch all the way to the edge without their best player, Ecuador thoroughly controlled that contest where the Dutch only had two shots (one on target) and should have beaten Qatar by more than two.
USA are definitely going into this as the underdogs and have the quality to pull off an upset, if the Stars and Stripes can find enough goals. This will likely be a low-scoring affair, as the Netherlands like to run with a back five while the US back four has conceded just one penalty in three games.
Cody Gakpo is breaking through for Oranje with three goals in three different games, but other than him, there hasn’t been much for them up front or in their build-up game. The US is the opposite. They can build from behind and have a midfield triumvirate that can rotate across the pitch, but they lack a finisher like Gakpo. Who will rise to the moment for both sides?
1. Portugal vs Switzerland
In a pack filled with darkhorses, Switzerland have emerged from the pack and will be looking to threaten a Portuguese side that has shown some vulnerability in all three of their Group H matches.
Cristiano Ronaldo hasn’t been the spark as the number 9 Portugal have needed so far, but players like Bruno Fernandes and Rafael Leão have stepped up in different roles to fill the gaps. But the Portuguese rearguard wasn’t as herculean as expected, and came to bite them against South Korea. While that result didn’t matter in the end as they still reclaimed top spot, Switzerland will no doubt be a tough test .
The Swiss, led by captain Granit Xhaka, are another well-balanced and trained team that lacks pure superstardom and plays excellent team football. Yann Sommer and Gregor Kobel are two great options between the sticks and have quality across the pitch but it will be interesting to see how Breel Embolo as a striker with Xherdan Shaqiri and Ruben Vargas performs on the wings.
This is another race that is expected to be close, and will be Portugal’s toughest test so far in Qatar. If the Portuguese pass, he will show their determination as they continue their path to the title, but if they fail, the Swiss will look to bring down more powerful players. In terms of overall quality, this pairing is the best.