Brazil 2014: Round of 16, Day Two Preview

At what point did you decide the only thing missing was carrots? (o.canada.com)

At what point did you decide the only thing missing was carrots? (o.canada.com)

The World Cup marches on. Day two of the round of 16 will determine who gets beat by Holland in the next round another quarterfinal pairing. Austin Fido has the preview…

The first day of the second round brought two extraordinarily entertaining games, but ultimately no great surprise. We’ll see Brazil and Colombia face off in a quarterfinal on July 4, just as most expected.

The second day will do well to match the entertainment of its predecessor, but it is already guaranteed to deliver a shock: few saw Costa Rica or Greece as a World Cup quarterfinalist, but one of them will be.

Nope, me neither. But he's making it look like fun. (Photo: dw.de)

Nope, me neither. But he’s making it look like fun. (Photo: dw.de)

Second Round, Day 2, June 29: CONCACAF in a corner

Day one was all about CONMEBOL. The second installment of the round of 16 sees two of the three CONCACAF knockout round representatives in action. 

It also raises the tantalizing, yet improbable, possibility of an all-CONCACAF quarterfinal. But that is getting WAY ahead of the game(s). 

11 am (Chicago time): Netherlands vs. MexicoMexico125px-Royal_Netherlands_Football_Association_Logo.svg

The Dutch look nailed on for a semifinal spot at the very least. Their group stage reprise of the 2010 World Cup final with Spain was an almost embarrassing vanquishing of the memory: a 5-1 thrashing of the team we had been told was the best in the world.

They proved they have some fight in them by taming a feisty Australian side, and made beating Chile look a lot easier than Brazil did in the first set of second round games.

This does not appear to be the same team that lost every game at Euro 2012.

Mexico once again looks outmatched.

El Tri did escape Group A undefeated, including an impressive 0-0 against Brazil, which it might have won had it found a way to ask Julio Cesar to work as hard as Guillermo Ochoa.

But Chile played Brazil to a draw too, and look what happened when La Roja played the Netherlands.

Mexico could win, of course.  Miguel Herrera took over this team on a hiding to nothing, and appears to have worked hard to ensure it never lost the air of desperation it had when he arrived to steer El Tri away from the ignominy of possibly losing to New Zealand and not getting to Brazil at all.

He named his World Cup 23 early, eschewing the more traditional competition-for-places approach for an all-hands-on-deck mentality. He likes to name his starting lineups earlier than usual also, presumably for the same reason: let everyone know their role, and don’t worry about your opponents – let them worry about you.  

He’s sought to bind the squad with treats – like playing alongside Mexico legend Cuahtemoc Blanco in their last match on home soil before the tournament – and shared adversity, such as the ban on sex during the competition.

His personal style – scruffy and emotional  – has helped him deflect attention to himself while he quickly (he only took over El Tri in October) built a team of substance. And now he has guided one of the worst Mexico teams in recent memory (based on its performances in qualifying) to one of its best World Cups: this is only the second time in 15 tournaments El Tri has finished the group stage unbeaten. 

But he didn’t turn water into wine. All Herrera really did was shuffle through the player pool to find the men he needed to get this team to fulfill its potential. This is not a bad generation of players: this El Tri should be one of the best teams in CONCACAF; it should be at the World Cup.

And as a team more familiar with South American conditions (remember Liga MX teams regularly participate in Copa Libertadores and Mexico has twice finished runner up and three times in third place in eight Copa America tournaments) than Cameroon and Croatia, it should be regarded as favorite in those match ups.

Tying Brazil was a pleasant surprise, and the strongest hint we’ve seen yet that Herrera might be able to get this team not merely to the level it should be at, but to something previously unimagined.

Beating the vibrant Dutch is not impossible. But it would be diminishing the scale of the achievement to call that outcome predictable. Mexico is expected to lose this game – but don’t think for a moment Herrera will send his players out with any such notion.

Not going to be able to use this forever, so let's give it another airing (Image: slate.com)

Not going to be able to use this forever, so let’s give it another airing (Image: slate.com)

3 pm (Chicago time) Costa Rica vs. Greece125px-Greece_National_Football_Team.svgcosta rica soccer logo

Fun fact: Greece and Costa Rica have never before played each other – at least according to Wikipedia. Never: not recently, not a long time ago, not ever.

So we don’t really have much idea of how these teams match up.

On paper, they are similar: dangerous opponents in that they are hard to break down, and generally considered part of the second-tier of their respective confederations. Each is also enjoying its best-ever World Cup: Greece has never before been to the knockout rounds; Los Ticos have won a group for the first time.

The oddsmakers have Costa Rica as favorites, which is entirely reasonable given Los Ticos topped the Group of Champions, beating Uruguay and Italy, and tactfully refusing to pile further insult on England’s wounded pride by simply playing them to a 0-0 draw.

The Greeks, by contrast, didn’t score any goals or win any games until absolutely necessary: their 2-1 win over Ivory Coast at the end of the group stage got them into this round. And they are the only contenders in the knockout stage carrying a negative goal difference (-2) from their first three matches.

This match-up is interesting for a number of reasons, not least because it represents arguments both for and against FIFA’s World Cup seeding system, which was one of the more popular pre-tournament talking points.

If you buy the argument that the seedings are a nonsense because they left traditional World Cup powerhouses out of the top spots in the tournament, thereby creating massively imbalanced “groups of death” ensuring some very good teams would be out of the tournament while some erstwhile minnows trotted on to the knockout rounds: well, Greece is everything you feared.

A fortunate penalty (I will maintain Georgios Samaras basically tripped himself by flicking out his kicking leg and clipping Giovanni Sio, though it does look indisputable from this angle) sent them through ahead of a stuttering Ivory Coast and a surprisingly woeful Japan.

It was a weak group, in which three teams rolled over for Colombia (although this opinion is going to take a hit if Los Cafeteros gather momentum over the next week). Someone had to finish second – but there is no great praise to attach to the achievements of any of the also-rans in Group C.

Greece turned out to be the best of a not-great bunch. Cue wailing and moaning about how hard it was for Spain in a group with Chile and the Netherlands, or Portugal lumped in with Germany, Ghana and USMNT. 

Fine. If it bothers you that this tournament’s latter stages look less like the ones that came before, you can make all sorts of extremely well-constructed arguments about changing the seedings, and turning the World Cup into a monument to whatever clique you think it is should ALWAYS be represented at the top table of international football.

And you can put Greece at the center of those arguments, because Greece wasn’t doing anything to look like a knockout round team until Samaras kicked a man instead of the ball and got a penalty for looking aggrieved by his own witlessness.

But you will have to fit Costa Rica’s presence in this round into the equation. There are a great many ways to calculate the relative strengths of two football teams on paper, but the most effective way to know for sure remains having them play against each other.

Los Ticos did great work to top their group. It was England, Italy and Uruguay who struggled to impress. England is out because it couldn’t defend…at all, really. Italy is out because it couldn’t score against any team better at defending than England. And Uruguay only got through because it got to play England and Italy for the privilege.

The good teams aren’t always good, and it is just possible that this tournament benefits from unexpected names in the latter rounds. I’d do away with seedings altogether, personally – but I digress.

This match looks tricky for Costa Rica. Both these teams are built around a strong defense, which could make for an extremely dull game if they succeed in cancelling each other out. But Los Ticos have profited thus far from not being expected to be a threat to anyone, and now they are expected to win.

The Greeks, conversely, are never expected to win big games – even when they were reigning European champions, they weren’t thought to be much more than lucky. And they don’t care: Greece has been telling stories about what happens to overconfident enemies since the fall of Troy.

Pressure to win is pressure to go forward and score, and both of these teams like their chances on the counter-attack. If you’re not good enough to crush the Greek defense, as Ivory Coast found out, you are asking for a  sucker-punch on the counter every time you lose the ball.

This one is a toss-up for me: who ever scores first immediately becomes favorite to win. But I’ll give the edge to Greece because Costa Rica urgently needs to be underestimated for the good of its game plan.

Whatever about gifts, be particularly wary about a team that likes to play dead and includes a man named Lazaros (Photo: dawn.com)

Forget gifts, be particularly wary of a team that likes to play dead and includes a man named Lazaros (Photo: dawn.com)

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Austin Fido is OTF’s USMNT and CONCACAF editor, but he likes a little CONMEBOL now and then. Follow him @canetop.

 

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