Unpredictability of FIFA World Cup 2018 means all top teams in the mix

The knockout round of the FIFA World Cup 2018 begins on Saturday and barring defending champions Germany, all top teams can stake a claim to the title, writes Bhaichung Bhutia.

Only 16 of the 64 games remain in the FIFA World Cup 2018 and after some serious edge-of-the-seat stuff in the group stages that had a number of dramatic draws, injury-time goals, spike in the number of penalties due to VAR and goals disallowed by it, games will resume on Saturday with some of them likely to be decided by the lottery of penalties.

That 10 of the 16 pre-quarter finalists are from Europe doesn’t surprise me because the World Cup is being hosted by that continent. What does is that there is none from Africa. Senegal and Nigeria not being there is proof of how narrow the gap was between those who are in and those who are not.

Japan’s place in the round of 16 could easily have gone to Senegal but the positive thing for Asia was that four of its five teams won a game. But for a moment of magic from Andres Iniesta, Iran too could have been among the elite and wouldn’t have looked out of place at all. Barring Germany, all the top dogs are in the mix. But as I have said earlier, I am skeptical of the impact Argentina will make.

This World Cup has shown miracles can happen — ask South Korea — but while Argentina showed great commitment against Nigeria, I am not sure whether that will be enough against France. Especially with Lionel Messi expected to be shackled by players more adept at defensive duties than Nigeria. France hasn’t really fired but they pack enough ammunition to put Argentina out of their misery.

In all the talk about Germany’s ouster and Argentina’s struggles, Uruguay has gone about their business quietly. With three clean sheets in an all-win record, they will line up against Portugal confident that a quarter-final berth isn’t out of reach. Man for man they are better than Portugal and though football games are not decided on that, it does have its advantages.

Brazil, Spain, and Belgium should not have it too difficult to qualify for the quarter-finals and, dare I say, England would have a slight advantage against Colombia if James Rodriguez is unavailable. Gareth Southgate’s team will be better rested because a string of regulars didn’t play against Belgium and though the loss will sting, this young team could end a long wait for a win in the knockout rounds.

Given how Croatia dismantled Argentina, they would be favorites to beat Denmark. And though Sweden had a great win against Mexico, my team for that tie would be Switzerland. So, at the risk of getting it all wrong, my quarter-finalists would be France, Uruguay, Brazil, Spain, Belgium, Switzerland, Croatia, and England. About the last team though I am the least sure.