The 2018 World Cup Round of 16 simply picked up where the Group Stage left off. In the first round, the traditional giants struggled but only Germany truly fell by the way side. But the Round of 16 took care of those who had huffed and puffed their way in.
June 30: France 4-3 Argentina, Uruguay 2-1 Portugal
The Round of 16 started off with arguably the most high profile clash of them all – France vs Argentina. Seven goals were scored that day, two of which were scored by 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe. His status as one of the most exciting young strikers in the world was established and France showed shades of their much heralded potential as they beat Argentina 4-3. Sergio Aguero scored in stoppage time off a pin point cross from Lionel Messi but that turned out to be too little, too late.
The same day, Uruguay, powered by an inspired performance from Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, beat Portugal 2-1. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, two individuals who have ruled world football for well over a decade, were knocked out on the first day of the World Cup knockouts. They have scored thousands of goals between them but none of them have come after the group stage of the World Cup.
July 1: Spain 1-1 Russia (3-4 pens), Croatia 1-1 Denmark (3-2 pens)
Then came the fall of Spain. The match by itself may not have been as thrilling as most of the others in the tournament but the tenacity of Russia in defence and Igor Akinfeev’s virtuoso performance in the penalty shootouts made for a thrilling watch. Andres Iniesta announced his retirement from international football after this match.
Later that day, both Croatia and Denmark scored in the first five minutes and matched each other at every step over the next two hours of regular play. Croatia had a chance to take the lead when they won a penalty in the dying minutes of extra time. The usually unflappable Luka Modric made what turned out to be a rather tame effort. Even then, Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel had a lot to do and he made no mistake. His save meant that the match went into penalties, which turned into a duel between Schmeichel and his opposite number Danijel Subasic. The two made five saves between them in a sensational display of goalkeeping excellence. Off these Subasic made three – joint most by a goalkeeper in a World Cup penalty shootout – and that turned out to be the difference between the two sides. Croatia beat Denmark 3-2 on penalties and its ‘Golden Generation’ continued its march in Russia.
July 2: Brazil 2-0 Mexico, Belgium 3-2 Japan
Brazil vs Mexico was akin to an oasis. At a time when their fellow giants were falling like dominoes, Brazil ran away with a fairly straightforward 2-0 win. Neymar showed both facets of his game. He was brilliant with his meandering runs and incisive passes. He played a key role in the making of their first goal, which he eventually went on to score. At the same time, his antics in trying to draw cards for the opposition garnered criticism. All of that, however, was overshadowed by the second match of the day, which is certainly a candidate for being included in the ‘Greatest World Cup knockout matches’ countdowns.
The first half of the match between Belgium and Japan was deceptively sterile. It did not take long for the second half to come alive, with Japan going ahead in the 48th minute thanks to Genki Haraguchi’s calm finish. Takashi Inui then doubled their lead in the 52nd minute with a screamer of a goal. It looked like Belgium might become the next big team to be shown the door but this World Cup doesn’t work in such predictable ways. Jan Vertonghen pulled one back for them with an utterly ridiculous header which, according to former England striker Alan Shearer, who was speaking in a post-match show, was a complete fluke. He has a point, considering the freakish nature of the goal. Then Marouane Fellaini, who was brought on as a substitute, equalised from a corner. Within the space of 20 minutes, Belgium conceded two goals and scored as many. The two sides went back and forth after that, shots and headers flew everywhere and it all came to a heady climax in the 94th minute. Japan committed too many men forward for a corner and were caught out by a brilliant Belgian counter attack that was instigated by Kevin De Bruyne. Romelu Lukaku made a meandering run into the box. Thomas Meunier put the ball along the ground into the area from the right, Lukaku feinted his touch and Nacer Chadli, who was completely in the clear, tapped it into the empty net. That was almost the last kick of the match and Belgium prevailed.
July 3: Sweden 1-0 Switzerland, Colombia 1-1 England (3-4 pens)
The match between Sweden and Switzerland may not have been the kind of thriller that we have become used to seeing in this World Cup. In fact, it was a lucky goal that gave them the lead and they held on to it. But what is worth marvelling is that Sweden were not even given a chance to qualify for the World Cup in the first place. Once they did, edging out Netherlands and Italy while at it, they were not expected to go anywhere from a group that had Mexico and Germany. So they only went ahead and won that group. Now they are through to the quarter finals for the first time since 1994 and only the sixth time in World Cup history.
Then came a rather unruly match between England and Colombia. Harry Kane converted a penalty in the second half and it looked like England were cruising to the next stage. But that was only until the final seconds of stoppage time in which Yerry Mina headed in the equaliser. No goals came from the 30 minutes of extra time and the match went into penalties. In the 120 minutes of regular play that had ensured before the series of spot-kicks, referee Mark Geiger had handed out eight yellow cards, six of which went Colombia’s way.
A number of comedy skits have been written about England’s tendency to do an apt imitation of a fishing boat trying to float in the Pacific Ocean with a gaping hole in the hull during penalty shootouts. But this time, they were steady. Jordan Henderson was the only man who missed his shot and that was because Colombia keeper David Ospina made a great save. But that little wrinkle was smoothed out when Mateus Uribe hit the post and Jordan Pickford saved Carlos Bacca’s kick. Eric Dier converted the final penalty and England were through. It was the first time that they had managed to come out of a World Cup penalty shootout as winners.