What to savor from World Cup’s last 16

The group stages are over.

After 48 games in 15 days, 122 goals, shock exits, red cards and numerous VAR controversies, the number of participants at Russia 2018 has been whittled in half and we’re a step closer to knowing who will be crowned world champions.

Many World Cup heavyweights, as expected, made it through to the last 16 — Brazil, Spain, France, Argentina (just) — but reigning champions Germany shockingly fell at the first hurdle, failing to make it out of the group stages for the first time in its history.

But what can we expect from the rest of the tournament? Will Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo meet in the quarterfinals and battle it out for supremacy on the greatest stage of all? Who are the favorites and what have we learned from the last fortnight?

One thing is for sure: with just 16 matches remaining, we must savor what is to come.

Messi vs. Ronaldo on the horizon?

Perhaps we’re getting too far ahead of ourselves, we almost certainly are, but in seven days’ time football fans around the world could be salivating over the prospect of Portugal versus Argentina in the quarterfinals, which would, of course, give us a showdown between Messi and Ronaldo.

What could be better for the neutral than watching two of history’s greatest players going head-to-head on the biggest stage of all?

For the winner, a place in the semifinals, putting him two matches from a victory which would be the crowning glory of a celebrated career. For the loser, the prospect of falling behind in the age-old debate of who is the greatest: Ronaldo or Messi?

But much will happen before such an attractive scenario can even be contemplated.

On Saturday, a so-far unimpressive Argentina must overcome a France team that has also underperformed.

The Argentines were five minutes from elimination but live on thanks to a late Marcos Rojo goal against Nigeria in what was a must-win final group game.

This was supposed to be the World Cup where Lionel Messi would carry his country to victory, cementing his place alongside otherworldly World Cup winners such as Pele and Diego Maradona.

Messi scored a wonderful goal against the Nigerians, but neither he or his teammates have shone in this tournament. Indeed, the Barcelona star missed a penalty against Iceland, and was anonymous as Argentina crumbled to a historic 3-0 defeat by Croatia.

But perhaps Argentina’s dramatic last-gasp qualification will have given Messi and company belief as they prepare to face a France team which, as one of the pre-tournament favorites, has failed to impress.

The French, Euro 2016 finalists, have played largely defensive opponents so far, which means a defensively frail Argentina could be the foes they need to face to kick start their campaign.

The team that beat France to be crowned European Champion was, of course, Portugal. Then, like now, the Portuguese were inspired by Ronaldo, scorer of four goals so far in this tournament.

The Real Madrid star has already broken records in Russia — his hat trick against Spain made him the first man to score in eight consecutive major tournaments and only the fourth to score in four separate World Cups.

Portugal faces Uruguay on Saturday, a team with Barcelona’s Luis Suarez and PSG’s Edison Cavani leading the line, and with both teams traditionally proving to be obdurate opponents, it could be a match where one slip proves costly.

Whatever the outcome, Saturday’s last-16 ties will provide us with a quarterfinal not to be missed.

Will Coutinho continue to outshine Neymar?

Neymar, the world’s most expensive footballer, was ruled out of the World Cup four years ago after breaking a bone in his back in the quarterfinals and injury has also somewhat hampered his tournament in Russia.

His first competitive outing since breaking a bone in his right foot in February was against Switzerland in Brazil’s opening match and so a bit of rustiness from the 26-year-old should perhaps be expected.

Though he has not been outstanding, the Paris Saint-Germain star has nevertheless played his part in Brazil’s progress to the last 16, scoring in the 2-0 win over Costa Rica and providing an assist in victory over Serbia.

But it is Barcelona’s Philippe Coutinho, the third most expensive player in history, who has caught the eye for the five-time champions.

He scored a stunning goal from distance in the 1-1 draw against Switzerland and, thanks to wonderful balance, skill and control, has emerged from Neymar’s shadow in his country’s opening three games.

Fifth in FIFA’s fantasy football rankings with 20 points, Coutinho has been directly involved in three of Brazil’s four goals and the South Americans will need the former Liverpool playmaker to continue to shine if the Selecao are to see off Mexico at the Samara Arena on July 2.

Modric and Croatia impress

Vying with Coutinho for the title of best midfielder at the World Cup is Croatia captain Luka Modric. The Real Madrid star has been his country’s totem in their unbeaten run to the last 16.

Indeed, the Croats are one of three teams, along with Belgium and Uruguay, to have won all three of their group games. Three victories, with merely one goal conceded, in a group featuring Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland is no mean feat.

The standout performance, of course, was the 3-0 thumping of Argentina and Modric’s sumptuous goal — no Croat has scored as many goals from outside box as the midfielder — was one to remember.

In his three matches, the 32-year-old has scored twice and made 143 passes, and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic, who alongside Modric forms Croatia’s all-star midfield, has told reporters that his teammate is “from another planet.”

Croatia are many people’s favorites to progress to the quarterfinals from Sunday’s last-16 match with Denmark in Novgorod, but the Danes also possess a fine midfielder in Christian Eriksen and are unbeaten in 18 matches.

However, the last player to score a World Cup goal in the knockout stages for Denmark was Brian Laudrup in 1998.

Croatia’s Milan Badelj, man of the match against Iceland, echoes many people’s thoughts on the tie. “It will be a tough match, but I believe that we have enough quality to reach the quarterfinals,” he told reporters.

Will England rue not winning the match ‘nobody wanted to win’?

Both Belgium and England had secured qualification before their final Group G encounter on Thursday, courtesy of victories against Panama and Tunisia.

Much talk before the group finale focused on whether winning the match, and therefore topping the group, would be detrimental to either side’s hopes of progressing to the latter stages, being that one half of the draw seems to offer kinder hypothetical fixtures.

That was before Japan progressed as Group H runners up — eliminating Senegal on the fair play rule in the process — and Colombia topped the group after a 1-0 win over the Senegalese.

Belgium’s 1-0 win over England means the Red Devils top the group and will face Japan, currently 61st in FIFA’s world rankings, while England now prepare to face Colombia, ranked 26th in the world, and quarter finalists four years ago.

Should Gareth Southgate’s men beat Colombia, they will admittedly have an easier quarterfinal than the victors of Belgium versus Japan — Sweden or Switzerland, as opposed to Brazil or Mexico.

But being that England has only won six knockout matches at major tournaments since 1966 — the last knockout win at a major tournament coming at the 2006 World Cup — perhaps, on reflection, going full throttle against Belgium for the chance to play Japan would have been wiser. But we will find out on Tuesday, July 3, when the Three Lions take on Colombia in Moscow.

Time to say a sad farewell…

Senegal created a piece of unwanted history, becoming the first team to be eliminated from the World Cup on the fair play rule.

Level with Japan on points, goal difference and head-to-head after three games, Senegal left the competition after having accumulated two more yellow cards than Japan.

It was a cruel way to depart the tournament, though Senegal’s coach Aliou Cissee, the youngest and only black coach at the tournament, said his team must “respect” FIFA’s rules.

Senegal’s departure, however, means there will be no more fist pump celebrations from Cissee, which went viral on social media, tales of Senegal’s fans cleaning up at stadiums and pictures of the team joyously warming up.

The end of the group stages also means we have seen the last of Egypt’s Mo Salah, a man who much was expected of but whose shoulder injury sustained in the Champions League final had a major impact on his team’s fortunes.

And, of course, the German squad has already flown home after failing to progress from a group which included Sweden, Mexico and South Korea.

“I don’t know if is the darkest moment for German football but it is definitely a very black one,” midfielder Toni Kroos told reporters.

But Germany’s departure means a new champion will be crowned and, even without the Germans, there is still much to look forward to.