Round of 16 World Cup preview
Favorites Brazil and Spain have yet to hit their top form
Argentina's fullbacks will get a test from Mexico's speedy wide men
Young, vibrant Germans face a veteran England squad
With the group stage complete, 16 teams remain as the knockout stage gets under way. Here's a thumbnail preview of the matchups:
The South Koreans impressed in the group stage with their speed, fluid movement and approach play, as well as an ability to score on set pieces. The attacking triumvirate of Park Ji-sung, Lee Chung-yong and Park Chu-young is a handful for any defense, although Park Chu-young's finishing can be erratic at times. However, South Korea's defense has been shaky, and goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong hasn't been entirely convincing either.
In stark contrast, Uruguay is a rugged, disciplined outfit that stays compact and keeps players behind the ball at all times. Oscar Tabarez's men are content to focus on defending and getting the ball out to its dangerous forward line of Diego Forlan, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, relying on the trio to break down opposition defenses. With Cavani's emergence, Tabarez has deployed Forlan in the hole to link up the midfield with the attack, giving the indefatigable Forlan more freedom to roam the field.
Predicted winner: Uruguay
As ever, the U.S. is a team that can be hard to read. To a certain extent it depends on whether you take the glass half-full or half-empty approach. On the one hand, you can highlight the impressive achievement in winning its group and the fact that this U.S. squad -- behind its key offensive trio of Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore -- has the ability to create more chances from the run of play than previous editions. With Michael Bradley's box-to-box contribution anchoring the midfield, the U.S. is certainly well-equipped to make a push to at least the quarterfinals. On the other hand, you can argue that this team only barely achieved what most people expected it to do prior to the tournament. The defense has looked vulnerable at times and the passing accuracy through the midfield erratic -- not to mention the team was a mere 2 minutes or so away from elimination against Algeria. What is beyond question though, is the fact that this U.S. team has marvelous team spirit. It gives its all, all game long and never gives up -- something that some U.S. fans might take for granted, but when compared to the diva antics shown by teams such as France and Cameroon in this tournament, it's an intangible quality few teams have.
The reason Ghana is the only the African team left in the tournament is down to its defense. The Black Stars' are far more solid and compact in shape and discipline than African teams typically are. However, this is also a team that struggles to score -- something that's hard to believe when you see the power, pace and creativity Ghana brings to the table when going forward. In fact, creating chances is not Ghana's problem, not with the likes of Andre Ayew and Kwadwo Asamoah present -- a serious lack of composure in front of goal is. Ghana has only scored more than one goal in a game once in its last 13 games.
Predicted winner: USA
Joachim Low's new-look youthful German squad has been brash, confident and very attack-minded. Playmaker Mesut Ozil has shown a lovely touch, a deft left foot and superb vision, with the German attack revolves around him. In contrast, the German back line has been far more vulnerable than we're used to seeing from Germany, despite the presence of fullback Philipp Lahm and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.
England, by contrast is a veteran squad -- the oldest in the tournament in terms of average age. Fabio Capello's men looked sluggish and tense during their first two games, only breaking out of their shell (somewhat) against Slovenia. Even with the problems at goalkeeper, England's back line has been solid enough, despite lacking pace through the middle. Where England has fallen short is offensively, with creativity and energy been lacking and its star Wayne Rooney surprisingly muted.
Predicted winner: Germany
Argentina has been the media darlings of the tournament so far with its inventive approach play, camera-friendly, larger-than-life coach Diego Maradona and of course the presence of a certain Lionel Messi. The Argentines have been extremely impressive going forward -- unsurprising considering the overflow of refreshingly direct forwards and wingers on its roster. Where Argentina has a problem is in its back line, which lacks pace and quality fullbacks, although Javier Mascherano's presence as a defensive shield in midfield covers up a lot of those holes.
As for Mexico, El Tri have also been electric at times, with clever midfield passing combinations and its speed of play down the wings. Coach Javier Aguirre has been bold with his tactics, deploying a formation that hasn't been seen since the 30s. Where he's perhaps let himself down is in his continued choice of Guillermo Franco at striker and limiting the playing time of the markedly-more explosive Javier Hernandez. On the flip-side, Mexico's age-old weakness at defending crosses and erratic finishing continues to present problems.
Predicted winner: Argentina
The Dutch have been workmanlike so far in winning all three of its games, but have yet to showcase the flair and creativity they're famed for. Most of that is due to the absence of winger Arjen Robben (now apparently fit again after a brief appearance against Cameroon) and the reluctance of coach Bert van Marwijk to start Eljero Elia in his place. Robben's primary replacement Rafael van der Vaart is a gifted player, but doesn't bring the speed to burn and direct running at fullbacks that Elia brings. The Dutch weakness remains its back line and a rather ordinary goalkeeper in Maarten Stekelenburg.
Slovakia's a hard team to read. The Slovaks were cautious, uninspired and unimaginative in their first two games, while star Marek Hamsik drifted in and out, while occasionally operating in a wide midfield role. For the game against Italy, coach Vladimir Weiss made some adjustments, inserting Erik Jendrisek to partner Robert Vittek and giving Hamsik more license to roam through the middle and giving the Slovaks a far more potent bite in the final third. Defensively the team is fairly solid, led by enforcer Martin Skrtel.
Predicted winner: Netherlands
Under Dunga, Brazil's become primarily a defensive outfit that excels on set pieces and counter-attacking. Its lack of creativity (by typical Brazilian standards) when faced with negative teams is problematic, but if Kaka and Robinho hit top stride, Brazil still has another gear that most teams will struggle to contain. Of all the teams left in the tournament, Brazil is the one with the least flaws.
Marcelo Bielsa's Chile has drawn rave reviews for its bold offensive mind-set and rapier-fast attacking verve with Alexis Sanchez impressing out wide. However, although Chile finished second in the CONMEBOL region, it doesn't matchup well against the Selecao and can take no comfort from being on the wrong end of 3-0 and 4-2 scorelines in qualifying.
Predicted winner: Brazil
Paraguay has relied on defense the past few years and this team is no different, exhibiting good defensive discipline. Offensively Paraguay has three highly-accomplished strikers in Roque Santa Cruz, Lucas Barrios and Oscar Cardozo, but no real wide men of note or midfield creators to provide the right service.
There remains questions about Japan coach Takeshi Okada and his tactical acumen, but whether or not the team reached the second stage because of him or in spite of him, Japan certainly presents some problems for its opponents. The team has good technical skill up and down the lineup and though its back line is small, the Japanese rigourously maintain their defensive shape. Up front, it's curious why Okada continues to leave talents like Shunsuke Nakamura and Takayuki Morimoto on the bench, but in Keisuke Honda he has a genuine match-winner, even if in my opinion, Honda would be best deployed as an attacking midfielder or left-sided forward.
Predicted winner: Japan
For a team that has been near unbeatable for the last couple of years, Spain has yet to reach the type of form observers expect. Part of the issue is coach Vincent Del Bosque's constantly changing lineups -- he has yet to settle on a consistent lineup and seems to be deliberating between fielding two strikers in Fernando Torres (who's clearly not yet at full speed from a recent knee injury) and David Villa. The other dilemma is whether or not to use a pure winger (Jesus Navas) or stick with a more narrow midfield shape with Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets. One other area of concern is that despite deploying two holding midfielders in Alonso and Busquets, neither is a strong ball-winner, with Spain badly missing the anchoring ability of Marco Senna, who was left behind.
Portugal limped into the World Cup on the back of a poor qualifying campaign and despite a seven-goal haul against North Korea, which looks more and more like a fluke outburst, this is a team that still struggles to score and plays far more negatively than Portuguese teams of the past. The defense is strong with a pair of excellent center backs in Ricardo Carvalho and Bruno Alves, but offensively Portugal struggles. There's no established center forward at the international level, and its still overly dependent on Ronaldo for creativity.
Predicted winner: Spain