The 2014 World Cup takes its next set of twists and turns Saturday with the start of the knockout stages. First up, two mouthwatering Round of 16 matches pitting a quartet of high-powered South American teams against one another. Let’s take a closer look at these matchups:
Brazil v. Chile
How they got here:
Brazil: The host nation came into the tournament with huge hopes and even more pressure. With fans and media alike widely tipping this team for a special summer, there’s no doubt that Brazil failing to beat Chile would be nothing short of a calamity.
Though they finished top of Group A with 7 points, Brazil’s road to the Round of 16 has not been an easy one. Despite winning their opening match against Croatia by a flattering 3-1 scoreline, they went down 1-0 after an own goal from Marcelo and were outworked and outfoxed for long stretches by Croatia’s industrious, two-way midfielders. Then, the Brazilians were kept at bay by Mexico in a 0-0 draw that saw El Tri bottle up most of the host’s neat build-up play near goal and cause quite a few nervy moments themselves. Brazil closed out the group with a 4-1 win over Cameroon—a convincing result, but over perhaps the tournament’s least convincing opposition.
While Brazil have performed well in spurts and shown occasional glimpses of the magical form that won them the Confederations Cup last summer, they’ve lacked a cutting edge and sense of cohesion on the pitch far too often. They’ve particularly found trouble against sides who pressure them high in their own half.
Neymar and Oscar have performed very well, but the latter has been shifted around ceaselessly by manager Luiz Felipe Scolari to several different positions in a bid to awaken the form of teammates like Ramires, Hulk, and Fred, who have failed to get meaningfully involved in the attack for most of the tournament.
Overall, Brazil has struggled to find its feet so far in this World Cup and will need a far more impressive performance against the Chileans to advance. Otherwise, they will find themselves out at the last 16 for the first time since 1990—an unimaginable failure on home soil.
Chile: Chile have been one of the main surprises in this tournament, beating Australia 3-1 in their opening fixture before knocking defending champions Spain out of the World Cup with a 2-0 victory in Rio de Janeiro.
Though they finished second in Group B after a 2-0 loss to the Netherlands, the Chileans come into the knockout stages with a full head of steam, spurred on by three matches that have showcased their ability to defend vigorously, attack from all angles, and make the most of chances near goal.
Much like his predecessor Marcelo Bielsa, manager Jorge Sampaoli has maximized his team’s talent by allowing them to play fearlessly. He has disposed of the leash in favor of the whip, insisting on a fast-tempo, free-flowing attack whose ferocity is only matched by the high pressure they employ in defense—the same dogged ball-hunting nature that has proven to trouble Brazil so far this tournament.
The squad has certainly earned plaudits for the play of its individuals, whether it’s Alexis Sanchez’s devastatingly nimble play in attacking zones, Marcelo Diaz’s tireless and responsible defensive tracking, or Arturo Vidal’s versatility that would make a Swiss Army Knife jealous.
More importantly, it has won hearts because of its togetherness, grit, and confidence. From Sampaoli insisting before the World Cup that the Chileans were contenders to an advertisement for Banco de Chile featuring the nation’s famous miners who were stuck underground for 69 days, the team has been characterized by a sense of fearless self-belief that will be essential in their next challenge.
The Chileans went out of the 2010 tournament after a 3-0 loss to Brazil in the Round of 16. A win over the host nation at their own party would be revenge almost to sweet to imagine. The Chileans, however, will have no problem envisioning that goal. We know now that they are a team that dares to dream.
One to watch:
Brazil: Oscar. He has been a two-way force at this tournament—creative and clinical when given space to operate in the attack and timely in defense, particularly in the opening match against Croatia. The Brazilians need him to perform here.
Chile: Alexis Sanchez. Chile cannot afford to waste opportunities near goal and they will look for Sanchez to bury whatever looks come his way. More importantly, though, it will be up to Sanchez to try and stretch the Brazilian back-line, which has had some trouble sharing duties and sorting out marks on the fly. If he can be a terror to defend on the run, he’ll open up spaces in behind for others, especially fellow striker Eduardo Vargas and Arturo Vidal.
Brazil in extra-time.
Colombia v. Uruguay
How they got here:
Colombia: The Colombians come into the knockout stage as one of four undefeated teams.
After dispatching Greece 3-0 in their opening match, they also did away with the Ivory Coast by a score of 2-1 and recorded a 4-1 victory over Japan to end the group stage.
Though most of the pre-tournament headlines were devoted to Colombia missing their talisman Radamel Falcao, Los Cafeteros haven’t yet missed a beat in Brazil.
Hypnotic off-ball movement in the attacking third has been their hallmark, along with rapid flank play from scything wingers and a touch of class near goal.
Manager José Pekerman has moved winger James (“ha-mes”) Rodriguez into a more central role, offering him an added measure of positional freedom and tactical control that he has adapted to brilliantly. Rodriguez has the ability to read the game with clarity and speed on the fly. When necessary, he’ll drop deep to collect the ball and drive at defenses like a point guard in basketball, forcing the opposing rearguard to make a difficult decision. Close to goal, he’ll make decoy runs and pull defenders away. When given a sight at goal, he’ll keep his composure and finish with a cool head (literally, against Ivory Coast) as he’s done three times now with a tally in each match.
Elsewhere in the attack, Juan Cuadrado has been fantastic on the right wing for Colombia, getting behind defenses seamlessly. He’s most adept when cutting in to cross and he’s already recorded three assists in the group stage, in addition to a goal of his own.
One of his targets could be Jackson Martinez, who scored twice against Japan and contributed an added ruthlessness to the attack.
Colombia have also appeared similarly remorseless in defense, taking no prisoners with some extremely physical play. They have been steely for the most part—allowing only two goals and anchored by the solid play of captain Mario Yepes. At 38 (and a half!) years old, many feared Yepes wouldn’t be able to answer to the physical demands of the world’s grandest footballing stage, but he has looked in mid-career form so far, particularly impressing in aerial clashes. Colombia will need more of the same from him against La Celeste, who can pose problems in attack, even without Luis Suarez.
Uruguay: Uruguay arrive in Rio under a cloud of controversy after Luis Suárez was suspended for nine matches and banned from football-related activity for four months after his bite on Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini (that’s three nibbles, for those of you playing at home).
La Celeste had a significantly less convincing group stage than four years ago in South Africa, starting off on the wrong foot with a 3-1 loss to Costa Rica in their opening match. From there, they rebounded with a hard-fought 2-1 victory over England and a contentious 1-0 win against the Italians.
They’ve picked themselves up from their opening match disappointment—in which they seemed toothless and impatient in attack, dangerously unfocused on set pieces, and unsynchronized in transition after losing the ball—to salvage a respectable six points from Group B. However, while they bested England and Italy, Uruguay hardly showed a clear measure of superiority over either nation, who were massive disappointments in their own right.
In attack, most of their punch came from Suárez—and, in his absence, they will have to rely on Diego Forlán, last World Cup’s golden ball winner. He’s still got magic in his boots on the right day, but the 35-year-old is unquestionably a drop-off in several ways from Suárez, especially with regards to his movement in the final third. If there is a silver lining to his inclusion, though, it is that Edinson Cavani will be allowed to spring forward more dangerously with Forlán probably held in a deeper-lying role.
The key to Uruguay’s survival on the day will be a steely and dynamic rearguard that can cope with Colombia’s inventiveness and flexibility in attack. “Diego Godín, Scoring Machine” has been a terror to mark on set pieces this year, but his defensive leadership in the back can be validly questioned.
Uruguay have been lumbering in defense—not so much in sheer foot-speed, but on a decision-making level—and they’ll need to be fleet of mind on Saturday. Their inability to defend soundly for 90 minutes on the left side has been apparent and Colombia will be their toughest test yet on that side of the pitch.
One to watch:
Colombia: James Rodriguez. He is the fulcrum of the Colombian attack. While they possess plenty of other options going forward, he will be the danger-man against Uruguay because of his ability to set up and put away chances.
Uruguay: Fernando Muslera. The Uruguayan goalkeeper will likely have a lot to do against Colombia and he may have to stand on his head to keep his nation in the World Cup. There are plenty of other layers to a defensive performance than just the goalkeeper—and all of them will need to be on-form to see Uruguay through—but Muslera could be a massive equalizer if he has a big game.