Zlatko Dalic’s men historically won all three matches, including a 3-0 humiliation of Lionel Messi and Argentina, to reinforce their status as dark horses for the title.
This will be tested by ‘Danish Dynamite’. They proved in the competition’s only goalless draw, against France, that the Croats cannot expect a walkover at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium on Sunday.
Here are the key battles:
LUKA MODRIC V CHRISTIAN ERIKSEN
Real Madrid schemer Modric has a legitimate shout to be classed as the player of this World Cup.
The refined 32-year-old struck a penalty in the opening 2-0 defeat of Nigeria and fired home a fizzed effort in the rout of Argentina.
Knockout competition has brought out the best in him with Los Blancos and he must now do the same again with his country.
Few players are more central to the success of their nations than Eriksen.
The Tottenham playmaker lashed in one of the goals of the tournament against Australia, plus previously teed up Yussuf Poulsen for the winner versus Peru.
If the current Tottenham hero can outshine the club’s previous conductor, Modric, then Denmark can hold hope of just a second-ever quarter-final berth.
MARIO MANDZUKIC V SIMON KJAER
Juventus front man Mandzukic provides a handful for any centre-back in Russia, but he’s yet to trouble the scorers.
The angular 32-year-old runs all day and fights for every ball. He’ll be disappointed that this hasn’t translated into any goals, with his profligate display against Argentina one to particularly rue.
A pitch battle with Sevilla centre-back Simon Kjaer should be explosive.
Denmark’s captain is the cement that holds their defence together.
Kjaer is a seasoned campaigner, moving past the 80-cap mark in Russia. His dogged traits saw him relish the competition provided by France target man Olivier Giroud, although his average of one tackle per game is only Denmark’s joint-seventh best.
Denmark kept clean sheets in two out of their three Group C fixtures. More of the same is a necessity.
IVAN PERISIC V PIONE SISTO
Few sights in football are more feared by full-backs than Perisic receiving the ball with space to run into.
The Internazionale winger glides across the turf at pace and is eminently capable of lashing home, as against Iceland. A return of one accurate cross from nine attempts is disappointing and should soon improve.
Concentration will be key if Denmark right-back Henrik Dalsgaard is to shut out Perisic’s threat.
The World Cup is yet to see the best of Celta Vigo winger Sisto.
A return of nine assists and five goals showed his ability in La Liga last term. But in Russia, there’s been none of either and only one smart pass that sparked Poulsen’s goal against Peru.
This talent should flicker into life at some point. His average of 3.7 dribbles per game points to the danger posed.
The business end of the World Cup is upon us!
There are 16 teams left and ready to battle it out in the round of 16.
But, from what we have seen so far, which teams have impressed and which teams have faltered?
Here, we rate the nations that made it out of the group stages on the basis of their respective campaigns.
Say what you want about La Albiceleste, they are still alive and in with a chance of reaching the quarter-finals. It looks unlikely that their World Cup journey will stretch beyond the second round, and if that is the case, justice has well and truly been done. Jorge Sampaoli’s men have been all at sea in virtually every department and can consider themselves fortunate to be in the reckoning.
Lionel Messi, his goal against Nigeria aside, has struggled to make an impact – at least on the pitch (in the technical area he has) – with this Argentinean side getting the sympathy vote based on the Barcelona icon’s popularity.
Group H was an open affair and the Samurai Blue did little to convince they will progress much further, especially after Thursday’s sluggish 1-0 defeat to a beleaguered Poland.
The onus on their golden boy from a ‘Golden Generation’, Keisuke Honda, at the age of 32 has been evident while they have lacked quality. The expectations for Japan were low going into the tournament so a second-from-bottom ranking shouldn’t be all that surprising.
The Swiss have a never-say-die attitude and are a team built on togetherness. Flashes of brilliance from the left boot of Xherdan Shaqiri will be essential moving forward, but the European outfit can be happy with their lot. It may appear that putting them at 14th is harsh but they are limited as a team.
Would have expected to finish second in their Group C pool and were far too reliant on Christian Eriksen’s supply line and Yussuf Poulsen’s goal return.
Hard-working, well organised but lacking that cutting edge to step it up when it matters and prone to a defensive lapse, a last-16 match-up against Croatia will prove too much.
They edged their way into the knockout stages at the expense of Senegal, in a final game where they were largely second-best despite winning 1-0.
James Rodriguez’s fitness going forward is huge and with England to come, their reliance on his individual talent as well as Yerry Mina’s input from centre-back (he has scored two goals) will prove too much.
A side that is pleasing enough to watch – as we saw during their dismantling of Poland – but perhaps more was expected.
Dreams of securing a first-place group finish and three wins on the bounce were ruthlessly distinguished by Sweden but that should not detract from the bright points we have seen from this side – Hirving Lozano’s winner against Germany being the most memorable.
Their displays warrant a lower mid-table berth here.
The Scandinavian outfit haven’t missed Zlatan Ibrahimovic one bit and have been the embodiment of a feel-good story at this World Cup.
There are no thrills or spills about Janne Andersson’s defensive system and the way Sweden soak up the opposition’s possession and look to steal a goal, but it is a formula that is working.
In their opening match, Sweden found a way past South Korea with spirit and resolve, and did not deserve to lose in the dying embers to Germany. They did bounce back though and blow away Mexico. There is a sense that this team is altogether and singing from the same hymn sheet, which certainly bodes well for the knockouts.
The reliance on the impressive Cristiano Ronaldo has been stark as has been Ricardo Quaresma’s arrow-like precision with his right boot. As the footballing world saw during their Euro 2016 win, Portugal have a habit of upsetting the rest and just not going away.
However, the group stages were a struggle and once Ronaldo’s frustration boiled over, the Iran match could have gone either way. Portugal’s effective counter-attack system and focus on allowing their opponents have possession is though ready-made for knockout competition.
Didier Deschamps has been the tinkerman throughout the tournament and still doesn’t seem to know what his best system is, nor which personnel to fill his favoured 4-2-3-1. However, Les Bleus’ progress has been solid if not spectacular and they seem to be finding their range at a crucial juncture.
Antoine Griezmann’s deployment to a deep-lying forward role between Olivier Giroud has given them much-needed punch at the top of the pitch while Paul Pogba has been good so far, and should produce more. The signs are positive but there is still plenty of work to do.
The pressure of being host nation is not an easy burden. Yes, Group A proved to be very favourable for Russia but they showed a greater attacking threat than many thought they would see.
Aleksandr Golovin and Denis Cheryshev will need to fire on all cylinders if they are to progress against Spain but they are in a position now whereby going any further in this competition can be viewed simply as a bonus.
The 3-0 thrashing at the hands of Uruguay should be viewed as more of an isolated incident given they were under-strength but there is no doubt they are vulnerable at the back with 38-year-old Sergei Ignashevich.
La Roja struggled to find their fluent best throughout Group B but will be relieved to be well and truly alive in this World Cup given the chaos that overshadowed their build-up to the tournament.
Fernando Hierro has steadied the ship but challenged his players to improve ahead of the knockout stages. Isco has been a standout with his obvious quality while the Spaniards have always looked in the game when Diego Costa is on the pitch, making up somewhat for David De Gea’s shakiness in goal.
Few teams come under such spotlight and criticism as the Three Lions do at major tournaments. It was, therefore, a luxury for England fans and pundits alike to be discussing whether or not they wanted to beat Belgium and win Group G.
Losing at the Kaliningrad Stadium, and as a result claiming second spot, has certainly given them a more favourable route through the tournament.
Victories over Tunisia and Panama did not provide the most acid of tests but Gareth Southgate’s men have looked strong, buoyed by Harry Kane’s profligacy, efficient set-piece play and pace in abundance in attack, something that has not been seen in recent years.
A team you would want on your side to go into battle with. The South American giants are a tough nut to crack and sauntered through a relatively straight-forward group with three wins from three.
They were far from fluent in 1-0 victories over Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and it was easy enough brushing aside Russia. Write Luis Suarez off at your peril, the Barcelona star can still produce the goods and with the likes of Diego Godin – one of the world’s best defenders – and young upstart Rodrigo Bentancur, Uruguay have shown a clinical brand of football.
On paper, Group G played two lesser lights in Tunisia and Panama, and so it proved. But the Red Devils got their business done with little fuss, winning all three pool matches, including a win over England with a much-changed line-up implemented by Roberto Martinez.
Topping their quartet, on paper at least, has given them a harder passage moving forward – a plot line that has been well-documented. Eden Hazard’s fitness moving forward will be crucial but he seems to have shrugged off a knock going into the Japan game. Belgium will be very content with their position at this stage.
The most decorated team in World Cup history got off to a sluggish start, drawing to Switzerland, but have since shown powers of strength and resolve.
Brazil left it late to overcome Costa Rica 2-0 and then eased to victory over Serbia. Topping Group E was seen as a foregone conclusion beforehand and they made sure they did.
There is a feeling that, among the powerhouse nations, Tite’s team are already dining out at the top table and are locked in for the courses to come. Philippe Coutinho’s star form so far – the Barcelona schemer has bagged two goals and an assist – is an ominous sign for the rest of the tournament.
The Blazers would have been a pre-tournament pick of ‘Dark Horses’ for many. However, they have gone about their business with plenty of substance and not shied away in the shadows.
Pitted in Group D – which later became known as the Group of Death with Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland making up the quarter – Zlatko Dalic’s men won all three matches comfortably and conceded just one goal.
Talismanic skipper Luka Modric and Barcelona enforcer Ivan Rakitic have been two stars in a side that can now rightfully be billed among the favourites.
Whereas Germany will be returning to a country in national mourning after their shock early exit from the World Cup at the hands of South Korea, the Socceroos will be headed home to a very (in) different response.
In the end Australia’s journey to Russia was hardly worth the trip.
The Socceroos went through a marathon world record 22 games in qualification, eventually earning their place in World Cup 2018 after two rounds of Asian qualifying groups and then play-offs against Syria and Honduras.
Looking back it would probably have been better if Australia had bowed out before those qualifiers and let Honduras or even Syria – take their place in the World Cup.
To football mad Honduras it would have been a national celebration – their third World Cup in succession, fourth overall – while Syria’s participation would have been a global sensation.
"The reality is, we are still not the team we would like to be. The future doesn't look rosy, when you continue to not invest in your junior national team." Former Socceroos captain @CraigMoore_18 pic.twitter.com/xKbF4EkJF2— SBS - The World Game (@TheWorldGame) June 26, 2018
A tale of sporting hope in the midst of so much tragedy.
But it wasn’t to be and in the end Tim Cahill’s 50th goal for Australia, scored in extra-time in a controversial second leg in Sydney, saw the Socceroos past the plucky Syrians.
The Central Americans were not as troublesome – after a scoreless first leg in Honduras they were beaten in the second leg by an unlikely Mile Jedinak hat-trick, which included two penalties.
Surely that was the cue for mass hysteria – 22 games and finally the World Cup had been reached – the Socceroos fourth in succession.
There certainly was some jubilation among the Socceroo faithful at the Olympic Stadium in Sydney on that night in November last year.
But it soon turned to confused expressions and shaking heads as the man who guided them through that torturous qualification campaign, Ange Postecoglou, promptly resigned.
I watched all the @Socceroos games on the international feed, with neutral commentators and no hype.... no talk of “unlucky”...they thought we were tight defensively but ultimately a team of honest pros without a true global star to step up when needed. @FIFAWorldCup— Craig Norenbergs (@CraigNorenbergs) June 26, 2018
He never really gave his reasons, vague quotes about the time being right, but it is strongly rumoured he was unhappy with the way he had been treated by the Football Federation Australia (FFA).
Since Australia’s exit from the World Cup he has clarified those reasons in a personal column saying it was the FFA’s lack of faith in his attack-at-all costs style.
Or maybe he just looked at his limited squad and forward to what was coming at the World Cup and decided to quit while he was ahead.
Enter a safe pair of hands, appointed by the FFA, former Dutch national coach Bert van Marwijk, to take the Socceroos to the World Cup – and not beyond.
Graham Arnold, a former Socceroo and two time A-League winning coach with first the Central Coast Mariners and then Sydney FC, was already appointed in March to take Australia to (hopefully) the next World Cup in 2022.
Van Marwijk was just passing through and to tell the truth his short reign hardly made a blip.
Although in terms of participation Football is Australia’s most popular sport, it ranks well behind other sports like Australian Rules, cricket and rugby league in TV ratings, media coverage and sponsorship.
We would like to thank Bert van Marwijk for his service and we wish him all the best for his future endeavours. pic.twitter.com/w7jNJYeB2M— Socceroos (@Socceroos) June 29, 2018
This World Cup was also hampered by problems with rights holder Optus’ streaming service which had perennial issues leading to hundreds of complaints.
So although the rest of the world is well and truly focused on events in Russia, many Australians hardly noticed it was going on as they flicked between Richmond and the Swans or the Broncos taking on the Sharks.
Australians love a winner and any sport where Australia doesn’t dominate globally hardly rates a mention – thus swimming, Rugby League, Rugby Sevens and cricket are high up on the popularity stakes, as well as Aussie Rules which (as the name suggests) is a one nation sport.
So Australia’s 2018 World Cup campaign has come and gone – and although some pundits and former players may have expressed their disappointment and exasperation at the Socceroos tame exit – most of the nation barely paused.
The Socceroos next assignment will be the AFC Asian Cup here in the UAE next January where Australia will be among the favourites with Japan, Germany giant-killers South Korea and Iran.
But unless the Socceroos can win the final in Abu Dhabi on February 1 – again it will hardly rate a blip – and this is the real issue for Football Australia.
There simply isn’t room in an already over-saturated sporting market place for football to grow unless it can begin to grab back sponsors and broadcast dollars from other more established sports – it’s a similar issue Football has in the USA up against NFL, NBA and MLB.
'We are exposed and it’s an uncomfortable feeling.'— PlayersVoice (@playersvoice) June 28, 2018
Ange Postecoglou's review of the @Socceroos' 2018 #WorldCup campaign - what we got wrong and the uncertain road ahead - is a must-read for every Australian sporting fan. #PlayersVoice #Socceroos
📝: https://t.co/T3IRyBZPUD pic.twitter.com/vkYgcHGTRS
The big seller for Football would be the big clubs and big games from the Premier League and La Liga – like everywhere else in the world – but both these leagues are only available either on pay TV or are shown very late at night, so they are never going to be hugely popular.
The only other way for Australia is to win the World Cup – or at least get close – and that seems a very remote possibility. The furthest Australia have got in five attempts is the Round of 16 in 2006. Until then the Socceroos will remain very much a sideshow.
What the Socceroos really need is a Lance Franklin or Dustin Martin up front to get them some goals? But the chances of then swapping Aussie Rules for Football – about as remote as Australia winning the World Cup.