We’re into the business end of the tournament now with the World Cup entering the round of 16 phase.
It can often be a chess match between oppositions at this stage and two compact – largely 4-4-2 – outfits in Uruguay and Portugal may make for a cagey encounter with the winner set to face either Argentina or France in the quarter-finals.
Only a few players have really taken this World Cup by storm. Luka Modric has bossed Croatia’s formidable midfield, Eden Hazard gleefully ran riot in Belgium’s opening two games and Philippe Coutinho popped up with key contributions for Brazil.
All three make a case as early contenders for the prestigious Golden Ball but perhaps Diego Godin deserves to be part of the conversation as well. The Uruguayan skipper has always been exceptional for club and country and is producing his very best in Russia.
Not only are La Celeste the only team yet to concede at the World Cup but owing to Godin’s excellence, their defence hasn’t been breached all year. In fact, the last time they conceded a goal was in October last year during a 4-2 win over Bolivia in qualifying. The 32-year-old veteran isn’t an all-action centre-back who tends to make a series of crunching tackles or clearances, he doesn’t have to. The old warhorse marshalls his back-line with complete authority and is the glue holding the team together.
Uruguay have been far from expansive, even with a star-studded front pairing, but Godin’s leadership at the back makes them formidable opponents for any team. If Cristiano Ronaldo and Co thought Iran were a tough nut to crack, they’ve got another thing coming.
GUEDES EXTRACTS RONALDO’S BEST
Andre Silva got the nod over Goncalo Guedes in Portugal’s final group game against Iran and though he started reasonably well, running the channels with some purpose, Carlos Queiroz’s side never gave anything away and he quickly drifted out of the contest.
His link-up play with Ronaldo as well left a lot to be desired as he wasn’t able to use his movement to aid the Real Madrid superstar the way Guedes managed to in the opening two fixtures. The Valencia winger is a superb talent in his own right and is somewhat sacrificed in this role as Ronaldo’s wingman.
However, Portugal need the security and organised shape their current 4-4-2 provides and Guedes does a great job as his skipper’s accomplice in attack. It’s almost like there’s an invisible string between the two with neither one straying too far from the other and always aware of their partner’s position.
Every time Ronaldo comes short, Guedes is either on hand for him to lay the ball off to or make a dummy run so the 33-year-old’s give-and-go can be more effective. In turn, when Guedes receives possession, his first instinct is always to look for Ronaldo’s run or to lay it off to him if he’s in the vicinity.
With the attention Ronaldo commands from opposing defenders, someone like Guedes is pivotal to getting him more involved and that can lead to a match-winning moment for Portugal.
Every goal Uruguay have scored so far in the tournament has arrived from set-pieces. Having scored from two free-kicks – one of them a direct hit from Luis Suarez – and three corners, the South Americans have earned a reputation alongside England as this World Cup’s dead-ball specialists.
Edinson Cavani and Suarez up front are often left to feed off scraps in open play. Oscar Tabarez has therefore identified set-pieces as one of their best routes to goal. Carlos Sanchez and Lucas Torreira are both capable of quality delivery. Meanwhile, with the likes of Godin, Jose Gimenez, Suarez and Cavani in the box, there’s no shortage of targets.
Portugal however, are no slouches from set-piece scenarios either. Ronaldo scored a fine header from a corner kick to beat Morocco 1-0 with a clever bit of movement in the box.
They’re well-equipped to defend from dead-ball situation as well with both Pepe and Jose Fonte proving to be dominant in the air. Among defenders, only Nicolas Otamendi and Salif Sane (both 18) have won more aerial duels than Fonte (17).
Defeat to South Korea on Wednesday saw the reigning champions suffer a shock early exit from the finals, finishing bottom of Group F after three below-par performances.
It is only the second time that Germany have been knocked out in the first round – the last coming in 1938 before the introduction of the group stage.
Ballack, who collected 98 caps during his glittering career, admits he was surprised to see Germany play so badly in Russia.
“The result from Wednesday in Kazan was a total shock for me,” he said.
“Continued success can lead to mistakes. It can be difficult for critics to be heard when things are going so well.
“But then, once you start to fail, the critical voices start to be noticed and everyone is shouting about it. In German football, there is an apocalyptical mood right now.
“There is no explanation as to how a team with this quality can end at the bottom of this group. How can this group of players struggle with all these basics of football?”
Low, who has come in for intense criticism back home, signed a contract extension in May to remain in charge until 2022 – something Ballack believes was a mistake by the German Football Association.
“Big tournaments are fixed points for each country,” the Betfair ambassador added.
“After a European or World Cup, you can judge the work that has been done in the previous two years.
“Friendlies and tournament qualifiers for a footballing nation like Germany are not proper indicators of the state of our team.
“For this reason, it was unnecessary to give Joachim Low a four-year contract extension just four weeks before the World Cup started.
“Whether Low is still the right person to manage this team, I cannot say.
“In my experience, he was a really good coach who could give even weaker teams a clear plan and identity. Today, the coach and team have to be put under serious scrutiny. That’s for sure.”
With qualification to the knockout phase assured after wins against Tunisia and Panama, the Three Lions boss made eight changes against Belgium’s back-ups in what proved a drab Group G finale.
Adnan Januzaj‘s exquisite effort secured Roberto Martinez‘s men a 1-0 win on Thursday which enabled them to top the pool, with Southgate focused on protecting key men and keeping squad players happy rather than chasing the point that would have meant England won the group.
An easier-looking World Cup path now awaits but that is tempered by the Three Lions’ loss of momentum and tough last-16 tie against Colombia in Moscow next Tuesday.
“I thought Senegal would also be a very tough game in a different way, so I think all of that group was up in the air,” Southgate said of the Group H side that eventually finished behind Colombia and Japan.
“Colombia were behind a game because of the sending-off in the first few minutes of their first game.
“They’ve got some outstanding individuals, but I believe it’s a game we can win.
“It’s going to be a fantastic challenge for us. The numbers that they’ve got supporting them is clear, and they have some outstanding individual players.
“But we feel that we’re a team who are improving. I think that’s shown again tonight, that we’ve still got levels to reach and that we still have to do.
“But that’s nothing we didn’t know and, actually, that might also be another thing for us that isn’t a bad thing.
“If we win again tonight, then all of a sudden the reality of where we are might not have been in people’s minds.
“But we know where we are, we know how immaculate we have to be to win matches against the very best teams and we have got those challenges still to come.
“But that was our objective when we started the three matches.
“We achieved it and that allowed us to try and get as much as a competitive advantage as we could in the physical area.”
Southgate’s changes, and the fact that star names such as Harry Kane remained on the bench at 1-0 down, suggested he was in no mood to chase the game, but he is comfortable with the approach he took.
“Whatever happens next week, that was the right decision as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
“People will say ‘well, that will only be the right decision if we win’ but it was the right decision because we would potentially be going into a match that could go to extra-time and risking players we didn’t need to risk.
“Which half of the draw (is best)? Who knows what’s right or wrong?
“Our key is a knockout game that we’re hugely looking forward to.”
Southgate believes Tuesday is England’s “biggest match in a decade”, which is why it would have been “ridiculous” to risk Golden Boot leader Kane in chasing a leveller against Belgium.
The former defender pointed to Colombia star James Rodriguez‘s injury in their final group game as an example of this risk he would been taking in Kaliningrad, where he remained positive despite their first defeat in a year.
“We are showing signs of being an exciting football team,” Southgate said, having dismissed injury concerns over John Stones and praised Danny Rose.
“I think even tonight it was brilliant experience for people like Trent (Alexander-Arnold) and Ruben (Loftus-Cheek) to play in World Cup matches.
“They are 19 and 22, down that right-hand side of the pitch – it was a very inexperienced pairing but they both showed some excellent moments.
“I think you’ve seen what we are: we are young, enthusiastic, energetic, improving, not the finished article.
“Belgium are third in the world for a reason. They’ve played together for a long time, they’ve got some extremely experienced players even in the team tonight.
“So, we’ve still got some work to do but we’re pretty realistic within our own camp about where we are.
“But we also have great belief in what we’ve been doing over the last few months.
“We think tonight is a good experience. We don’t want to lose, but we’ll have learned a lot tonight.”