Once you can start filling in the bracket, things get serious. Come Thursday night, this coming up period we call group phase will be gone. T-minus five days until the knockout round.
On Monday, four teams confirmed their spots in that stage, finalizing second round match ups that will take place in Belo Horizonte and Fortaleza. Here’s an early look:
Brazil vs. Chile
Group A winner vs. Group B runner-up
Where: Belo Horizonte
When: Saturday, 12:00 p.m. Eastern
Leading men: Neymar was picked as one of the stars of the tournament. Through three games in front of home fans, he hasn’t disappointed, scoring four goals. Chile, however, will have the best all-around player on the field in Juventus’s Arturo Vidal, though after having meniscus surgery last month, he might not be at 100 percent.
Supporting stars: Oscar, Brazil’s most creative player, will help in attack, while the Paris Saint-Germain pairing of Thiago Silva and David Luiz form one of the tournament’s best central defense duos. Chile has Barcelona’s Alexis Sanchez and Valencia’s Eduardo Vargas up top, giving Jorge Sampaoli two talents who can capitalize on their team’s high energy approach.
Strengths: That Chilean style could prove problematic for a Brazil side that didn’t have to face la Roja through qualifying. Between Neymar, Oscar, and Hulk, Brazil has a diverse attack that’s capable of creating openings for the likes of Fred and, from midfield, Paulinho.
Weaknesses: Along with Luiz Gustavo, Paulinho has had trouble controlling play in the middle of the park; at least, Mexico and Croatia were able to have success against the Seleçao’s midfield duo. Between Marcelo (left back) and Dani Alves, Brazil also has two fullbacks who may force Silva and Luiz to live up to PSG’s transfer fees. For Chile, the back line is small and features two natural midfielders.
Early expectations: Brazil will be favored, but Chile’s been getting a lot of dark horse love. Expect some scattered upset predictions.
Three narratives you will hear in the buildup:
- Neymar will be compared to a series of other Brazilian greats while people forget he’s only 22 years old.
- Chile’s attractive style will be lauded by pundits who won’t pick them to win.
- The word “samba” will be tossed around despite having no real connection to Brazil’s current style.
To the winner: Group C’s winner and Group D’s runner-up are in the adjacent pot. That likely means one of Colombia, Italy, or Uruguay in the final eight.
Netherlands vs. Mexico
Group B winner vs. Group A winner up
When: Sunday, 12:00 p.m. Eastern
Leading men: Arjen Robben is drawing attention as one of the tournament’s best players, but in the two games Robin van Persie has been able to partner him in attack, the Manchester United star has been nearly as influential. For Mexico, Héctor Herrera has been one of the competition’s best midfielders, while Rafa Márquez’s sweeper role has allowed him to excel in his fourth World Cup.
Supporting stars: Giovani Dos Santos has made crucial contributions both in linkup play and closer to goal, while Andrés Guardado is making an impact in an unfamiliar central midfield spot. For the Dutch, the three-man defense of Stefan de Vrij, Ron Vlaar, and Bruno Martins Indi opened eyes against Spain, though Martins Indi missed Monday’s game recovering from concussion symptoms.
Strengths: Surprisingly, the Dutch have been one of the most direct teams in this tournament, quickly getting the ball to van Persie and Robben before defenses have a chance to settle in. Allowing only one goal all in group play, Mexico’s defense has been amongst the best at the World Cup.
Weaknesses: To this point, the Dutch haven’t shown any, but with an inexperienced defense, cracks can emerge as the tournament unfolds. For Mexico, speed at the back is a question, as is the ability to create chances for Oribe Peralta up top. The Santos Laguna forward only has three shots thus far.
Early expectations: After their nine-point performance in Group B, the Dutch will be favorites. An underdog to get out of their group two weeks ago, the Netherlands are having to clear space on their bandwagon. Again.
Three narratives you will hear in the buildup:
- Brilliant Oranje and total football will be evoked despite the Dutch playing much of this tournament in its own half.
- Mexico will be depicted as a sign of CONCACAF’s emerging strength, though they’ve been to this stage in each of the five previous finals.
- The low expectations each team carried into the competition will be as discussed as their current form.
To the winner: Whomever emerges from a match between Group C’s runner-up and Group D’s winner. Costa Rica will likely be the latter, while the Ivory Coast is in position to come out of the other group.