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PST’s World Cup knockout rounds roundtable

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Our staff pulled togethers its thoughts to head into the final four rounds of the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

[ MORE: Knockout round schedule, bracket ]

1) Which nation’s stock rose the most following the opening round?

Joe Prince-Wright: Probably Croatia, closely followed by Sweden. They both looked solid and have game changers. Belgium also impressed and if you scratch Mexico’s final group game then they were superb. Overall, lot of teams stepped up and delivered when it mattered most.

Nicholas Mendola: Count me among those leaping onto the Croatia bandwagon (as long as I can stay within safe distance of the Belgian version). Coming out of, let alone dominating, that group is remarkable. It took three distinctly different battle plans, and each was executed to near-perfection.

Andy Edwards: I would say it’s Croatia, given how dominant they were in group play, but what we saw in each of England and Belgium’s first two games was too impressive to ignore. They went from “fun team, but that’s it” to “they’re good enough to win this thing”, at least in my mind.

Kyle Bonn: Croatia looked fabulous in the group stage as Luka Modric ran the show in midfield. They may not be a favorite to win the tournament all of a sudden, but they could absolutely do some damage in the knockout round. Favorites beware, Croatia means business.

Matt Reed: I’d say without a doubt it has to be Sweden. You’re talking about a country that took a lot of flak for not bringing Zlatan Ibrahimovic to the World Cup, and not only have they not missed him, but he’s barely been mentioned. They took Germany to the dying seconds, and looked quite convincing in their matches against South Korea and later Mexico. They are one of the most compact teams defensively in the tournament, and the draw has opened up very nicely for them.

Dan Karell: Probably Belgium. I would have said Mexico but the shocking 3-0 defeat to Sweden really dampened things and was a well-timed wake up call for El Tri. But Belgium has looked dominant and clinical enough in all three of its group stage matches, and even after making a ton of changes against England, the Red Devils still won. With de Bruyne and Lukaku in fantastic form, I don’t think they can be stopped. Honorable mention goes to the aforementioned Mexico, Croatia and Sweden, who won its group including Germany and Mexico. It’s not pretty, but they find a way to win most of the time, and would have drawn Germany if not for Toni Kroos’ heroics.

2) Which favorite is the favorite’s favorite: Brazil, France, Spain, or other?

JPW: Brazil. They’re stacked going forward and solid defensively. Great balance in the squad with Casemiro and Paulinho in midfield protecting an experienced and dependable back four. Neymar is getting better every single game and Coutinho, Willian and Gabriel Jesus will deliver goals.

NM: I like France’s path post-Messi.

AE: This is 100 percent a cop out, but there is no favorite. There’s either a fatal flaw in each squad’s makeup, or they looked completely disinterest and uninspired in the group stage. For that reason alone, the knockout rounds should be unbelievable drama.

KB: Brazil has to be the overwhelming favorite at this point, with Germany out. Spain has defensive issues to solve under new management.

MR: Spain has their moments of weakness in the group stage, but I think getting through Group B really toughened them up and made them realize there’s no more time for lazy mistakes. They’ve got a solid draw in their favor, and the experience to get back to another World Cup final.

DK: I guess Brazil? But I also am now predicting Brazil to lose to Mexico. Classic trap game, and I think Mexico matches up well, with the speed of Layun and Lozano against Fagner and likely Felipe Luis, with Marcelo possibly out due to a shoulder injury.

3) Which dark horse will make the longest run: Denmark, Sweden, or Switzerland?

JPW: Sweden. I think they have the nous to find ways to win games and collectively they’re tough go break down. The only issue is whether they can take their chances. Andreas Granqvist can’t keen scoring PKs you know…

NM: The Switzerland-Sweden winner, and I’m tabbing the Swiss to edge their Round of 16 rival.

AE: Sweden, because they can defend and frustrate the best attacking sides like nobody’s business

KB: The question isn’t who I think is the best team of the three (Denmark) so I will go with Switzerland, since Denmark unfortunately matches up with on-fire Croatia. Switzerland looks like a complete team, if not a dominant one, and Xherdan Shaqiri brought his A-game to the World Cup. Look for Switzerland to make some noise and challenge England in the quarterfinals.

MR: Sweden has the defensively capabilities to hold their opponents, so I like them to get to at the quarterfinals, where a date with England or Colombia would be quite the intriguing battle.

DK: I think Sweden can make it to the World Cup semifinals. Defensively they are beasts, and they will be hard to break down. If Emil Forsberg or Ola Toivonen can find a way to score, Sweden can muck it up and win 1-0 to keep advancing.

4) What percent chance do you give Mexico of beating Brazil?

JPW: 25%. They have to replicate their display against Germany to have any chance of getting by Brazil. Mexico will play on the counter and this could suit them but there’s no doubt they need to have a perfect gameplan and execute it 100%. Over to you, JCO.

NM: 25 percent. El Tri can do the job on defense, but their history against Brazil plus the accompanying fifth-game specter means it’s hardly more than a puncher’s chance.

AE: 45 percent. Brazil’s lack of a midfield will ultimately be their undoing.

KB: Their press worked wonders against the German midfield, but Paulinho and Casemiro are a different story. They won’t have success with the press, and they can’t out-possess Brazil, so Mexico will have to play on the counter. It isn’t out of the question, but it’s a long shot. I think Mexico gets a 20% chance to win at best.

MR: After what I saw against Sweden on the final group day, my opinion of Mexico changed drastically. It’s not out of the question considering the talent in the squad, but El Tri looked uninspired in their last match. I’ll give them a 25% chance of getting past Neymar and Co.

DK: 50 percent? I think it’s certainly possible, for the reasons I said above. Brazil isn’t 100 percent, Neymar is crying after beating Costa Rica, clearly the pressure to win is getting to him. And without Dani Alves and (maybe) Marcelo, Brazil are a bit weaker in defense along the wings, which is where Hirving “Chuky” Lozano and Miguel Layun thrive.

Mexico’s Javier Hernandez celebrates after scoring his side’s second goal versus South Korea (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

5) Is Croatia the “real deal?” Can they make a run to the final?

JPW: I’m not sure they will get to the final but a semifinal berth is definitely in them. Potentially coming up against Spain in the quarterfinal round will be their toughest test and I’m not sure they’re solid enough defensively to stop Costa, Isco, Silva and Co. Modric has been brilliant and deserves to lead Croatia to at least the final four.

NM: Yes. Quoting myself from above, “Coming out of, let alone dominating, that group is remarkable. It took three distinctly different battle plans, and each was executed to near-perfection.”

AE: Absolutely. Everything that Brazil’s midfield is not, Croatia’s midfield is. And more. Too much of the world’s population is about five years late in crowning Luka Modric the best midfielder in the world, but at least they caught on at some point.

KB: Yes they are the real deal. No, they cannot make a run to the final. Croatia would need to get through both Spain and England to reach the promised land, which I do not believe is something they could do. While they could potentially beat Spain if Sergio Ramos and company aren’t on their game, but winning both those matches would be too tall a task.

MR: Yes. Their midfield is the best in the tournament for me, and more importantly they’ve done a tremendous job limited their opponents to chances in front of their own goal. If they get past Spain in the quarters, I honestly won’t be surprised if they win the whole thing. Croatia is such an underrated team, and I love them from front to back on the depth chart.

DK: Croatia is certainly a terrific team. With Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric in midfield, it’s a team that can control the tempo and heartbeat of the game, which will certainly lead to goal-scoring chances for Mario Mandzukic and Andrej Kramaric. I think they can make it to the quarterfinals, but they may struggle against a stronger Spain squad.

6) Which player outside of Messi/Ronaldo are you most excited to watch in the knockout rounds?

JPW: Probably Harry Kane. I want to see if he can keep finishing clinically to lead England to the latter stages. It’s all lined up for him to be a hero. Can he deliver?

NM: Romelu Lukaku. His chemistry with Eden Hazard, the rooting subplot delivered by his Players’ Tribune post, and his status as a finishing monster on a wildly-talented dark horse combine for something beautiful.

AE: Harry Kane. If England can get to the semifinals, it’ll almost certainly be because he reached double-digit goals.

KB: I have loved watching Luka Modric run the show for Croatia so far, and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic lived up to the billing, but in my mind the most exciting player left in the tournament has to be Marcelo. I believe Marcelo is one of the top five best players in the world, and is Brazil’s most valuable asset. That’s right, more than Neymar. Marcelo is the best left-back in the world, and is an absolute joy to watch play. I hope Brazil makes a deep run so he can go to work.

MR: Isco has been one of the best players in the tournament for me, and I just love what he offers Spain in the attacking third. His vision reminds me of one of his aging teammates, Andres Iniesta. He has a knack for scoring as well. He’s got everything you want in an attacker, and could be the engine of the Spanish midfield for many years to come.

DK: Kevin De Bruyne. He can really cement his legacy – like Andres Iniesta did in 2010 – as one of the world’s premier midfielders with a run to the World Cup final.

7) Who are your semifinalists?

JPW: France v Brazil. Spain v England.

NM: France vs. Brazil, Spain vs. Colombia.

AE: France, Belgium, Croatia, England

KB: England is just such an impressive squad, and they did exactly what they needed to do against Belgium to secure a less challenging path through the bracket (“easier” is not the right world choice in that situation, no team left at this stage is “easy”). Gareth Southgate continues to push all the right buttons, and their squad is deep enough to withstand any injuries or yellow card suspensions. Brazil is the favorite and should reach the semifinals no problem, I don’t see them struggling with Belgium, who I am still not sold on yet. France is here by default, as long as they don’t stumble against Portugal again as demons from Euro 2016 linger. I’m not impressed by France, but neither Argentina or Portugal poses enough of a threat in my mind. Finally, Spain reaches as well after shoring up the defensive issues and topping Croatia, who runs out of steam.

MR: Give me Belgium and France in one half, and Spain and England in the other. I had Spain and Belgium before the tournament so I’m riding that to the final, with the Spanish hoisting their second World Cup.

DK: Belgium, France, Croatia and Colombia

8) How did the performances of Panama and Costa Rica affect your perception of the USMNT’s failure? How often did you contemplate the USMNT during the group stage?

JPW: I thought all three CONCACAF teams would struggle before the tournament, so not too much but it did hammer home just how poor USMNT was in qualifying. I’ve contemplated the USA’s absence quite often actually, especially seeing Hirving Lozano ripping it up. That should’ve been Christian Pulisic.

NM: I’ve thought about the USMNT far less than I expected. There’s been a freedom associated with watching a USMNT-free tournament, and I’ve adored this World Cup. That said, Keylor Navas gave Costa Rica their Tim Howard vs. Belgium game in a loss to Brazil, while Panama looked like a team that only got to the World Cup on a goal that never crossed the line. That part, I admit, brought the U.S. to mind a bit.

AE: Very little, if at all. The World Cup is for the 32 teams that qualify; it’s meant to be enjoyed for what it is, and for who is there. We had seven months to rue what happened in qualifying, and we’ll pick right back up in a couple more weeks, but for now, it’s the furthest thing from my mind.

KB: As much as I don’t want to project CONCACAF’s performance in this tournament onto the USMNT, as the transitive property is a dangerous game, but I couldn’t help it. Watching Panama struggle so mightily left me crying out for more answers as to how in the world the United States failed to deal with such a weak opponent. I’m wildly disappointed not just with the confederation as a whole, but the entire United States performance over the last two years. Bruce Arena has projected blame on just about everyone, but watching Panama only makes me shake my fist at him and others culpable even more.

MR: It was definitely frustrating seeing the CONCACAF teams struggle at times, but given the way the USMNT was playing heading into the tournament and the roster that they would have likely put out, it was for the best they weren’t in Russia. I’m not convinced they would have advanced out of any of the three groups that featured CONCACAF teams, so we’ll try this thing again in four years when Qatar hosts.

Klopp admits Liverpool youngsters will feature in Shrewsbury replay

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In proper FA Cup fashion, League One side Shrewsbury Town pulled off a late draw against Liverpool, forcing a replay at Anfield.

[ RECAP: Shrewsbury forces FA Cup replay with Liverpool ]

The replay, which is set to take place during the Premier League’s winter break, is going to be a problem for Liverpool, according to manager Jurgen Klopp. First-team players have been granted the time off, forcing Klopp and company to play the “kids” for the upcoming replay of the fourth-round bout.

“We intend to honor the original idea of the break,” the Liverpool manager said on Sunday. “We have respect for the players’ welfare and they need this time off.”

“We got a letter from the authorities in April last year asking us not to organize anything during the week of the break and we haven’t,” he added. “We have given the players the time off, and some are going away. They will still be keeping fit, but they do not have to play football that week and they do not have to come in to Melwood.”

Jason Cummings’ right-footed strike in the 75th minute nulled Liverpool’s two-goal advantage early in the second half. The German also admitted that there was no reason for a replay on Tuesday 4 February or Wednesday 5 February.

“We lost the ball in the wrong moments and we never got used to the pitch,” he said. “We conceded the penalty after losing the ball and when they scored their second goal it was after we had lost two challenges in a row. We didn’t play well enough to take anything from the game, we got what we deserved. I would like to give Shrewsbury credit for their performance and the atmosphere their supporters produced. I enjoyed the atmosphere around the cup tie, I just didn’t enjoy the way we played.”

Liverpool squanders lead as Shrewsbury forces FA Cup replay

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Liverpool may be crushing the Premier League, but League One side Shrewsbury Town wasn’t phased facing the juggernaut at its home ground New Meadow, not even after falling 2-0 down on a horrid own-goal. Instead, the hosts came back to draw 2-2 and force an FA Cup fourth round replay at Anfield.

Liverpool started a youthful lineup that featured youngsters Curtis Jones, Neco Williams, Pedro Chirivella, and Harvey Elliott mixed in with Takumi Minamino, Divock Origi, and Dejan Lovren. The opener came in the 15th minute via 18-year-old Jones who slurped up a fabulous through ball from Chirivella and slotted it home from a tight angle past a charging Shrewsbury goalkeeper Max O’Leary.

[ EARLIER: Man City torches Fulham | Man United hammers Tranmere ]

The second came just seconds after the second-half restart on a comical own-goal as former Manchester United defender Donald Love poked a Williams cross into his own net under absolutely no pressure. It was a brainless decision as it appeared Love meant to poke the ball behind for a corner, but with nobody nearby, he somehow finished into the lower left corner instead.

After Liverpool doubled its lead at 2-0, Shrewsbury came to life and began to challenge the young Liverpool lineup. Callum Lang found himself through on goal with a great chance to bring the hosts back into the match, but his one-on-one change was saved by the fingertips of a diving Adrian. Shrewsbury did eventually cut the lead in half after Yasser Larouci cut down Josh Laurent in the penalty area and substitute Jason Cummings slotted home the chance from the spot.

The Shrews were a tough out with confidence back high after the goal, O’Leary made a fantastic diving save to stop Divock Origi. He booted down the field and and they drew level in the 75th minute as Cummings grabbed his second as he brought down a long ball and split the Liverpool defensive duo Williams and Lovren. Once past the Liverpool defenders he slotted home cooly past Adrian to equalize.

Jones nearly won it for Liverpool late as the ball squirted across the line in a goalmouth scramble, but his sliding effort was blocked off the line by a Scott Goldbourne tackle.

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Eriksen to Inter nearly complete, Spurs looking for replacement

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Tottenham Hotspur is in the news on multiple fronts this Sunday morning, for both incoming and outgoing transfer rumors.

Christian Eriksen, who has been heavily linked with a move to Inter, is nearing the completion of that deal, according to Inter CEO Beppe Marotta who went public with the news. “We are not hiding, we have been negotiating with Tottenham for some time,” Marotta told DAZN about the Eriksen move. “I am optimistic, I hope to conclude as quickly as possible. I am confident that it can be resolved in the next few days.”

Despite all the speculation, Eriksen has been playing for Spurs, but he was held out of the squad for Saturday’s 1-1 FA Cup draw with Southampton. Gianluca di Marzio reports that talks have progressed to the stage where Eriksen is expected in Italy today for a medical.

The 27-year-old’s contract is up at the end of the season, and Spurs clearly wished to offload him early rather than see him leave for nothing. However, the delay Marotta suggested is reportedly due to Spurs hoping to secure an attacking replacement. Reports state their talks for Real Sociedad striker Willian Jose have fallen flat, while Spurs have reached out to PSV about Steven Bergwjin and continue to hold interest in AC Milan striker Krzysztof Piatek.

Tottenham has also reportedly been in contact with Juventus, according to tabloid reports in England. It would cost Spurs around $33 million, a win for Juventus given they signed Can on a free transfer in the summer of 2018. The 26-year-old midfielder has yet to earn a consistent place on the Juve squad packed with midfielders, with just eight Serie A appearances this season.


Leicester City is in a fight for the top four, but the Foxes have come down to Earth a bit in Premier League play, having picked up just 10 points in their last eight matches. That could push Leicester to make a move for a January reinforcement, and they have been linked with young French midfielder  Ibrahima Diallo.

According to a report in France, Leicester City submitted a $17.6 million bid for the 20-year-old who plays for Ligue 1 club Brest. The former Monaco youth product has 18 appearances for the 13th placed side, playing 90-minute shifts in nearly all of those.

Unfortunately for Leicester City, the report states that Diallo is wary of a move too soon in his career, wanting to finish out the year. That’s still workable, with the possibility of a permanent deal to Leicester City in January followed by a loan back to Brest for the remainder of the season, if that placates the player.


Italian outlet Gazzetta dello Sport is confident that Everton will move forward with the pursuit of Inter midfielder Matias Vecino before the January deadline.

The Sunday edition of the publication claims that Inter received an offer for the 28-year-old Uruguayan who’s made 14 appearances for Inter this season but has recently been out of the squad the last few weeks. The report says he’s interested in a move to Everton, and therefore the Toffees have gone forwad with a bid.

Manchester United drops Tranmere Rovers 6-0 in FA Cup

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Attacking drought for Manchester United? Not to worry, call on the defenders.

Harry Maguire, Diogo Dalot, and Phil Jones all scored brilliant first-half goals as Manchester United dropped League Two side Tranmere Rovers 6-0 to advance to the FA Cup fifth round. The Prenton Park pitch was in horrendous shape after heavy rain, but that didn’t stop Manchester United’s spectacular finishing in an offensive onslaught.

[ LIVE: Follow all the FA Cup scores here ]

Maguire was first up, picking out the opening goal on an absolute thunderbolt from outside the top of the box that weaved away from Tranmere goalkeeper Scott Davieson and tucked into the top-right corner. The goal is his first for Manchester United and first overall in nearly a year, last scoring for Leicester City on January 30 of last year against Liverpool in a 1-1 draw.

Dalot found the back of the net next, a fabulous run through the top-right corner of the box that finished with a mesmerizing backheel to get away from his defender, finally rifling a howitzer into the far right corner of the net. Jesse Lingard soon got on the scoresheet himself, delivering a curler off a Maguire run through the middle as he picked up his first Manchester United assist and helped the Red Devils go 3-0 up before the 20 minute mark.

Jones picked out a fabulous header off an Andreas Pereira cross, meeting the ball past the far post and seeing it soar majestically into the top-left corner. Anthony Martial made it 5-0 before halftime, delivering a curler from near where Maguire scored his. After the break, substitute Tahith Chong was brought down by Davieson in the box, allowing Mason Greenwood to score from the spot.