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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.

Sweden players, coaches left fuming after last-minute loss

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) — A last-minute goal. A non-called penalty. A disrespectful celebration.

Sweden had a lot to be upset about when the final whistle blew on Saturday.

[ MORE: Low: Germany survived “a thriller full of emotion” ]

The Swedes were within seconds of holding defending champion Germany to a draw, and moving into good position to advance to the round of 16 at the World Cup, when Toni Kroos scored deep into stoppage time to give Germany a 2-1 come-from-behind victory.

“I’m sorry that we didn’t get at least one point,” Sweden coach Janne Andersson said. “But I’m not blaming anyone tactically or analyzing too much right now, there are so many emotions going around. This is probably the heaviest conclusion that I’ve experienced in my career.”

Kroos’ goal from a set piece came in the fifth and final minute of injury time. The draw would have kept Sweden ahead of Germany in Group F and needing only a draw against Mexico in the last match.

[ MORE: Germany snatches late win over Sweden to avoid elimination ]

“It was just bad luck,” Sweden forward John Guidetti said. “Now we need to try to find a way to win the last match. In a few days we play again and we have to win it. It’s simple.”

Germany, which is tied with Sweden on points and goal difference, will play against South Korea in the final round.

“We still have an excellent opportunity to qualify,” Andersson said. “Now we have to clean up, tidy up after this game. We’re going to do that.”

The Swedes were leading Germany at halftime thanks to Ola Toivonen’s goal in the 32nd minute at Fisht Stadium. They felt they could have been ahead even earlier if the referee had called a penalty when Marcus Berg appeared to be fouled inside the area with a clear chance to score. There was no formal video review called for.

“If we have the (VAR) system, it’s very unfortunate that he (the referee) can feel so secure in the moment that he doesn’t go and have a look at the situation,” Andersson said.

He and the Swedish players said they also couldn’t understand why Germany decided to celebrate near their bench.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

“You shouldn’t celebrate in front of our bench the way they did, that’s disrespectful,” Guidetti said. “You can celebrate with your own fans. Don’t celebrate in front of our bench like that. That’s why they apologized, because they knew they did something wrong.”

Andersson said he was “very annoyed” by seeing the Germany team “running in our direction and rubbing it in our faces by making gestures.”

“We fought hard for 95 minutes,” he said. “And when the final whistle blows, you shake hands.”

Germany snatch late win over Sweden to avoid elimination

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Germany dodged a fatal bullet on Saturday, coming back from a goal down to Sweden to steal a 2-1 victory at the 2018 World Cup and keep their world title defense alive… barely.

For all of 16 minutes — plus halftime — the Germans were in line to be eliminated with one Group F game still to play, but ultimately, Ola Toivonen‘s unlikely opener was canceled out by Marco Reus in very short order after the restart, and Toni Kroos broke Swedish hearts in the 94th.

Put another way, Joachim Loew survives to manage another day.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Sweden felt massively aggrieved to have not been awarded a penalty kick in the 17th minute, when Jerome Boateng took out the legs of Marcus Berg as he bore down on an out-rushing Manuel Neuer. The combination of leg-to-leg contact and a strong push in the back appeared an obvious error for the video-assistant referee to right a wrong, but the call never came.

The opening goal was the direct result of a careless giveaway by Kroos near the center circle, and needed just three touches and two passes to cut through the German defense and spring Toivonen behind Antonio Rudiger. The finish, a perfectly weighted dink — perhaps aided by the slightest of deflections by Rudiger — left Neuer with no chance (WATCH HERE).

Then, with the final touch of the first half, Berg glanced a header from a free kick that was destined to his the inside netting at the far post, but Neuer redefined the phrase “at full stretch” to keep the scoreline 1-1.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

That save proved invaluable for Joachim Loew’s side, as Marco Reus pulled the defending world champions level less than three minutes into the second half. Timo Werner dribbled to the endline and cut the ball back toward the penalty spot, and Reus got on the end of the deflected cross and struck it home with his knee. A semblance of order restored.

Bedlam ensued in the final 15 minutes, as Boateng was sent off for a second yellow card and Neuer lost his footing while scrambling across the face of goal to make a save, only narrowly preserving the 1-1 scoreline. Robin Olsen one-upped Neuer in the 88th minute, rising to his crossbar to punch Mario Gomez’s header just over.

In the fourth of five minutes of second-half stoppage time, Kroos became the hero. From a nearly impossible angle on the left side of the penalty area, Kroos rolled the ball forward to Reus on the restart, creating an ever so slightly wider angle from which to curl his shot toward the far post. It worked to perfection.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

Germany (3 points) will finish group play against fourth-place South Korea (0 points) on Wednesday, while Sweden (3 points) will face Mexico (6 points), who had clinched their place in the knockout rounds until Germany’s late winner.

VIDEO: Toivonen chips Neuer; Germany on brink of elimination

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Germany, the defending world champions, have their backs firmly pressed against the wall, less than an hour away from elimination, in just their second game of Group F play at the 2018 World Cup. As of this moment, they’re set to be eliminated with one game still to play.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

After losing to Mexico in the opener, Joachim Loew’s side now trails Sweden in game no. 2, just shy of 45 minutes on the clock. As of right now, Mexico and Sweden (six points each) would go through to the knockout rounds, and Germany and South Korea (zero points) would go home.

Die Mannschaft were utterly dominant for the game’s first 30 minutes, holding more than 75 percent of possession, until Ola Toivonen, who scored all of two goals for Ligue 1 side Toulouse this season, got in behind the German backline and dinked the ball over the head of Manuel Neuer for the game’s opening goal.

2018 World Cup team preview: Sweden

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Getting to know Sweden: Blagult (The Blue-Yellow) haven’t been to the World Cup since the 2006 in Germany, where they reached the round of 16 and were eliminated by the host nation, while qualifying for the last five European Championships (one knockout appearance – 2004).

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

Janne Andersson has assembled and deployed a formidable defensive unit which conceded just nine goals in 12 qualifiers, including their defeat of Italy in the qualification playoffs in November. On the other end of the field, the Swedes netted 26 times, besting everyone in Group A, including the eventual group winners, France, whom they beat 2-1 at home and lost to 2-1 away. Andreas Granqvist, who’ll partner Manchester United’s Victor Lindelof in the center of defense, is the captain.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 


What group are they in? Group F, with the defending World Cup winners, Germany; CONCACAF’s best, Mexico; and arguably Asia’s best, South Korea. Perhaps (one of) this year’s group(s) of death, it’ll be an uphill battle for 270 minutes to scrape and claw away anything and everything they can get.

Game schedule – Group F – Full 2018 World Cup schedule, here

Monday, June 18: Sweden vs. South Korea, Nizhny Novgorod, 8 a.m. ET
Saturday, June 23: Germany vs. Sweden, Sochi, 2 p.m. ET
Wednesday, June 27: Mexico vs. Sweden, Yekaterinburg, 10 a.m. ET


Projected lineup (4-4-2) – Check out the 23-man squad list in full

—– Olsen —–

— Lustig — Lindelof — Gronqvist —Augustinsson —

— Claesson — Ekdal — Larsson —  Forsberg —

—— Berg —— Toivonen ——


Star player: Emil Forsberg – The 26-year-old winger is coming off an injury-plagued season (nearly two months missed due to core muscle injury), and his least productive one in his three years, for sixth-place Bundesliga finishers RB Leipzig. Forsberg racked up more than 50 goals in under 200 games while playing six seasons in Sweden before making the move to Germany, where he’s made more than 30 appearances each of the last three seasons (goal tallies of eight, eight and five). He’ll play on the left and look to cut inside, providing left back Ludwig Augustinsson all the space in the world on the overlap.

(Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)

Manager: Janne Andersson – The 55-year-old spent more than 15 years playing in Sweden and has been managing in his homeland ever since, rising to the national team job following EURO 2016.


Secret weapon: Viktor Claesson – The 26-year-old winger, who’ll line up opposite Forsberg, has starred for the last year and a half at Krasnodar in Russia, where he bagged a dozen goals this season, including two in the Europa League and 10 in league play. Both Claesson and Forsberg will attack wide and provide width with an eye toward funneling everything to Ola Toivonen and Marcus Berg.


Prediction: The clearest path to finishing second and advancing to the knockout rounds is as follows: beat South Korea, draw Mexico, take a narrow-margin defeat against Germany, and hope Mexico get hammered by the defending world champions, opening the door for a goal-differential decision. In short, it’s a long shot, but not wholly unrealistic.