Intriguing matchups abound in second round
Who'd a thunk it, eh?
As the World Cup rumbles into its knockout phase, it does so leaving behind some rather pedigreed road kill, including the reigning world and European champions (Spain), four-time winners and Euro 2012 finalists (Italy) and the reigning Ballon d'Or winner and his supporting cast (Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal).
Indeed, if you go group by group, you'll notice that in six of the eight, one of the two highest-FIFA-ranked nations failed to advance. And all six of them were UEFA nations. I'm sure there are a whole bunch of theories to explain this, but the possibility that the FIFA rankings -- in addition to being imperfect -- end up skewing favorably toward European teams is one you might want to take into account.
Looking at the bracket, you're immediately struck by how lopsided it appears. The top half includes Brazil, Germany, France, Colombia, all potential winners, plus a host of "tough outs" who could yet surprise, including Nigeria, Uruguay, Algeria and Chile. The bottom half seems tailor-made for Lionel Messi and Argentina, with only the Netherlands and possibly Mexico and Belgium as potential stumbling blocks.
Of course, that's on paper. And if there's one thing we've learned here is that compressing pride, organization and hunger into 90 minutes have a huge levelling effect. It's akin to the NCAA tournament in college basketball, where the well-drilled, polite boys from a tiny conference can upset the juggernaut packed with McDonald's All-Americans and one-and-done superstars. All it takes is a bit of discipline and a hot-handed jump-shooter.
That said, here's a rundown of the matchups.
BRAZIL vs. CHILE, Belo Horizonte: Saturday, noon ET, ABC
It's a startling contrast in styles, and it will be crucial for Chile to maintain their million-mile-an-hour tempo for as long as possible. Arturo Vidal's return is a big boost, but you can't ignore Brazil's physical edge on set pieces against the tiny Chilean defense. What's more, Thiago Silva, Luiz Gustavo and David Luiz actually match up pretty well against the Chilean whippersnappers.
COLOMBIA vs. URUGUAY, Rio de Janeiro, Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ABC
You can't ignore the psychological blow of losing Luis Suarez at this stage of the competition. Expect Uruguay to use it as an added motivational tool in what's scripted to be another emotional, blood-and-guts, counterattacking performance. It makes sense, too, to unleash Edinson Cavani against 38-year-old Mario Yepes and a potentially shaky back four. At the other end, Diego Godin & Co. will need to hunker down under the bombardment of what could be the deepest and most talented front line left in the competition.
FRANCE vs. NIGERIA, Brasilia, Monday, noon ET, ESPN
It's a bit hard to assess Les Bleus because they've had the luxury of early(ish) breaks in each of their games. Twice they played 40 minutes or more with an extra man; in the other, against Switzerland, they enjoyed an early two-goal lead and could unleash the counter. Still, they boast the best midfield in the competition, and Karim Benzema is on fire. Nigeria have struggled to get going and actually looked better in a defeat to Argentina than in the previous two outings. Playing a more pedigreed opponent might be a bonus.
GERMANY vs. ALGERIA, Porto Alegre, Monday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN
We've seen Algeria man the barricades against Belgium and storm the Bastille against South Korea. You'd imagine they'd lean toward the former against mighty Germany. Joachim Low's crew were hampered by the weather against Ghana in Fortaleza; this is a different venue, which suits them better. They're still not firing on all cylinders, and the four-centre-back defense might become an issue against tougher opponents, but against Algeria they have an obvious physical, athletic and technical edge.
NETHERLANDS vs. MEXICO, Fortaleza, Sunday, noon ET, ESPN
Mexico coach Miguel Herrera's game plan ought to be obvious: press the often clunky back three, force them to bypass the midfield and hope that Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben don't punish you. Dutch coach Louis van Gaal has had to do plenty of tinkering to mask the Dutch deficiencies everywhere but up front, which suggests this will be an intriguing tactical battle.
COSTA RICA vs. GREECE, Recife, Sunday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN
It's the clash of the pre-tournament ugly ducklings. But while Los Ticos are halfway to becoming full-fledged swans, Greece has had to scratch, claw and will their way to this stage. The danger for Costa Rica --- after three big-name opponents -- is a psychological letdown now that they face an opponent as favorites. Greece's blue-collar ethos serves them well, and in Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Kostas Manolas they have one of the best centre-back pairings in the tournament.
ARGENTINA vs. SWITZERLAND, Sao Paulo, Tuesday, noon ET, ESPN
Lionel Messi has come alive, and that doesn't bode well for the Swiss given that he can obviously carry this team. But Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella's side still look disjointed and vulnerable when Messi isn't papering over the cracks. They've also lost Sergio Aguero, who wasn't having a good World Cup, but nevertheless gave them another high-quality option. Swiss boss Ottmar Hitzfeld is canny and experienced, however, this young Swiss side simply haven't shown it yet. But make no mistake about it, this is a classic potential banana skin.
BELGIUM vs. UNITED STATES, Salvador, Tuesday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN
Belgium won all three games while leading for a total of 24 minutes in the group stage. That's not a good sign. Man for man, they are a notch above the United States, but Belgium coach Marc Wilmots hasn't been able to turn them into an effective unit in this World Cup, and they've relied on individuals and substitutions. If Jurgen Klinsmann can figure out a way to outsmart Wilmots -- as other managers have done in the group stage -- the U.S. have a legitimate shot, particularly if he can exploit Belgium's full-backs, both of whom are vulnerable to pace.
Gabriele Marcotti is a columnist for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.