Breaking down the knockout round

 

The Sports Network

(SportsNetwork.com) - After 15 straight days of relentless World Cup action - and there has been plenty of action - we have a moment to exhale before the start of the knockout round.

There have been 136 goals in the tournament to date, and if the current scoring pace is maintained the rest of the way, the 2014 World Cup will be the highest-scoring edition of the competition ever.

But the strong offensive output has not been the sole source of the World Cup's appeal. Spectators have been captivated by the wealth of dramatic comebacks.

The group stage was chock full of surprises, most notably swift exits to Spain and England and the emergence of Costa Rica and Greece.

But while a few minnows have managed to advance at the expense of some traditional powers, do they really have a chance to make any further waves in the competition?

Here's a look at how the remainder of the World Cup will unfold:

ROUND OF 16

Brazil vs. Chile

These two sides met in the round of 16 in the 2010 World Cup, a contest that ended comfortably in favor of the Brazilians. But Chile is one of the most improved teams from the last World Cup, and the nation's high-pressure approach to defense should ensure for a more closely-contested affair this time around. Still, Brazil boasts a bit more class across the board, and the host-nation advantage should be enough to push the five-time champions through to the quarterfinals.

Winner: Brazil

Netherlands vs. Mexico

The Netherlands exceeded many pre-tournament predictions by not only getting out of a stacked Group B, but also by winning all three of its matches. Its reward? A meeting with a Mexico side that is growing in confidence with each passing match. But while Mexico's robust tendencies figure to cause a problem or two for the Netherlands, the Dutch have proven to be pragmatic enough to grind out results, even when not at their best. And if any team is likely to produce the goals necessary to beat Guillermo Ochoa, it's the Netherlands, led by Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben.

Winner: Netherlands

Colombia vs. Uruguay

This match had the potential to be one of the most entertaining and intriguing encounters of the knockout round, and then Luis Suarez went and chomped on Giorgio Chiellini. Uruguay was without the Liverpool striker for its World Cup opener against Costa Rica and La Celeste looked quite pedestrian in attack, netting just one goal from a penalty kick. Colombia, which steamrolled through Group C by winning its three matches by a combined score of 9-2, will be a much tougher test for Uruguay, and it's a test that the Suarez-less team will not be able to pass.

Winner: Colombia

Costa Rica vs. Greece

While it seems absurd Costa Rica and Greece will be meeting in the round of 16, it's even crazier to acknowledge that one of these sides will be in the quarterfinals. Considering neither side produces a particularly appetizing brand of football, the match may be decided by which team can be more opportunistic. Given that the traditionally defensive-minded Greeks already have conceded four goals this tournament, Costa Rica may be able to squeak by in what is shaping up to be a low-scoring affair.

Winner: Costa Rica

France vs. Nigeria

There is little question as to which is the superior side in this round of 16 encounter. France reached the knockout round by mauling its opponents, save for a scoreless draw with Ecuador in the group finale after Les Bleus had already secured a top-two finish. Nigeria, following a dull draw against Iran, received some help from match officials in a narrow defeat of Bosnia- Herzegovina, an affair in which the African side was clearly second-best. Surprises can happen in the knockout round, but don't expect one here.

Winner: France

Argentina vs. Switzerland

Switzerland made it out of Group E despite some inconsistent play while Argentina did not need to be at its best to claim three wins from three games in Group F. Lionel Messi has been one of the stars of the tournament, netting four goals to help La Albiceleste make a promising start. Argentina should advance due to the undeniable talent gap separating the South American nation from Switzerland, a country that struggled massively against a stout French team in the group stage.

Winner: Argentina

Germany vs. Algeria

There is a gulf in class between the two nations, but the manner in which Algeria battles over the course of 90 minutes could give Germany fits. Algeria has the pace and relentlessness to ask a few questions of a German defense that is a step slow, but that threat can be neutralized if Germany refuses to relinquish possession of the ball. Ultimately, the Germans will advance. They are too strong to bow out before the quarterfinals. But their round of 16 clash against a lively Algerian side may not be the stroll in the park it's perceived to be.

Winner: Germany

Belgium vs. United States

This has the potential to be one of the more fascinating clashes in the round of 16 due to the contrasting styles of play on hand. On paper, Belgium is one of the strongest individual teams in the entire tournament, but some uninspired performances have seen the nation crawl into the knockout round when it was expected to soar. The United States, by comparison, has been made to dig in and grind out results, something it has done to great effect. The Americans have come up against Belgium in friendly matches twice under Jurgen Klinsmann's rein and lost both encounters. Expect Klinsmann to get the preparation right this time.

Winner: United States

QUARTERFINALS

Brazil vs. Colombia

The whole world will be watching Brazil's meeting with Colombia in the quarterfinals. Brazil has the appearance of a team of destiny while Colombia boasts its best squad since the 1994 World Cup. The two nations are familiar with one another, but they failed to meet in qualifying due to Brazil's automatic bid as the host nation. Anything could happen in this clash, but expect Colombia to take advantage of Brazil's attack-minded defenders and find the right pockets of space on the counter.

Winner: Colombia

Netherlands vs. Costa Rica

While the Netherlands landed a rather difficult opponent in the round of 16 in Mexico, the Dutch will be counting their blessings that they get to face Costa Rica in the quarterfinals. There will be no Cinderella story here as Holland's experience should see the European side handle the CONCACAF minnow with ease.

Winner: Netherlands

France vs. Germany

Another fantastic quarterfinal encounter. The amount of pedigree in both the French and German teams is astounding to the point that it is a shame they both cannot advance. But the slight edge in this fixture goes to France. Germany can ease past a host sides by playing with a false No. 9, but the French defense is versatile enough to close the passing lanes around the penalty area while neutralizing the threat posed by super sub Miroslav Klose. France's midfield, full of guile and range, should be able to cope with Germany's intricate passing sequences and spring its wingers on the counter to exploit the lead- footed German defense.

Winner: France

Argentina vs. United States

After an impressive run to reach the quarterfinals for the first time in 12 years, the United States will be undone by a high-flying Argentina side, led by the flourishing Messi. The Americans have proven themselves to be adept in staying organized and dealing with crosses, but facing Messi will pose problems for the U.S. defenders, who prefer to defend by cutting out passes as opposed to facing a gifted player running at them with the ball at his feet. American resilience will ensure a closely contested affair, but Messi will simply prove to be too much for the Yanks to handle.

Winner: Argentina

SEMIFINALS

Colombia vs. France

As impressive as the silky Colombians have been in the tournament, they have not come across as versatile a side as Les Bleus. Colombia has made a habit of feasting off of porous defenses, but the French will not leave themselves exposed. Les Bleus have been well-spaced in the tournament thus far, a trait that should help thwart the opportunistic Colombians. And in attack, France has not relied on any one player to produce the goods. The true team approach will see France through.

Winner: France

Netherlands vs. Argentina

The concern surrounding Argentina has been its reliance on Messi, and a stout Dutch defense that stays compact should help them stifle the Barcelona man. Louis van Gaal has proven himself to be one of the best managers at the World Cup, making halftime adjustments that yielded a total of eight second-half goals in the group stage. Van Gaal will implement a gameplan that inhibits Messi's attacking prowess to force Argentina's other strikers to pick up the slack, something they have not yet done at the World Cup. Simply put, this is where the Messi well runs dry.

Winner: Netherlands

FINAL

France vs. Netherlands

For all the talk of South American teams adjusting to the harsh Brazilian climate best, two European teams will make it to the World Cup final for the third successive tournament. The Netherlands will be hoping to exorcise the sour taste of defeat it encountered in the 2010 final, but France will be eager to do the same after it came up short in the 2006 final. It figures to be another closely-contested final, but France should come out on top due to its slightly more experienced defensive unit.

Winner: France

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