The 2014 FIFA World Cup is winding down. Gone are the days of the group stage where four games took place on the same day. Arrived are the quarterfinals. The final eight. While pre-tourney favorites Brazil, Argentina and Germany are still alive, but they have looked flawed. As have teams like France and the Netherlands who have impressed since the first kick.
The final eight is loaded with favorites and under-dogs alike, but many have looked vulnerable so far.
Hosts Brazil may have been the field’s biggest favorites, but they have looked anything but perfect so far. They survived by the scruff of their necks in their penalty shout out win against Chile due more to the Chileans inability to convert penalties then anything they did themselves.
It wasn’t just the surviving act against their fellow South Americans, Brazil looked susceptible in the group stages. They were shout out by an admittedly strong defensive Mexican unit, looked shaky early against the Croatians and even struggled for a period against a dreadful Cameroon side.
Brazil aren’t the only South American team to struggle at times in both the group stage and the knockout rounds, Argentina also struggled. The Argentines needed moments of brilliance from Lionel Messi to pull away from Bosnia, Iran and to an extent Nigeria. That’s not mentioning their Round of 16 game against Switzerland where they escaped penalties only thanks to a late strike by Angel Di Maria.
Another tournament favorite, Germany also looked human at times. After their sheer domination of Portugal, they didn’t look like favorites in a draw against a spirited Ghana squad before escaping the United States in a 1-0 win thanks mainly to a clinical, world-class finish from Thomas Muller. Algeria gave the European powers everything they have, and almost forced penalties in a 2-1, extra-time victory by Die Mannschaft. There’s also the fact that Jogi Low seems to prefer playing four center-backs across the back instead of two central defenders, and two outside backs. This limits the Germans going forward and also exposes them to quicker attacking wide players.
Other teams that struggled in the first round included the Netherlands and Belgium. The Dutch played a strong Mexican defense, and only won the game due to some late game heroics. For 80 minutes, it seemed as if the Europeans would crash out after an impressive group stage. Their Belgian counterparts played the US to a dead-lock after 90 minutes. They prevailed in extra time 2-1, but only after their now trademark late scoring. Belgium has thrived on goals late in close games. The competition will only get tougher, so the Belgians could find their late goals too little, too late against elite teams. The Red Devils also seemed to break down physically at the end of the Round of 16 contest, letting the United States back into the game. This could be an issue moving forward.
The tournament is wide open thanks to the struggles of nearly every team in the competition. While picking a winner seemed somewhat easy a month ago, now it seems more difficult despite fewer options.