Before I make my picks, allow me to express my dissatisfaction with the current structure of the bracket. The Group A winner knows they’ll play the Group B runner-up. The winner of that match knows they’ll play the winner of the match between Group C’s winner and Group D’s runner-up. And on it goes. I think this teensy bit of foreknowledge injects a little too much gamesmanship into the last games of the group stage.
For instance, there was a broad consensus that the loser of Group G’s final match would end up in the easier half of the bracket, given that by the time the match started, 14 of the 16 second-round slots had been filled. In one half of the bracket, call it the “left” half, were four past World Cup champions (Argentina, Brazil, France, Uruguay) and the reigning champion of Europe (Portugal). In the “right” half of the bracket was one past World Cup champion (Spain). No disrespect to the other teams in either half of the bracket, but the left half is clearly tougher than the right. And Group G’s winner– Belgium– won the right to be in the tougher, left half of the bracket. England, meanwhile, should have an easier path to the semifinal.
We could rectify this problem with randomization akin to bracket selection in UEFA’s Champions League. For the Round of 16, randomly pair group winners with group runners-up. For the quarterfinals, randomly pair winners of the R16 games. For the semifinals, randomly pair the quarterfinal winners. This would remove the aforementioned incentive to win by losing. The only caveat I’d throw in would be that you cannot be paired with the other team from your own group prior to the final.
I’d still like group winners to have some additional incentive, so give the group winners the certainty of knowing where their R16 match will be played. For example, you could announce that the winner of Group A will play its Round of 16 match in Moscow. As soon as they win Group A, they can pack their bags, head to Moscow, settle in, relax, and prepare for their next opponent. Meanwhile, the Group A runners-up have to wait until the Group Stage is completely finished to be informed where they’re playing, then rush to get there, only to meet a well-rested opponent.
Anyhow, my picks:
Solid picks: Spain over Russia. Croatia over Denmark. Belgium over Japan.
Somewhat tougher calls: Brazil over Mexico. I think Mexico’s 3-0 loss was misleading. They out-shot, out-passed, and out-possessed Sweden but just couldn’t get a goal. They got their reprieve thanks to South Korea beating ze Germans, and they’ll give Brazil a tough game… but lose. England should beat Columbia, especially if James is dinged up. We’ll see what the MRI says. Also, England beat the stuffing out of two weak teams, played their reserves against a tougher team… we’ll see if these results have masked true might or true mediocrity. And Sweden over Switzerland. Sweden won two games in a really tough group, and arguably should have beaten Germany also. Switzerland tied Brazil, which was impressive, but gave up three goals to Serbia and Costa Rica. Sweden just plain looks better, even though 538 gives Switzerland slight odds to win.
The toughest quarter of the bracket, which is being played tomorrow and which is tight enough that I won’t feel the least bit bad about getting wrong: Uruguay over Portugal. Uruguay has shut down their weaker opponents; Portugal has not. Uruguay’s been getting better, Portugal has not. And I’ll pick Argentina to upset France. Messi, experience, guile, and an emotional upswing that would rival any Argentine telenovela will overcome France’s youth and blandness. France will be felled by the negative karma generated by their lame 0-0 draw with Denmark.