World Cup Russia 2018, Part Five.

Let’s look at my Round of 16 predictions from last time:

Solid picks: Spain over Russia. Croatia over Denmark. Belgium over Japan.

Solid my rear end. Spain tiki-taka’d themselves right out of the tournament. As boring as it was to watch, the Russians executed their game plan to perfection. No radioactive poisoning necessary. Croatia and Belgium won, but winning via PKs or miraculous comebacks does not constitute a “solid” win. The second half of Belgium-Japan might’ve been the best half of the World Cup, with the possible exception of France-Argentina. 2 for 3 so far.

Somewhat tougher calls: Brazil over Mexico. […] England should beat Columbia, especially if James is dinged up. […] And Sweden over Switzerland.

3 for 3. Brazil was just plain better than Mexico. We’ll see if it keeps up. Neymar is turning into a villain, fast. Yes, he is honest-to-goodness getting fouled more than anyone else, but the embellishment is disgusting. Some folks justify it by pointing out that the embellishment draws the ref’s attention to fouls. Perhaps. But the refs do tend to focus a little bit more when one of the best players on Earth, possibly the best left in the tournament, is the most heavily-fouled player left in the tournament. He doesn’t need to embellish. He’s just increasing his own risk of earning a yellow.

England-Colombia was disgusting to watch. England should have finished them off in regular time because the ref should’ve shown Colombia more cards. But Colombia applied a lesson from the old Bad Boys of Detroit: sometimes, you can commit so many fouls that the ref gets tired of calling them. The shame of it is that after Colombia finally equalized at the end of regulation, they finally started playing a disciplined and even dominant game. I think they badly outperformed England in extra time. So where was that the first 90 minutes?

I was right about Sweden. I don’t follow the Swedes closely enough to know, but I wonder whether Zlatan’s absence is a reason for their success. Sometimes a dominant player occupies so much of the attention of his teammates that they forget “the right way to play,” deviate from better game plans, feed him the ball too much. Then when said player goes bye-bye, the team starts playing like a team again. I think Bill Simmons calls this the Ewing Theory.

The toughest quarter of the bracket, […] which is tight enough that I won’t feel the least bit bad about getting wrong: Uruguay over Portugal. […] And I’ll pick Argentina to upset France.

I got Uruguay right, and France wrong. These games were good. France over Argentina is my new favorite game of the tournament. I think it was the most dramatic throughout, unlike Belgium-Japan which was only dramatic at the end (which in fairness is the best time to be dramatic, but I digress). I was wrong about France’s youth, and my God, that MmmBop kid is good. France looked ready to run Argentina right out of the stadium early, then the Argentines pulled ahead, then France blew right past them in the second half. That’s two, two lead changes, ah-ah-ah, which is entirely too rare in soccer. And Aguero’s late goal might’ve led to a miracle finish, but alas.

Argentina’s coach needs his head examined. As someone pointed out, he left 600 goals (Aguero and Higuain) on the bench too long. Yep. Put them on the field, put a little more offensive pressure on France, give Messi a little more room to work with.

Six of eight picks isn’t horrible. It was seven last time, but six isn’t horrible.

Anyhow, my picks for the quarters, even though no result would surprise me at this point:

The right half of the bracket features geographic close-ish-ness and stylistic similarity, but gaps in talent. Sweden and Russia have outperformed expectations so far, and they’ve both shown strength of character. They might’ve been able to Rudy or Rocky their way past their next opponents, but I think England and Croatia just had their mettle tested and will play spirited games. England should beat Sweden and Croatia should beat Russia.

The left half is trickier for me. A quick check with 538’s predictions shows Brazil and France with 64 and 62 percent odds against their opponents, but I think that’s overstating the gaps in talent. Belgium and Uruguay are talented without over-reliance on superstars and spirited without being undisciplined. Screw it: Belgium over Brazil and Uruguay over France.

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