2018 World Cup Round of 16 Preview: Spain Vs Russia, Croatia Vs Denmark

Another day, another round of 16 preview. Let’s take a look at the 2 games on Sunday, where we’ll see the hosts take on the 2010 winners, and a great Croatia team take on an underwhelming Denmark side.

Spain Vs Russia

This could well an truly be the most interesting tie of the day. Both teams have looked very good at points, while also showing some significant weaknesses. Let’s start with Spain, who go into this game as the winners of Group B, winning 1 and drawing 2. Talking about this Spain side without mentioning the early sacking Lopategui is difficult. While you can criticise the decision or agree with it, it has added an unnecessary pressure to this side. They were already tournament favourites for me, but losing the man who cruised them through qualifying and didn’t lose a single game, it will always be a what if. If the new Real Madrid manager was still in charge, would we have seen a much better side than we are seeing? We’ll never know. I think Spain haven’t looked at their best in this tournament. They seem to struggle to break down sides who play a low block, and they seem unable to get the best out of their forward, Diego Costa. Costa is a very specific forward. He is great at bringing in others into play, while also being incredible in the air. The issue is he doesn’t exactly fit into the way Spain want to play. Spain like to play a very patient possession style of football. It’s about overloading the midfield and the more technical players like Isco, Iniesta and Silva. They are all players who are able to find those pockets of space and use pick passes to put defenders in difficult places and exploit them. Costa works better in a counter attacking system. While he isn’t very fast, it’s his aggression and size that are his biggest benefit. You could argue they did overplay it against Morocco. I disagree. It seems to be the best way to break these low block teans down. While Spain haven’t shown their best, they still have been very good.

Russia have easily been the surprise package of this tournament. Even with their very old defense and injury list, they have definitely benefited from being the home team. You could argue that is their biggest strength. They seem to play with this fearlessness, as if every play just want to make their country proud. Their best players have easily been Aleksandr Golovin and Denis Cheryshev. Both have been the best players Russia have produced over the years in talent. While Cheryshev’s club career did drop off a cliff after his time at Real Madrid, he has definitely performed in this world cup, scoring 3 goals. However while his club career has dropped, Golovin’s is only on the increase. The CSKA Moscow midfielder was sensational throughout the group stages. He did have a very good season for his club, but the issue is it’s hard to judge quality in Russia. However he has proved us all wrong. He has been the centre piece for that team. He has added that extra bit of quality and his ability on the ball has been excellent. He’s been averaging 2.5 key passes per 90, which has earned him 2 assists. His number of passes has dropped from Moscow, but his key passes have doubled. It shows how he is playing in a much higher position, and it definitely has benefited his team. After the 3-0 defeat to Uruguay, there are question marks on whether they can beat the former champions, but being a home nation always gives you that advantage.

For Spain to beat Russia, they need to make those centre halves as uncomfortable as possible. Their age and lack of mobility is their biggest weakness, and having such magnificent technical players could be key in getting right past them. They also have to get Costa on the ball much more. He will definitely help bring others into play and open space for his teammates. For Russia to shock us all, they need to show courage and play in the same mold they have all tournament. Make sure Golovin continues to be key and get him in those dangerous areas. Even if it would work, I still think Spain will get through his tie.

Spain 3-1 Russia

Croatia Vs Denmark

Both teams in this tie have reached my expectations. I expected Croatia to blow their group away, for simply having a great midfield and a solid defense. Denmark escaped their group, however it is clear that their over reliance on Eriksen is a huge issue. Croatia were very good in their group. They were only one of three teams to earn maximum points. They have a very good squad of players, with their midfield being easily their best area on the pitch. Next to Spain, I think Croatia have the best midfield in the tournament. They have a good balance in dictators and ball recovery specialists. Modric and Rakitic are brilliant dribblers and creators, however they struggle to play in a pair. This is wear Brozovic comes in, he has been the hard working player who has given his teammates a solid base, and give Modric and Rakitic less pressure. They dominated against Argentina because they completely outclassed them in that area. It has been excellent to see and why they have seen to be one of the favourites of the tournament.

Denmark actually have some very talented players. They possess some real talent in Pione Sisto, Youssaf Poulsen and Andreas Christiansen. However their best hope of getting anything out of this tournament is Christian Eriksen. He has been excellent for both club and country in the last year. He has contributed to all 2 of Denmark’s goals in the tournament, scoring one and assisting another. They have played some very good football in the tournament, and have used their forwards very effectively. Poulsen seems to play more as a second striker, while Sisto plays more as a traditional winger. It gives them a very good balance, and with Jorgenson very effective in connecting play, it has given them a good approach. I haven’t been paying too much attention to the Danish, so I will be interested in how they approach this game.

For Croatia to secure their place in the quarter final, they will need to take advantage of their midfield numbers. There will definitely be space between the midfield and the defense, with Denmark playing a very attacking 4-3-3. The likes of Perisic and Rakitic will need to get into those half spaces and help move the ball further up the pitch. Denmark have also given away 2 penalties, which means getting these players in bad areas could result in favourable decisions. For Denmark to beat the 98 semi finalists, they will need to take advantage of their more pacey players. Vida and Lovren are not exactly the greatest defenders, so using the pace of Sisto and Poulsen, could put these players in very comfortable positions. Eriksen will also be key for Denmark. Getting him on the ball as much as possible will be beneficial. I can still see Croatia getting through this one very easily.

Croatia 3-1 Denmark.

Top 5 Best Performers Of The World Cup (As of Game Week 2)

After 2 games, let’s see which players have performed for their respective countries, and shown their ability to the world.

5. Romelu Lukaku

When it comes to strikers, the choices were between Kane or Lukaku, and because all of Kane’s goals have required near zero skill, I’m giving it to Lukaku. The Belgian forward has been superb in the opening 2 games, scoring 2 braces. He is now averaging 17 goals in his last 10 for Belgian, which is an absolutely incredible record. He has worked so well in that front three, with Mertens and Hazard beside him. Mertens has given so much of the ball work, and Hazard has given his usual trickery. Lukaku has been getting in those positions and adding that perfect finish. While I like to criticise Martinez for so many things, one of them isn’t his use of Lukaku. My issue with Lukaku at United is how he is used as a target man. While he can be used that way, he is much more effective when running in behind, using his size and pace as his biggest advantages. Lukaku seems to be the favourite for the Golden Boot, and it’s justified. I don’t like to count penalty goals when discussing top goalscorers, because it doesn’t show the skill of that certain striker. Lukaku’s goals have all been from open play, and all have shown his ability in the air and in front of goal. What a brilliant performance so far from the big Belgian.

4. Carlos Vela

Mexico are usually a team to be threatened by. They have always possessed quality players all over the park, and this World Cup might be the last for many of their mainstayers. The likes of Hernandez, Ochoa, Guadrado and Herrera have all been great servants to the National Team. One of those said servants I would like to highlight would be LAFC’s Carlos Vela. The former Arsenal Winger has been absolutely key for his side in this world cup. Since moving to the MLS, Vela has actually been incredible. His has been the fulcrum of his side, being the main creator and goalscorer for a brand new club. He has carried his superb form over to his national side, where he has been key in Mexico’s games against Germany and South Korea. Looking at his stats, it is clear to see how superb he has been. He has been averaging a ridiculous 3 key passes per 90 and 3 dribbles completed per 90. He is also shooting 1.5 times on target per game. He was especially key in the first game against Germany, where he had the freedom of the pitch, with Kimmich going forward as much as he would. It meant Vela could tear the rest of that defense apart. He has by far been Mexico’s best player, and got what he deserved with a goal against South Korea. Well done Carlos!

3. Isco

I wholeheartedly believe that Isco is the fourth most talented player on the planet (the three ahead should be obvious). Only Messi is able to dribble out of tighter spaces than him, and his importance in that Real Madrid side cannot be emphasised more. He took a world record signing Gareth Bale out of the team and made Zidane rearrange his entire set up to accommodate the Spaniard. His importance for Spain also cannot be more emphasised. While there are plenty of talented players in that team, with Koke, Busquets, Ramos, Costa and Silva all showing in the past their world class ability, Isco is easily the best out of a great bunch. Already in this world cup he completed 140 touches in a match, which is the second highest. It shows his importance to the side because of how often they want him on the ball. While his key passes aren’t as high as they usually are, dropped to a 0.5 from a 1.7. the most interesting stat to take would be his passing in general. It has risen from 50 passes per game to 99. It shows how he keeps things ticking in this Spain side and helps them dominate games so effectively. Isco has been absolutely superb in helping Spain dominate their way through games, and let’s hope he continues it.

2. Cristiano Ronaldo

Portugal have been pretty bad so far in this tournament. Their midfield contains a 30 year old Moutinho and William Carvalho, a player not known for his ability. Someone along the lines of Ruben Neves or if Danilo was available would have been much better. Even in attack they haven’t been too great. Guedes is a player I really like, but so far hasn’t shown that same ability he did at Valencia. However there is always one player Portugal can always rely on to drag them out of any situation, and that is Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo has always struggled in World Cups. The Balon d’Or winner only managed a measly 3 goals in 3 different world cups for his country. However after his success with the national team and with his club, he seems more motivated than ever to finally do it on the big stage. He doubled his overall tally in the first game, scoring a hat trick against their neighbours Spain, including a fabulous free kick where Ronaldo finally learned how to take free kicks again. He then got the goal that helped seal the win against a much better Morocco side on the day. What is most impressive is his shot numbers. Ronaldo seems to be taking less shots but taking them in much better places. His shot numbers have dropped from 6.3 to a 5. While that is still incredibly high, it is showing how he knows that taking the right chance in a much inferior team is the right thing to do. Ronaldo will always be that player who keeps impressing me in some way, and he has done it again.

1. Luka Modric

My love for Luka Modric is so hard to put in to words. If someone asks me what a perfect midfielder is, I simply ask them to watch Modric. He can simply do everything a midfielder can do. He can tackle, read the game, dribble, create, dominate, shoot, he is simply well rounded in every department. Croatia themselves have a pretty great team. They have the best midfield in tournament, with Modric playing alongside Rakitic, Brozovic and Kovacic. They have a midfield full of players who can do different things, and it gives them plenty of options. Modric scored the penalty that won Croatia their first game of the tournament, and then put in a man of the match performance to beat a very poor Argentina team. He dominated that midfield with so much ease and continued to show his class. Throughout this tournament he has done so much defensive work, putting in 4.5 tackles and interceptions per 90, a vast improvement from his 2.7 for club. But it goes to show why Modric is just so good. He never had to do that defensive work because Casemiro would do that for him at Real Madrid, but at 32 he still shows that he can do anything without hesitation. His creative numbers have dropped as a result of his defensive work, with his key passes dropping from 1.5 to 1 (this could also be due to a small pool of evidence). His goal against Argentina just showed his pure elegance. He just bends it on the outside to fool Caballero and win the game for Croatia. He is such a huge part to this side and if Croatia do anything significant, it will be because of their midfield maestro.

Honourable Mentions: Aleksandr Golovin, John Stones, Jose Gimenez, James Rodriguez.