Day 2 of the World Cup knockout stage beings with the hosts, Russia, playing against a former favorite that has yet to impress for an entire match in this tournament, Spain. The second round of 16 matchup will be between Croatia, suddenly among the favorites to win the tournament, against a Denmark team probably happy with making it out of the group stage.
Spain vs Russia
Before this tournament began, predicting such a matchup would be a no brainer: Spain, easily. However, given La Roja’s difficulties in their group, which included a last gasp goal by Iago Aspas to secure a draw against Morocco and struggling to hold back Iran in a narrow victory, suddenly their path to the quarter final (and beyond) is not secure.
To this point, it’s hard to know what to make of Russia. A team that scored 8 goals against Saudi Arabia and Egypt without really creating too many chances, and then switching to a much weaker lineup and looking poor, as expected, against Uruguay.
Russia have very little to surprise with. They’ll try to cross to Artem Dzyuba and hope his height and presence will disturb and often disoriented Spain defense, and rely on high pressure at times which worked well for both Iran and Morocco, with Aleksandr Golovin and tournament surprise Denis Cheryshev expected to carry the attack’s weight.
For Spain, it’ll be about beating that high pressure which disturbed them so, perhaps with more help from Andres Iniesta and Isco (if he starts) to the back four and Sergio Busquets, struggling at times to begin effective build up. Creating enough minutes of consistent pass and move sequences should be enough to create sufficient chances.
Prediction: As inconsistent as Spain has been, their advantages all over the pitch should show once more. Not by much, but by enough to carry them through.
Croatia vs Denmark
The easy angle about this match would be the battle of number 10’s – Luka Modric and Christian Eriksen. Yes, both are their team’s most important players, but Eriksen plays in a more forward role, and aside from the occasional spark from Pione Sisto, is his team’s only source of inspiration, which they’ve tapped into very rarely in this tournament.
Two goals in three matches, very few minutes of flowing attacking football, very few minutes of trying to take the initiative at all. Denmark don’t believe in their ability to control matches, so they don’t try it. The minimalist approach should be lauded if you consider this team to be a group of big bodies + Eriksen and nothing else, but seeing Iran and others attempt more with less makes you wonder if the approach Age Hareide is too conservative at times.
After 3 wins in 3 matches and especially their 3-0 demolition of Argentina, Croatia are suddenly more than just Dark Horse candidates to make a deep run in the tournament. They are many people’s favorites. They don’t have an attacking superstar like some of the bigger nations, but they boast one of the most solid defense + midfield combinations, spearheaded by Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic, joined by either Ante Rebej or Andrej Kramaric.
Denmark won’t mind seeing Modric and Rakitic direct play – they have no intention of dominating the possession statistic in any case. But handling the physicality and talent of Croatia’s front will be a more difficult and important matchup for Denmark, perhaps one they’re not capable of achieving.
Prediction: Denmark will “uglify” the match, but Croatia should prevail, narrowly.