Prawn Sandwich Brigade Knockout stage panel

Can we just say how awesome the World Cup has been so far?

First off, a big shoutout to the fans for NOT BRINGING THE GODDAMN VUVUZELAS.  Seriously, the atmosphere has been incredible.  The ball’s better, and CONCACAF surprised everyone with how well they’ve done.  And a special shoutout to Costa Rica for topping Group D (an alternate group of death) where no one gave them a chance in hell of advancing.

And now we’re doing our second panel for the knockout stage. Same panelists as last time: Pranav Krishnan, Andy McKenna, Arvind Srinivasan, and Karthik Narayanan

American-Patriot

1. The US has survived the group of death but they now face a tough test against Belgium.  What should we do to advance to the quarterfinals?

PK:  It wasn’t straightforward, but it rarely ever is with the USMNT.  I was encouraged to see how the US played and compared to 4 years ago, we’ve definitely taken forward steps under Klinsmann in terms of attacking, retaining the ball, and creating chances.  Defensively though, we still looked shaky dealing with crosses and sustained pressure, and our transitions need to improve if we’re to become an effective counter-attacking side long term. Bradley has been good in brief spells but needs to bring his A game for the knockout stages.

Watching Belgium though, they have so much attacking talent but they aren’t a cohesive unit.  Their 3 group games showed their inexperience and reliance on individual brilliance to beat organized but technically inferior opponents.  If we start pressing their midfielders, particularly Fellaini and Witsel who foul a lot, we can stop balls from getting through to Hazard and Mertens, and we can get counter attack chances against Vertonghen and Alderweireld who are converted centerbacks playing as full backs.  In terms of difficulty this game falls between the Portugal and Germany ones so we’ll need to step up again since we were sloppy going forward against the Germans. Basically, if we cut the supply lines to Hazard, de Bruyne, and Mertens, and challenge Belgium’s fullbacks we stand a good chance of winning.

AM:  The USA will probably play their 4-1-4-1 again, leaving Dempsey on his island while shutting down the middle of the field.  Belgium has been playing two center backs at fullback (to the best of my memory) so the US will need to make sure their wide play is spot on.  Jan Vertonghen is a particularly good attack point.  While he is a player who is quicker than the average center half and doesn’t mind getting forward, he despises playing left back.  And with good reason, because Vertonghen isn’t anywhere near as effective in the position. Whoever Klinsmann places on that side should be able to do work on his, especially if he has speed.

But I think Bradley is 100% the key to this game.  It’s true that he has not been as good as he was in qualifying.  And that he’s made some truly critical errors.  Let’s stop and think for a minute, though.  If the USA’s key player is doing all that, and they’ve already survived the Group of Death, what happens when he gets on form?  If Jermaine Jones could turn, basically overnight, into a confident destroying midfielder, I see no reason Bradley could not do the same.  That would be a scary sight for Belgium.

KN:  I’ve been one of this Belgian team’s biggest supporters for the past two years now and it pains me to see the USMNT pitted against them.  The amount of young superstar power Belgium has is unrivaled in this competition.  The problem is they haven’t looked cohesive at all and have had to rely on late goals against very weak teams to put them through to the round of 16.  They’re superior to the USMNT in almost every position but their wingbacks (Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld) have struggled to make an impact on the three games this team has played, leaving wingers like Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens to create space on their own.

Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman have owned the center of the field for the USA so Belgium will most likely have to play through the wings which will put pressure on Vertonghen and Alderweireld to start playing the forward wingers into space.  The key for the USMNT is to force Belgium to attack through these narrow areas to keep their star power in check.  Furthermore, an early goal is crucial because the recipe to Belgium’s success has been late goals driven by substitutes  Even if the USA do this, Belgium could win the game with some late individual brilliance.  That being said, Jurgen Klinsmann has somehow made this team believe that they can beat any team in the world, so I’m rolling with the USMNT to somehow pull this win out….In Jurgen We Trust.

AS:  I’ve been surprised (pleasantly) by almost every member of the US team, who have stepped up to an entirely different level for this tournament. I questioned several of Klinsmann’s decisions in the group stage when they happened (the Yedlin sub late in the Portugal game, Omar Gonzalez over Geoff Cameron for Germany, etc), but I’ve been wrong every time. I guess the coach knows how to coach. Who knew. Regardless, Belgium haven’t looked particularly good, especially up front, and if DaMarcus Beasley can handle CR7, he can handle Eden Hazard (not making promises about any USA ballboys). I would resist the temptation to rush Jozy back if that’s even an option, because it would mean dropping Zusi or Bedoya/Davis, who have proven to be important defensive wingers. In short, don’t change a winning formula.

2. France, the Netherlands, Chile, and Colombia all had dark horse potential before the tournament started and they pretty much breezed through their groups. Who goes the furthest?

AM:  France have looked very strong, but in a much weaker group (damn you, France, for that group draw).  Chile were impressive making it out alive of their group.  And the Colombia proved they were not all just Radamel Falcao.  But the Netherlands is clearly the best bet to move forward.

Take a look at their brackets.  France, Chile, and Colombia are all in an area where the teams are just going to rip each other apart.  At least one Cup contender is not going to make it out of there with even a kiss on the cheek from a scantily clad Brazilian woman.  Now look at the Netherlands’ bracket.  You’ll see that they not only have the better match-ups in the R16 and Quarterfinal, but they also wouldn’t even have to play Argentina until the Semifinal (Argentina, by the way, have not looked that great).

I still have no idea about Mexico in that first round.  They’ve been a wild card, and it could be a tough draw.  But if the Dutch make it past them, look out.

KN:  One quick look at the bracket will tell you that the Netherlands has the easiest path of these four teams to reach the semifinals.  Fixtures against Mexico and the winner of the surprising Greece/Costa Rica matchup makes them overwhelming favorites to come out of this weak quarter of the draw.  Their offense has looked unstoppable throughout this tournament, probably because van Gaal has finally figured out a way to keep van Persie, Robben, and Sneijder from killing each other every time they take the field.  However, all that offensive firepower has covered up a pretty suspect defense that was getting carved up by Australia not more than a week ago.  I just can’t see this team beating another team with a similar type of offensive firepower (Argentina, Brazil, Germany etc.)  Luckily for the Dutch, they won’t have to worry about it until the semifinals of this competition.

AS:  In a tournament defined by great team play and phenomenal stupidity (#dirtysuarez) more than huge individual performances, Colombia looks most like a one-man team. I think they’ll have trouble creating chances when the better defensive teams man mark James Rodriguez. France is the exact opposite, for me – as much as Benzema has been the outstanding goalscorer, their attacking threat is varied and they seem defensively solid. I feel like they shouldn’t necessarily have been classified as a dark horse given the profiles of squad members, but they’ve definitely vehemently answered any questions about their team mentality. I had them going to the final before the tournament, I’m sticking with that prediction.

PK: For me, the Netherlands can go the furthest of the 4. They have players who are good in possession, but they’re also just as dangerous on the break and at stifling teams with this 5-3-2/3-5-2 system.  They conceded a lot of possession, but Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie, and the wingbacks Daley Blind and Daryl Janmaat have been superb in orchestrating counter-attacks while de Guzman and de Jong have broken up play very well. My predictions are usually a curse, but de Oranje should make the semifinals as they’ll be favored to beat Mexico and the winner of Costa Rica/Greece.  They also had the hardest group out of the 4 teams which they overcame with relative ease (including Chile) so in terms of preparation, they’ll be the most confident about their chances until at least the semifinals.

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3. Three of us picked Argentina to win the World Cup. One of us picked Brazil. Based on what we’ve seen so far, how far do you think your original picks are going?

KN: The saddest part about the bracket is the amount of talented CONMEBOL teams from Brazil’s quarter of the draw that will be left out by the time the semifinals roll around.  Chile and Columbia are two teams that could make a run to the semifinals but probably won’t at the expense of Brazil.

I’m still standing by my prediction of Argentina winning the World Cup.  Messi, much like Neymar, has put this team on his back and is a man on a mission. He can’t do it alone though and he’ll need to get some scoring support from Higuain, Lavezzi and di Maria.  The Aguero injury may be a blessing in disguise as it will finally create some stability in the starting lineup and front and open up some space for Higuain to operate.  This World Cup has been one of the most open and attack-minded in recent memory which plays right into the hands of La Albiceleste.

AS:  At this point in the tournament, it’s more about luck and one-off performances, and Brazil will have to be a lot more convincing on their side of the bracket. If they win the final, nobody will be doubting it based on strength of opposition, but Brazil will have to play a lot better than they did in the group stage if they are to do so.  Argentina have looked rather disjointed at times, but the team is starting to gel and Messi looks like he’s playing for his legacy. On paper, the only top 5 side they would have to face on the road to the final is the Netherlands, but as we’ve seen in this tournament time and time again, games aren’t played on paper.

PK: I picked Brazil at the start thinking they’d build on their Confederations Cup triumph. But the matches against Croatia and Mexico confirmed the theory that Brazil look short of ideas and fluidity when they’re forced to dominate possession. Whereas at the Confederations Cup, they were able to counter-attack at will and score early goals.  Fernandinho coming in for Paulinho might add a bit of spark and mobility, but their over-reliance on Neymar may prove to be their downfall against France or Germany and their back line has looked less encouraging. So I’m going to say that they will reach the semifinals but come up short.  Argentina on the other hand have relied on Messi, but their overall performance has started to pick up from an attacking sense and they’ve been able to win games despite not being at their best which is a valuable quality going into the knockout stages.  The Netherlands could spoil the party for Messi, should they both meet, but otherwise La Albiceleste are getting closer to finding the right balance.

AM: Based on what I said about the Netherlands, I think they’re probably setting up to have an excellent Semifinal showdown with Argentina (who have never lost to Switzerland and will play either Blegium or (LOL) the United States in the Quarters).  This has been one of the most wide open World Cup’s to date and I could easily see that Semifinal game going the other way.

The thing that concerns me about Argentina is not them relying on Lionel Messi.  That’s great, actually.  That’s what they’re supposed to be doing.  Let the man shine.  My issue has been with his support.  I especially want to see some of that magic Ángel di María showed during Real Madrid’s Champions League run.  Also, no more of this weird five defenders or diamond.  Argentina have begun to play better with a 4-3-3, which suits both Messi and di María much better, so I hope they stick with that formation.  I think if they can do that, Argentina will be at the point I predicted earlier.

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