The World Cup finals are now three quarters of the way through in terms of game time played, but only now are we really arriving at the business end of the competition.
From now there are no more second chances and the remaining 16 participants are aware that one off day will spell the end of their challenge.
Pre-tournament favourites Brazil, France and Spain have all safely navigated their passage to the knockout phases, and all will know they have to be at their best; Germany’s demise is proof that you can’t simply turn up and wait for things to turn your way.
The way things have gone thus far in an open, exciting competition full to brimming with VAR goodness, there is a definite split in the last 16 draw; one half is loaded with the so-called ‘big guns’ while the other seemingly opens the door for an underdog to launch themselves to success.
The phoney war is over and the battle lines have been set. But who are most likely to emerge victorious?
Here are the Mirror Football power rankings ahead of the second round…..
Let us know your thoughts @MirrorFootball…
Note: The power rankings are done in order of anticipated likelihood to win the competition and qualify for the next round, taking into account both long-term results, recent performances and the cards that have been dealt. The idea is that too much should never be read into any single result.
Read our comprehensive guide to the 2018 World Cup HERE .
World Cup 2018
Their final group game against Poland descended into farce as they spent the final 20 minutes not attacking – despite trailing 1-0 – and hoping for the result in Colombia-Senegal to go their way.
Boss Akira Nishino admitted his tactics were "very regrettable" but they pushed through a side who had been tipped to struggle in Group H, at the expense of Senegal due to receiving two fewer cautions.
Belgium look far too strong for them in the last 16.
Labelled the worst Russian side ever by members of the home press, expectations were low pre-tournament.
But Stanislav Cherchesov’s side put in excellent performances against Saudi Arabia and Egypt to book a last 16 spot – before being brought back down to earth with a bump by Uruguay.
Hammered 3-0 by the South Americans, they face a real uphill struggle against Spain and will likely have to rely on delaying tactics and set pieces to stand any chance. Above Japan because they’re on the easier half of the draw.
The Danes find themselves in the knockout rounds having beaten Peru in their opening game, before drawing with both Australia and France.
Christian Eriksen’s star has shone thus far, but while Age Hareide’s side are well organised and hard to break down, they’re over-reliant on the Spurs man and a little one-dimensional going forwards.
Croatia in the last 16 may prove a step too far.
So vibrant in their wins over Germany and South Korea, they were all at sea when being crushed by Sweden in their final group game.
That means El Tri will face Brazil in the next round with the momentum of their first two matches having been seriously stopped.
They can bank on the pace of Hirving Lozano and the class of Carlos Vela to cause the Selecao problems, their chances of progressing past the last 16 are again slim (they’ve gone out at this stage in the last six tournaments).
A final day thrashing of Mexico, coupled with Germany’s demise against South Korea, put Sweden in the knockout phase while also avoiding Brazil.
A team that runs itself into the ground and refuses to quit, they may be limited but they play within their limits.
Switzerland represent a tough test in the second round but they have every chance of a place in the quarter-finals.
Lionel Messi did what Lionel Messi does with three of the best touches anyone has produced at this World Cup, before Marcos Rojo’s right foot bailed them out with a late winner against Nigeria.
But, that win apart, the Albiceleste have looked pretty shambolic for the most part, with a defence that will have last 16 opponents France licking their lips.
The Messi-Ever Banega axis will again prove crucial against Les Bleus, but you just can’t trust Jorge Sampaoli to pick a) his best XI b) his best tactical set up, or c) to make smart substitutions. Simply, how can they have righted all their wrongs before their trip to Kazan?
Have shown flashes of quality and no shortage of character in the tournament so far, coming back to draw with Brazil and to win against Serbia.
Vladimir Petkovic’s side are well organised and are capable of mixing up their game depending on the opposition; thus far they’ve shown themselves intelligent above all else, adapting to their surroundings.
Will fancy their chances against Sweden and won’t fear England or Colombia if they reach the last eight. Shock semi-finalists?
Jose Pekerman’s side edged their way into the knockout stages at the expense of Senegal, in a game where they were largely second best.
Much now depends on the fitness of James Rodriguez, their undoubted difference-maker, while the Senegal match showed they both lack, and are susceptible to, genuine pace in the transitions.
Juan Quintero is a wonderful playmaker whose delivery from set pieces is excellent, while Yerry Mina has proven himself a terrific aerial presence with two goals already. Again, given how things are laid out now, are potential semi-finalists.
Deservedly snuck past Tunisia before pumping six past Panama and fielding a ‘B team’ in the game no one wanted to win, against Belgium.
Harry Kane is thriving, on course for the golden boot with five already and they’ll believe that they have no reason to fear Colombia; Gareth Southgate’s side are blessed with pace and look as tactically assured as any England side at a major finals in the last 20 years.
But defensively there are worries, having conceded in all three games thus far, while 75 per cent of the teams goals have come from set pieces thus far. While their prowess at set pieces is a positive, are they capable of taking chances when it’s really necessary? The draw has opened up nicely, but they must defeat both Colombia and their own demons.
La Celeste’s reward for winning Group A with a 100 per cent record and without conceding a goal is a nightmare draw; if they want to get to the final, they’ll have to go past Portugal, France/Argentina in the last eight and then likely favourites Brazil.
But, when all is said and done, that may well play into the hands of veteran coach Oscar Tabarez and a stubborn, difficult, battle-hardened side.
This is the final hurrah for the likes of Diego Godin, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani and they look determined to make the most of it. Win matches not necessarily by raising their game, but rather by dragging opponents down to where they want them; playing sides where they’ll be the underdog each time could well work in their favour.
The Seleccao shocked a continent with their Euro 2016 success, but they’ll have to produce something markedly more impressive to win a first World Cup.
Finishing second in Group B has given Cristiano Ronaldo and his cohorts a nightmare path to the final, but Fernando Santos’ pragmatic side won’t fear failure after the events of two years ago and can embrace the challenge.
Slightly above Uruguay as they, quite simply, have Ronaldo. Below Belgium and Croatia because, well, the draw.
Three wins from three, with nine goals scored, Roberto Martinez’s side enter the knockout rounds as advertised.
Questions remain defensively, while the doubts over Vincent Kompany’s fitness and the lack of a genuine defensively-minded left wing-back persist, but the Red Devils golden generation are flowing offensively, with Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne all impressing thus far.
Should tear Japan apart, but then (likely) comes Brazil. Are they mentally strong enough to take on the favourites or will, as they have in high pressure situations before, recoil back into their shell? The talent isn’t in question, but the mentality is.
No amendment needed for France after the second round of group games, if we’re being honest.
They laboured to a win over Australia, and continued to play within themselves in the 1-0 win over Peru. That pattern continued in the draw with Denmark, and you simply cannot just turn playing well off and on like a tap.
Didier Deschamps is still yet to find a balance in midfield and attack that really works and Les Bleus are a side that continue to look less than the sum of its parts. They’ve got to find solutions, and fast, because while Argentina are a mess, they still have Messi.
Croatia have a 100 per cent record so far and put in the performance of the tournament with their 3-0 decimation of Argentina, a match in which they toyed with the South Americans. Binning off Ante Cacic and his dour tactics for Zlatko Dalic has already proved well worth it.
A fine side blessed with a multi-functioning and talented midfield – with Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic at its heart – the Vatreni have a clear pathway to repeat their run to the final four of France ’98. Given how things have gone thus far it’s not wrong to think that – provided their focus and judgment doesn’t become clouded by whatever circumstances come their way – this side can go even further.
A potential semi-final with Spain lies in wait, but Croatia have the weapons with which to hurt La Roja on the counter attack and they’ll remember beating the Spaniards’ at Euro 2016.
They are playing some excellent football (as usual), but they La Roja lack the security of the 2010 vintage.
The feeling is that they have arrived at this juncture in only second or third gear, and that Fernando Hierro’s men can really step it up now.
Their best performance was undoubtedly the 3-3 with Portugal, where only the outliers of 1) David de Gea having a bad day, and 2) Ronaldo going full Ronaldo, stopped them from winning. Poor against Iran, they were mistake-ridden against Morocco.
Sergio Ramos, Andres Iniesta and Gerard Pique need to drum the need to focus into their younger teammates, and if they stiffen up slightly then the brilliant Isco can really take charge, feeding a thriving Diego Costa. Have an excellent draw and, quite simply, there are few excuses for them not reaching the final.
Quite simply, the Selecao look the side most likely to emerge victorious in Russia right now.
Tite’s side haven’t been quite at their best; Neymar isn’t thrilling quite as expected and they’ve not got anywhere near top gear. But there have been glimpses, chiefly revolving around the superb Philippe Coutinho, that they are well on their way to a sixth World Cup, with passages of stunning, sashaying football, where Samba feet are moving faster than opposition minds.
There is also a balance and an edge to them, while defensively Alisson is yet to be really tested, Thiago Silva looks back to his AC Milan pomp and Casemiro is sweeping up everything n the same manner as at the Bernabeu; an injury to Marcelo isn’t that much of a problem with Filipe Luis stepping up.
Unquestionably there is more to come. And while you say that about France and continue to wait and wait and wait, there is an inevitably that Brazil, and indeed Neymar, will eventually take flight. It promises to be spectacular when they do, and is why they are back on top as our undisputed No.1 ahead of the last 16.
Winner betting odds via Betfair:
Brazil 7/2; Spain 4/1; France, Belgium 7/1; England 8/1; Croatia 12/1; Argentina 16/1; Colombia 20/1; Uruguay, Portugal 25/1; Switzerland 40/1; Sweden, Russia 66/1; Mexico, Denmark 80/1; Japan 200/1
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