SAINT PETERSBURG: At the start of the tournament the favourites to go all the way included Brazil, Germany, Spain and Argentina. After two rounds of group fixtures, none of these sides has qualified for the Round of 16.
Germany and Argentina, two of the biggest World Cup names, have been on the brink of elimination. After being outplayed by Mexico, the Germans trailed 1-0 against Sweden and needed a 95th minute Toni Kroos to wonder free-kick to bring them back into contention.
Joachim Low’s side now needs to beat South Korea in their final group match and hope that Sweden doesn’t beat Mexico – or that their goal difference ends up in the top two, should the three sides end up with 6 points in Group F.
Argentina would’ve been done and dusted had Iceland beaten Nigeria. Having drawn 1-1 with Iceland, the 3-0 drubbing by Croatia put Lionel Messi and co on the brink of elimination.
Now, despite being at the bottom of Group D, Argentina have their fate in their own hands. They would need to beat Nigeria by a better goal difference than Iceland’s over Croatia. And should Iceland not beat Croatia – which of course is extremely likely given the form that the group leaders have displayed so far – Argentina would only need to beat Nigeria to go through.
Even though Brazil sit atop Group E, they needed injury time goals by Phillipe Coutinho and Neymar to beat Costa Rica. However, the Brazilians still need to avoid defeat against Serbia in the final match to ensure qualification for the knockout stages.
Meanwhile, even though both Spain and Portugal are comfortably – and identically – placed atop Group B, one of them could still miss out on the Round of 16, should Iran beat Portugal. Spain simply needs to avoid defeat against Morocco to go through, with Portugal needing the same against Iran – although of course, Cristiano Ronaldo would go all out to add to his tally of four goals, which has been matched by Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku.
Belgium and England in Group G, France in Group C and Uruguay in Group A – all on six points each – are the only pre-tournament big names that have confirmed the passage into the Round of 16.
Of these, Belgium has looked the most convincing absolutely pulverising Panama and Tunisia. Granted, these aren’t exactly the highest profile teams, but given how the others seem to be struggling, the Belgians have thrown the gauntlet – along with the Russians – as the in-form teams of the first two rounds.
France, meanwhile, is doing just enough to maintain their credential as one of the tournament’s absolute favourites. If they peak at the right time, the French side could definitely go all the way.
What the struggles of the big guns has also done is that even if some of these sides manage to squeeze through into the second round, by finishing second they would set up blockbuster Round of 16 clashes.
Before that, however, it’s still all to play for in arguably the most exciting World Cup group stage in recent memory.