It’s hard to believe now that at the midpoint of the second set of group games, there were some suggesting that this was a dull World Cup. In its second week, the tournament exploded into life, with at least one major story each day. Germany has gone home, Argentina somehow survived and Portugal and Spain were both left contemplating how close they had come to the brink of going out.
As the World Cup moves into the knockout phase, we assess the 16 remaining teams, ranking them by group stage performance and by their potential to go on to become the 2018 world champion.
Group stage: 2-0-1, first place in Group E
Last-16 opponent: Mexico; Monday, July 2 (10 a.m. ET)
Brazil has been far from perfect, struggling to score both in the second half against Switzerland and for 90 minutes against Costa Rica, but it is clearly an upgrade over the side of four years ago, even if Neymar’s insistence in overelaborating and losing possession threatens to undermine it. So far, Philippe Coutinho’s excellence in midfield has been enough to overcome Neymar’s nonsense.
Group stage: 1-0-2, first place in Group B
Last-16 opponent: Russia; Sunday, July 1 (10 a.m. ET)
Spain has been excellent in patches and in Diego Costa has a forward who gives the impression he can squeeze a goal from almost any situation. Fernando Hierro has yet to convince as a replacement for Julen Lopetegui, though, and a lack of decisiveness in making changes could easily have cost Spain against Morocco.
Group stage: 2-0-1, first place in Group C
Last-16 Opponent: Argentina; Saturday, June 30 (10 a.m. ET)
The squad remains superb, though the doubts about manager Didier Deschamps remain profound, and in that sense nothing has really changed for France since the beginning of the tournament. If it keeps playing like this, there will, sooner or later, be an opponent that picks it off, but there is also a chance that everything will suddenly click.
Group stage: 3-0-0, first place in Group G
Last-16 Opponent: Japan; Monday, July 2 (2 p.m. ET)
Belgium won all three group games, the third of them with a much-changed side, and will surely brush Japan aside in the last 16. The midfield hasn’t quite gelled yet, but with Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne there is plenty of creativity, while Romelu Lukaku looks to be in one of the patches of goalscoring form that sometimes elevates him.
Group stage: 3-0-0, first place in Group D
Last-16 Opponent: Denmark; Sunday, July 1 (2 p.m. ET)
Croatia arrived to the backdrop of Zdravko Mamic, the long-time power behind the throne at the nation's football federation, being sentenced to six-and-a-half years in jail for corruption, with Luka Modric facing perjury charges. Nikola Kalinic was then sent home for refusing to come off the bench. Yet adversity has molded a spirt that fires the most technically gifted midfield in the tournament.
Group stage: 3-0-0, first place in Group A
Last-16 Opponent: Portgual; Saturday, June 30 (2 p.m. ET)
Uruguay stormed through a straightforward group without conceding a goal and picking up only one yellow card, an impressive demonstration of how basing a side around a sound defense can still be a viable policy in international football. Add in Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, and Oscar Tabarez’s side is a major danger.
Group stage: 2-1-0, first place in Group H
Last-16 Opponent: England; Tuesday, July 3 (2 p.m. ET)
The first game, in which Carlos Sanchez was sent off after three minutes, can almost be written off. Colombia was superb in beating Poland in the second, deploying a pair of No. 10s in James Rodriguez and Juan Quintero, then did enough to outlast Senegal in the third game. A recurrence of James’s calf injury, though, could be an issue.
Group stage: 1-0-2, second place in Group B
Last-16 Opponent: Uruguay; Saturday, June 30 (2 p.m. ET)
Portugal could easily have lost all three group games, but then that was true at the Euros as well, when it scrambled through the group, before grinding its way to success in the knockout rounds. The ability of Cristiano Ronaldo (and to a far lesser extent Ricardo Quaresma) to conjure goals from set plays and half-chances means basic solidity can carry it a long way.
Group stage: 2-1-0, second place in Group G
Last-16 Opponent: Colombia; Tuesday, July 3 (2 p.m. ET)
The drab walk-through of a game against Belgium took much of the gloss off, and the argument that by finishing second in the group England avoids Brazil in the quarterfinal will make little sense if it loses to Colombia in the last 16. There were plenty of pluses from the first two games, though, notably its use of set plays.
Group stage: 1-1-1, second place in Group D
Last-16 Opponent: France; Saturday, June 30 (10 a.m. ET)
Which aspect of Argentina will prevail? The chaotic, Lionel Messi-dependent mess that capitulated against Croatia, or the desperate will to succeed that brought the late winner against Nigeria? Or even the calm, well-balanced unit that dominated the first half against Nigeria? There are so many Argentinas it’s almost impossible to say, but where there is Messi, there is hope.
Group stage: 1-0-2, second place in Group E
Last-16 Opponent: Sweden; Tuesday, July 3 (10 a.m. ET)
There is a persistent tendency to underestimate Switzerland, but this is a side that won nine of 10 games in qualifying and needed a playoff only because of a last-match defeat to Portugal. Vladimir Petrovic has molded a persistent side that has enough creativity through the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri and Blerim Dzemaili to score goals.
Group stage: 2-1-0, second place in Group A
Last-16 Opponent: Spain; Sunday, July 1 (10 a.m. ET)
Russia was far better than most expected, although it was helped by the injury to Mohamed Salah and Egypt’s underperformance. Having avoided the embarrassment of a first-round exit, the question is whether its hard-running style can upset others. Spain’s high line, with plenty of space in behind, might be the perfect structure for the host to play against.
Group stage: 2-1-0, first place in Group F
Last-16 Opponent: Switzerland; Tuesday, July 3 (10 a.m.)
No Zlatan? No problem. Andreas Granqvist may not have intended the slight when he observed after the South Korea win that now Sweden “are a team, we really fight. We’re really running on behalf of each other.” But it’s certainly how it sounded. A panicky final few minutes cost Janne Andersson’s side against Germany, but it an emphatic win against Mexico sealed a first-place group finish, and the knockout path doesn't look so daunting.
Group stage: 2-1-0, second place in Group F
Last-16 Opponent: Brazil; Monday, July 2 (10 a.m.)
After the win over Germany, the temptation was to hail Mexico as potential outsiders to win the World Cup, while at the same time wondering how it had managed to miss so many chances on the break. The edgy win over South Korea and defeat to Sweden have perhaps restored a level of context, and beating Brazil will be very difficult in El Tri's quest to avoid a seventh straight last-16 dismissal.
Group stage: 1-0-2, second place in Group C
Last-16 Opponent: Croatia; Sunday, July 1 (2 p.m. ET)
Denmark ended the group stage unbeaten, but it was second best in all three group games, and it might very easily have been on the way home had Peru’s Christian Cueva not missed a penalty in the opening match. Christian Eriksen is the sole source of imagination or flair.
Group stage: 1-1-1, second place in Group H
Last-16 Opponent: Belgium; Monday, July 2 (2 p.m. ET)
Fortunate to beat a Colombia side that played 87 minutes of the opening game with 10 men after the dismissal of Carlos Sanchez, and far from convincing in picking a 2-2 draw against Senegal, Japan bafflingly rested six players for the final group game against Poland and was extremely lucky to progress on the basis of having received fewer yellow cards than the Senegalese.