The World Cup group stages are done and dusted for another four years, and now we’re into the rounds where stories are written and legends forged. With half the original 32 teams eliminated and the remaining half still harbouring dreams of getting their hands on the trophy come 15th July, here’s how the runners and riders are shaping up based on their pre-tournament expectations, performances so far and standard of opposition faced.
Into the knockouts
1. Brazil 🇧🇷
Ominous. The Seleçao didn’t really have to shift out of second gear in Group E, despite being held by Switzerland and, for large periods, Costa Rica. In stark contrast to the 2014 side, who were ridiculously dependent on Neymar, Tite’s men are built from the back, with the central spine of Thiago Silva, Miranda and Casemiro allowing the flair players to flourish. Already look like the team to beat, despite being in the more illustrious half of the draw.
2. Croatia 🇭🇷
Made child’s play of the most difficult-looking group in this World Cup. Renowned as an attractive footballing side, Croatia have struggled to make an impact on this tournament since finishing third in 1998, but three wins out of three have earmarked them as real dark horses in Russia. The way they brushed aside a hopeless Argentina in the second half will live long in the memory.
3. Spain 🇪🇸
Feted by many as favourites, suffered a blow losing their manager on the eve of the tournament but kept up their two-year unbeaten run with a win and two draws. Looked out of sorts in the draw with Morocco and were thankful for the late drama in Saransk which allowed them to top the group and avoid a dangerous-looking Uruguay.
4. Belgium 🇧🇪
As in 2014, the Belgians won all three of their group games, but this time around you get the sense that they’re a serious contender, rather than just a team of very good players who could possibly sneak into the latter stages. The key trio of Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku is arguably unmatched in the competition, while Thibault Courtois, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen boast years of experience at the back. Looked a little shaky defensively against Tunisia, but showcased their strength in depth in beating England.
5. Uruguay 🇺🇾
Yet to concede a goal, La Celeste’s performances in their games against the weaker sides were stodgy at best. However, spearheaded by Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, the 2010 semi-finalists comfortably dealt with a resurgent Russia and look good bets to go deep into the tournament.
6. Mexico 🇲🇽
The earth-shaking win over Germany had many tipping the North Americans as potential outsiders, but the shock 0-3 reverse to Sweden means another round of 16 exit looms large. A counter-attacking side, spearheaded by Javier Hernandez, Carlos Vela and Hirving ‘Chucky’ Lozano, Mexico have the potential to hurt Brazil – but will they be affected by their old demons?
7. England 🏴
It seems as if the whole country has got carried away with the possibilities the next few weeks hold, but we still don’t know exactly how good the Three Lions are. A late Harry Kane header saw off a limited but organised Tunisia side, before England – for once – put the worst side in the tournament to the sword. Gareth Southgate opted to rest most of his first XI in the stupifying defeat to Belgium, meaning we go into the Colombia game with a mixture of hope and trepidation.
8. France 🇫🇷
All the talent in the world, but yet to truly impress in this tournament. The first-half performance against Peru showed signs of what Griezmann, Pogba and Mbappe can conjure up, but the less said about the insipidness of the Australia and Denmark (when Deschamps made numerous changes) games, the better. Will hope they can replicate Euro 2016, when they significantly improved in the knockout rounds, but there’s a sense that, as long as Didier Deschamps runs this team, they won’t reach their potential.
9. Portugal 🇵🇹
Played their part in one of the games of the tournament, but don’t seem to have progressed much from the reactive, unspectacular side that became European champions by winning just one game in 90 minutes. Will go into the second round tie with Uruguay as underdogs, but with Cristiano Ronaldo in form, anything could happen.
10. Colombia 🇨🇴
Arguably the best side at Brazil 2014, Colombia are a dangerous outfit who few sides will relish coming up against. Were unlucky to lose to Japan in their opener, but blew away a stodgy-looking Poland, with the creative triumvirate of James Rodriguez, Juan Quintero and Juan Cuadrado effervescent throughout.
11. Switzerland 🇨🇭
A famously reactive unit, they looked oddly easy to get at in Group E. Will be relieved that Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, arguably their two most important players, escaped bans for their politically-charged celebrations during their win over Serbia. Place highly in these rankings due to a more favourable round of 16 draw; quarter-finals is surely their limit.
12. Argentina 🇦🇷
A swing of Marcos Rojo’s boot away from exiting the competition after flattering to deceive in Group D. Pre-tournament fears about the balance of Argentina’s squad came to fruition as Lionel Messi struggled to elevate the performances of an average bunch much higher than, well, average levels. Still, they’re in the knockout rounds, and as we know, anything can happen there.
13. Sweden 🇸🇪
Just another football team that has improved exponentially after Zlatan Ibrahimovic has exited, stage right. The outspoken striker, arguably the country’s greatest ever player, came out after the Germany game and said he could perform much better than the current players. Janne Andersson’s side made a mockery of that theory as, marshalled superbly by captain Andreas Granqvist, they picked off Mexico and topped Group F.
14. Russia 🇷🇺
Raced out of the blocks, but pre-tournament concerns about lack of quality came to fruition as they were eased out in the group decider by Uruguay. Even with an out of sorts Spain waiting in Moscow, the hosts are unlikely to make it further than the round of 16.
15. Japan 🇯🇵
Looked good in spells during the 2-2 draw with Senegal, but benefited massively from Carlos Sanchez’s third minute red card in the opener against Colombia. Play neat, tidy football and have a few individuals who can change games, but round of 16 should be a step too far for this ageing outfit.
16. Denmark 🇩🇰
Arguably the most limited of the 16 sides to have made it to the knockout rounds, the Danes can at least boast a solid defence, having conceded just once in Group C. They are, however, massively reliant on Christian Eriksen for goals and should find Croatia in Nizhny Novgorod a step too far.
17. Senegal 🇸🇳
Eliminated by virtue of having picked up two more yellow cards than Japan; a real hard luck story for Aliou Cisse’s men in just their second World Cup. Sadio Mane, Mbaye Niang and Ismaila Sarr impressed with their link-up in attack, while several youngsters also shone, such as the right-back Moussa Wagué. Ones to watch in future?
18. Peru 🇵🇪
One of the most enjoyable sides to watch at this World Cup, and certainly one of the best supported, Peru will look back at their unfortunate defeat to Denmark in the group opener with regret. Had Christian Cueva’s penalty gone in, the South Americans’ first tournament since 1982 could have gone very differently.
19. Nigeria 🇳🇬
Creditable second half showings against Iceland and Argentina, and only minutes away from progress, but inexperience and an anaemic performance in their tournament opener cost the Super Eagles. Promising squad who could make a mark in 2022.
20. Morocco 🇲🇦
Somehow only managed to glean one point from their three games, despite playing attractive, buccaneering football. Hakim Ziyech and Younes Belhanda were among the competition’s finest playmakers and it’s tempting to wonder if they’d have escaped the group with a more clinical centre-forward.
21. Serbia 🇷🇸
First half good, second half not so good. At half-time of their second game against Switzerland, Serbia were 1-0 up and cruising towards the last 16. The furore over a penalty not awarded for a clear foul on Aleksandr Mitrovic, as well as the Swiss’ ‘double eagle’ celebration clouded over Serbia’s second-half collapse in that game, meaning the encounter with Brazil was always going to be an uphill struggle.
22. Iran 🇮🇷
As resolute as ever, Iran gained plenty of admirers with their organised display in the narrow defeat to Spain. Were a hair’s breadth from qualifying for the second round, despite only scoring twice. Both goals – an own goal against Morocco and a disputed penalty in the game with Portugal – came deep in injury time.
23. Iceland 🇮🇸
A credible first World Cup showing for the Scandinavians, with the superb rearguard effort against Argentina the undoubted highlight. Performed well against Croatia in the final group game, and perhaps unlucky to lose, but were blown away by Nigeria in the second-half of the encounter in Volgograd.
24. South Korea 🇰🇷
Looked very limited until the incredible late win against Germany, which will no doubt go down in Korean football folklore, next to those famous nights in 2002.
25. Australia 🇦🇺
Defensively the Socceroos were as dogged as ever, but lacked quality elsewhere on the pitch, with their only two goals both coming from Mile Jedinak penalties. Had the better of a dull 1-1 draw with Denmark, but never really looked like escaping the group.
26. Germany 🇩🇪
Has a reigning world champion ever exited the tournament so meekly? If Toni Kroos’ late, late strike against Sweden was supposed to ignite the holders’ title defence, it seems no-one informed Die Mannschäft. Whether it’s Manuel Neuer losing the ball on the left wing, Jerome Boateng tying himself in knots or countless Mexicans pouring into oceans of final-third space, none of the images of Germany’s World Cup flatter Joachim Low’s side.
27. Poland 🇵🇱
Is there a nation which regularly disappoints at tournaments more often than Poland? Is there a player who flatters to deceive on the big stage as much as Robert Lewandowski? One of the worst World Cups from a seeded nation in living memory; the Poles looked slow and uninspired from the first whistle and the win they gleaned from the game with Japan must have an asterisk next to it, considering the manner in which the Samurai Blue saw out the game.
28. Tunisia 🇹🇳
Went into the tournament as the highest ranked African nation, but were hamstrung by the injury suffered to star playmaker Youssef Msakni. Showed little in the defeat to England but reacted to that setback by being too open against Belgium. Spearheaded by Wahbi Khazri, they secured a first World Cup win since 1978 in the dead rubber versus Panama, with Fakhereedine Ben Youssef’s goal a particular highlight.
29. Costa Rica 🇨🇷
An already ageing side were hamstrung by the fact that their two key players – Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz – lacked match fitness after being out of favour at their clubs last season. Had the impressive Keylor Navas to thank for keeping Brazil from the door for 90+ minutes but, the late 2-2 draw with Switzerland aside, a poor World Cup for the 2014 quarter-finalists.
30. Saudi Arabia 🇸🇦
Looked set to become one of the worst World Cup sides in history after their opening day horror show against the hosts, but saved face with a creditable performance against Uruguay before securing a first win at the tournament since 1994 in the dead rubber with Egypt.
31. Egypt 🇪🇬
Unlucky to concede late goals to Uruguay and Saudi Arabia, but fans won’t look back at a first World Cup appearance in 28 years with too much adoration. Mo Salah clearly wasn’t fully fit, but the limited talent he had to work with was found out, even in a weak group.
32. Panama 🇵🇦
Well, it was an extraordinary achievement simply to reach the finals. Panama, whose population is 80 times smaller than the United States, may have been outclassed by Belgium and England, but Russia 2018 is a tournament their fans won’t forget in a hurry.