Spain v Russia, Sunday 1st July, 15:00
Sunday’s round of 16 kicks off with Spain taking on the host nation, Russia. Spain topped Group B but, for a few brief minutes toward the end of the final round of group matches, might not have qualified at all. Late goals, late misses and VAR came through for them in the end. If that all sounds a bit ‘if my auntie had balls she’d be my uncle’ then it does at least point to the fact that group winners or not, Spain haven’t exactly been cruising. They were excellent in their opening tie with Portugal – both sides were – but they had to battle hard against a dogged Iran before pulling it from the fire late on in their 2-2 draw with Morocco.
There have been uncharacteristic mistakes from players that you know are better than that; the mix-up between Andres Iniesta and Sergio Ramos for Morocco’s opening goal best exemplified that. There was also a shout for ‘Big Team Bias’ when Gerard Pique escaped the proper censure for a two-footed lunge against an opponent in the same game. Pique, consistently excellent though he has been over the years, also looked quite leggy that evening and better teams than Morocco will have taken note.
Fortunately for them, Russia are not one of those sides. In fairness to the hosts, they have taken many people by surprise. Next to no-one expected them to qualify from their group, let alone win two matches with an aggregate scoreline of 8-1 but the World Cup will throw up surprises along the way. That they were so poor in their final outing against Uruguay was as a result of resting players safe in the knowledge that they had already qualified but also because Uruguay were the first quality team that they had faced.
Russia, basking in their unexpected glory, have had fully six days to rest and train. In a game that few expect them to win, they may view this tie as a shot in the dark and can take to the task with some abandon. Reinstated in the starting line-up will be their one player possessed of superlative qualities – Aleksandr Golovin. The 22-year-old was hugely impressive in their opening two games and will relish the chance to twist Sergio Busquet’s melon. With two assists and a goal to his name already, his reputation has already been cemented as a star of this World Cup.
Spain have plenty of their own stars, of course, most of them serial winners with their clubs. They also ooze experience at the higher end of tournament competition and, one suspects will be privately pleased that they have avoided a big hitter in this round so that they can iron out the creases that keep popping up for them. For all their quality and talent, you get the feeling that this match might ultimately be decided by the respective big men up front.
In another day and age, this column would pay good money to watch a fight between Russia’s Artem Dzyuba and Spain’s Diego Costa, two burly brick houses who love nothing more than throwing their weight around and knocking defenders square on their rear. Costa went up in many peoples estimation when he flattened Pepe in the first round en route to a lovely goal whereas Dzyuba has gone largely unnoticed his whole career until this summer and has already established cult hero status for himself in his home country for his two goals and brutish performances. Both men will cause considerable torment to their markers but you feel that Costa is the wilier of the two and will likely receive a better quality of service overall.
The market reckons that the result of this game is a fairly easy one to call and give it to Spain. If you think that Russia have it in them to cause an upset, the average price of about 6/1 should appeal to you. Yes, Russia have nothing to lose and yes, Spain can definitely be got at but this column reckons it will be a brave man who backs against them. The best price for a Spain is 4/7.
Croatia’s Standout Team Can Dispense With Denmark
Croatia v Denmark, Sunday 1st July, 19:00
In this column’s humble opinion, Croatia have been the standout team in this tournament. It’s one thing to boast of a team filled with serious talent but it’s another thing entirely to make that team tick, especially one that has a history of collapsing under pressure. The performance against Argentina had to be seen to be believed, they utterly brutalized Messi and the boys. There wasn’t a crack they didn’t exploit, a deficiency they didn’t punish; it was the performance of a team who have all the skills to pay the bills figuring out how to back up those traits with a murderous mental attitude and crazed bloodlust for more flesh – why just kill it when you can eat it too?
Denmark have absolutely none of these qualities. What they do have in the bag is the claim to possibly the worst match of recent World Cup’s; that jolly in the park with France would haunt this column’s dreams for years to come were it not for the fact that, mercifully, we’ve already forgotten that we’d ever watched it. They got lucky in beating a far superior Peru side, were the lesser of two sides when playing Australia to a draw and then there was the aforementioned bore-fest avec Les Bleus.
What they do have is a solid squad of plodders and one Christian Eriksen, the jewel in their crown. A truly world-class player, he hasn’t really shone at this World Cup and yet he has been the difference-maker in their results against both Peru and Australia and it is no exaggeration at all to claim that they would all be on their holidays by now if it wasn’t for him. Still, as we have seen with Argentina, one man can’t do it all by himself and everyone, including Eriksen, will have to operate at something close to 100% to have even the slightest hope of beating Croatia.
Speaking of world class players, Croatia have more than their fair share. Luka Modric is arguably the finest midfielder in the world and has been for a number of years. With Ivan Rakitic beside him, there are few other pairings who can boast of such intelligence and finesse in the middle of the park. They have been a joy to behold and you get the feeling that they enjoy showing what they can do at this elevated level. It’s always dangerous to look too far ahead but it must be in the back of their minds that if they beat Denmark, it’s highly likely that they’ll take on Spain in the quarter-finals and for Modric and Rakitic in particular, that’s a team who will hold few surprises. They are still a dark horse but must be considered in the shakedown of possible World Cup winners.
Denmark do not meet the requirements to be spoken about in such exalted tones but, much like Russia, know that in a one-off game, there’s a chance for the unthinkable to happen. Keep it steady at the back, don’t let Croatia’s midfield have too much time on the ball and, when the opportunities arise for Eriksen to show what he can do, you never your luck. The bookmakers have also taken these factors into account before coming to the following conclusion – Bah. With Denmark as long as 9/2 with some outfits, it seems the smart money is on Croatia to win and the best price we can find for Modric et al to do the business is 13/15.