Croatia and Belgium survive Round of 16
Today with Germany v Belgium and Croatia v Costa Rica, we continue analyzing and predicting the eight Round of 16 matches of World Cup 2022.
If you have followed Papa’s analyses and predictions, you will note that the sixteen teams chosen to progress from the Group Stage are paired up as follows: Group A-1—Holland plays Group B-2—England, and A-2—Senegal plays B-1—USA; then Group C-1—Argentina plays Group D-2—Denmark, and C-2—Mexico plays D-1—France; then Group E-1—Germany plays Group F-2—Belgium, and E-2—Costa Rica plays F-1—Croatia; then Group G-1—Brazil plays Group H-2—Uruguay, and finally G-2—Serbia plays H-1—Portugal.
Germany v Belgium
The Germans have not yet found their mojo and they are painfully aware their win over Spain and loss to the Ticos in Group E play was not anything to build upon. Now they are facing the Belgians and there is no love lost between opponents of the WWII 18 Days’ Campaign. The Germans have traditionally had the upper hand in all of the mentioned encounters but this time the Red Devils are the favored team. German Coach, Hansi Flick, will be looking for a way to blunt Eden Hazard and Lukaku as the former has had a renaissance at the cup and the latter is roaring to go and has a physical presence. Similarly, Kevin de Bruyne has been given too much leeway to play his game, Hansi thinks, and he must be marked more closely.
The Belgians, who have been playing without the recuperating Romelu Lukaku, now have him fit and are looking forward to the upcoming game as it offers them one of the few opportunities to outdo their German neighbors. Belgian Coach, Roberto Martinez, has been long planning for the match and is excited to execute his game plan. He is looking forward to having all of his weapons at his disposal and thinks this is a winnable confrontation. Despite the misstep in their last game against Croatia, Courtois’ performance against Morocco and the team’s overall showing against a tougher-than-expected Canada, are reasons for optimism. He feels the way to beat Germany is to counter their all-out press with an all-out offensive rush that puts them on their back heels.
The German team makes their first big strategic shift for this match. They go to a 3-4-3 formation with an oversized three-back defensive line composed of Rudiger, Sule, and Bella-Kotchap in his first starting role. In front of that imposing wall are Gundogan and Kimich in the middle, the former charged with keeping his club teammate, de Bruyne, in check. Flick then places Raum on the left and Musiala on the right, giving them both full offensive licenses. Up front Flick opts for Havertz down the middle, with Muller and Gnabry, but with all three having license to roam. The team is set up to allow the Germans more offensive punch while flooding the midfield to deprive de Bruyne of his favored coming-from-behind-the-offensive-line move. The usage of Raum and Musiala on the wings will provide overlapping speed and goal-scoring potential.
Martinez is taken by surprise by the German formation but decides his original plan will work just the same. He goes with a 3-4-3 of his own with Vertonghen, Boyata, and Alderweireld in defense, Meunier, Tielemans, Onana, and Carrasco in midfield, and Hazard, Lukaku, and de Bruyne in offense. He is counting on his skilled midfielders to keep the German wingers at bay by requiring them to play more defense as the Belgians use their entire midfield to push into a seven-man attack.
The game begins with each team trying to exert control and a psychological edge. Germany attacks quickly down the wings looking to exploit the Dutch relative lack of speed in defense and to stretch their defensive line. The Belgians respond by retaining possession when they get it and working the ball around the midfield looking to hold the sphere on one side while the team floods the opposite flank and then changes the point of attack to where they have the numeric advantage.
Lukalu and Bella-Kotchap tussle to a stalemate that allows Rudiger and Sule to project themselves in turn. Havertz gets the first real chance, but Courtois is up to the task and smothers the attempt. Later, Hazard eludes two markers and his mid-range shot from about three yards off the German’s left corner of the box hits the post and goes in for the early first score.
The Germans are not having it and within ten minutes Musiala breaks free on the wing and feeds a streaking Havertz whose shot is parried by Courtois, but into the path of Mueller who bundles the rebound home for the tying score. The rest of the half is a frenetic back and forth as each team has figured out how to hurt the other, but neither is able to find the net by the time the whistle blows for halftime.
The Belgians come back out with more determination and are met with an equally intense German side, if, for some reason, with what seems a bit less technical ability to translate their objectives into tangible results. Hazard is inspired in this match and is feeling his younger self channeling through his persona which leads to the Belgians controlling possession and getting the better chances. Half-way through the second half, as the German press is beginning to find a little purchase and against the run of play of only those few minutes, Lukaku latches on to a long de Bruyne through ball and races past Rudiger to slot the ball under Neuer’s outstretched leg and give the Red Devils the 2-1 lead.
The Germans have to take on the offensive load and press forward with Gundogan the recipient of a pretty Kimich set up which results in a German score from the top of the half-moon for the 2-2 all-even score. The Belgians return the favor almost immediately with a Carrasco slip away down the wing which turns into a cross Lukaku controls in the center of the box and then lays back for de Bruyne to shoot from about the twenty-five-yard line off the left side of the German penalty area, for a pretty, low, by the post score Neuer can do nothing about—3-2 Belgium.
From here on in it becomes the Thibault Courtois show as anything the Germans throw at the Belgians ends up in the safe hands of the best keeper in the world. Though there are about 15 minutes to go with stoppage time added, the teams are actually trading attacking opportunities if the Germans ones are better. But that is all she wrote as the Belgians pull out the win.
The Germans leave believing they were just “so close” to success that going back to the drawing board is not necessary. Yet, they are not sure what will get them over their newly forming hump. The Belgians are mystified as to why this type of performance seems to elude them more often than not as the big tournaments move deeper into the knockout stage. But, for now, they have defeated a disliked enemy and seem to have their full mojo back. Now to test it out against another big boy.
Croatia v Costa Rica
Costa Ricans are beyond themselves back home and the Ticos in Qatar are similarly pinching themselves after beating Germany and drawing with Spain. Keylor Navas is starting again and willing his team forward and Bryan Ruiz seems not to age. The team knows their current adversary is every bit as dangerous as the two they just finished dealing with but the Croatians are a bit of an unknown quantity as in their most fantastical dreams the Ticos did not see themselves getting by the two European giants in their group. What they had dreamt about was getting out and having to deal with Belgium, so preparing for the Croatians has boiled down to figuring out how to stop Perisic and the resurgent Pasalic, and how to slow down or deny possession to Modric as often as possible.
The Croatians also did not imagine progressing atop their group and thus the Costa Ricans are a puzzle. They know about Navas and Ruiz as the emblematic players of their opponent’s national team, but that is about it. What Dalic has imparted is that the Ticos can play as evidenced by their performances against their prior European competitors. So the Croatian coach has determined a 4-3-3 is the best setup for the match, and he will use his most experienced players en masse, leaving a number of younger starters out for needed substitutions.
Dalic comes out with Vida, Lovren, Barisic, and Juranovic defending, Modric and Kovacic on either side of Brozovic in midfield, and Perisic and Pasalic on either side of Kramaric on offense. The team is age-heavy but also experience-heavy which the coach thinks will win the day. Tico coach Suarez feels he has the formation he prefers and needs not change it for an unknown opponent. Better to go with what his team knows and is comfortable with than to add more complications aside from the Croatians. He goes with his tried and true 4-5-1 and is happy to see Pasalic as a starter on the Croatian side thinking he has some insight into the opposition. The elder veteran Croats, knowing they were on the squad for ballast, are relishing their starting moment and know they are going to be asked to both hold down the fort should they pull ahead and fall on their swords fighting should they fall behind. In any case, they will likely only play for an hour.
The Ticos are not intimidated by anyone, and their group performance has emboldened them. They start the game by swarming in midfield and pushing forward off a high press. The Croats are taken by surprise and almost pay dearly as a couple of attempts, by Campbell and Contreras, go barely wide. Modric settles his troops, going deep into his defensive line to gain control of the ball and begin the Croatian build-up.
But it does not take long for both sides to feel they have the measure of the other and the Croats, via a dashing Kovacic move straight down the middle of the Tico’s half, pulls defenders out of position, allowing Modric and Brozovic to camp out near the Costa Rican box. In a quick succession of changes in point of attack, Perisic is left open on the wing and he cuts inside his marker and sends a wicked curler just beyond Navas’ reach for the opener.
The Ticos almost respond in kind when a Torres blast from just outside the box forces a marvelous save from Ivusic. But the Costa Ricans are too desperate to score quickly and the experience of the Croats begins to show as they both frustrate their younger opponents and set up a second score when Modric finds Kramaric cutting into the middle of the box from just outside it and threads the needle, putting the ball in front of the striker who does not have to break stride and one-times the ball to the bottom left of the net, well away from Navas’ futile dive.
The two-goal lead arrives around the 35th minute and the Ticos spend the remainder of the half trying to figure out how to attack without leaving themselves vulnerable, knowing a third goal will likely seal their fate. The teams go into the locker rooms with the score Croatia 2-0 Costa Rica.
The second half, surprisingly, brings no changes for either side and the opposing teams settle into a predictable rhythm with the Croats waiting without pressing and the Costa Ricans constantly on the attack but with their defensive line a bit further back than normal given the circumstances. Ten minutes in Brozovic latches on to a Modric corner and Croatia goes up by three. At the 65th minute, Dalic substitutes Modric, Kovacic, Perisic, Krameric, and Brozovic and replaces them with much more defensive set of players.
The remaining minutes pass slowly as the Croats do not feel the need to run the score up and the Costa Rican though not resigned to their fate seem out of ideas to attack. But with the entire starting midfield no longer providing much possession for Croatia, the Ticos venture forth more often if with no more menace given the mass of defensive players in front of them. The attackers settle for a number of outside shots and substitute Ruiz forces another Ivusic monster save before the half comes to an end.
This generation of Ticos will bow out but with a third of their team under 25, they know the next couple of cups offer ample opportunity to regain some glory. The added advantage of shorter trips in 2026 and 2030 is also in the back of their minds. The Croats, meanwhile, are thankful that the game was not as taxing as it could have been with a tougher opponent and Dalic is happy his strategy worked, particularly that he was able to give his five big boys a breather. They know a World Cup is all about getting your breathers when you can.
Photo: Domagoj Vida, Dreamstime.com ID: 120018367, by Vladyslav Moskovenko