and the World Cup is into its sprint finish. Four matches stand between one of these 16 teams and a place in football history. And yet with the group stage wrapped up, the picture at Qatar does not seem a great deal clearer now than it did a fortnight ago as we awaited the tournament.
Brazil probably remain the tournament's favorites, butmeant that for the first time since 1994 no team has made it through the group stage with a 100% record. The Selecao might have won it that year, but if Neymar does not overcome his injury, they could be hamstrung in attack, a remarkable statement given the quality of his supporting cast. Still, no other competitor has put together an unequivocal case to rival them. At their best, Spain might be the best side the tournament, but they have twice fallen off in the second half. France have depth questions in midfield and defense, England need to prove they have a guiding hand in midfield while Argentina's opening two games were underwhelming.
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The dark horses -- Serbia, Uruguay and Denmark -- have universally fallen at the first hurdle; it wouldn't be the festive season without a Turkey or two, and every one of these teams can say they've fulfilled the role of the Crescent Stars at Euro 2020. Perhaps the footballing world was looking in the wrong places, backing the traditional continents to deliver at a time where the game is growing. It is several tournaments too early to talk of sea changes or power shifts, but the likes of Japan and Morocco have already proven that they can better some of the pre-tournament powers.
For the most part, you would expect this round of 16 to merely see the biggest names reassert themselves on the tournament. There is no marquee clash in the first knockout round, but if these games go as expected, the quarterfinals could be a quartet of thrillers. If there were to be a shock might it just come from Gregg Berhalter's side, who relish their place as underdogs and will be taking on one of the most underwhelming group stage winners in the Netherlands?
Heading into Saturday's games, here is how we rank the 16 still standing:
Listen below and follow In Soccer We Trust: A CBS Sports Soccer Podcast where your three favorite former USMNT players cover everything you could possibly want to know about the United States men's national team during the World Cup in Qatar.
|There will be few teams as well rested as Brazil, with Tite having been able to rotate his squad en masse for the game with Cameroon. Rodrygo has done an impressive job of plugging the game left by Neymar, but for the Selecao to remain favorites you suspect that they will need the player around whom this team is built to regain his fitness.|
|With ties against Australia and then the winner of the Netherlands and the USA, this team might have the most favorable route to the semifinals of any of the top contenders, hence their rise to second place. It helps as well that their performance against Poland was by far their best of the tournament, one where Enzo Fernandez and Rodrigo De Paul kept finding forwards between the line. That was the template that won Argentina the Copa America. It can work again. |
|In the first 45 minutes of their game against Japan, Spain were being pencilled in for top spot in these rankings. For a few seconds in the second, they were about to be deleted altogether. The worry is that when Japan hit them with an intense press, they had few answers. Ceding top spot in Group E may not be a disaster as they are now on the side of the draw that does not include Brazil.|
|Their defeat to Tunisia counts for very little unless Didier Deschamps had seriously been considering playing Eduardo Camavinga at left back in the knockout rounds, though the likes of Youssouf Fofana and Matteo Guendouzi offered a worrying indication of how light the depth in midfield is. Still, Antoine Griezmann's outstanding form is a welcome fillip for France.|
|There are rather fewer depth concerns for England, who saw impressive displays from Phil Foden, Marcus Rashford and Jordan Henderson in their win over Wales. The attack should have the variety to overwhelm Senegal and the defense looks extremely solid too. The question once more is whether England have the midfielders to dictate the terms of engagement against top tier opposition.|
|A clumsy 2-1 defeat to South Korea rather slowed the momentum that had been building around Portugal, bringing to the surface those familiar questions as to whether Cristiano Ronaldo's presence brings the best out of this team. Certainly, he was poor in their third game, and on this occasion, Bruno Fernandes was not there to balance him out.|
|If you have beaten two of Europe's best sides, you deserve to sit rather high on these rankings, particularly when your defense kept Spain to so few high-quality chances. Hajime Moriyasu's substitutes have twice changed the game, even if they do not do so in such spectacular fashion again there is a staggering level of quality depth in this Japan side.|
|Extremely fortunate that Romelu Lukaku left his shooting boots on the substitutes' bench, Croatia still have well worn quality that is being paired with promising youngsters, most notably Josko Gvardiol. If there is a spot where they must improve, it is from set pieces. Their 0.19 expected goals (xG) from dead balls is the second lowest at the tournament.|
|This is a team that just seems to get tournament football such that even Serbia's thrilling fightback at Stadium 974 wasn't enough to rock Murat Yakin's side, who showed fantastic interplay for some of their goals in that decisive win. They have a lot of the ingredients to frustrate Portugal -- a strong defense and a midfield line that can protect it and distribute the ball smartly -- and a goalkeeper who can swing penalty shootouts in their favor. Don't rule out a run from the Swiss.|
|Memories of their deeply insipid display against Ecuador linger, and even in the victory over Qatar, this did not look like a team that could provide its forward line with sufficient quick ball against better opposition. Having been completely unsettled by the energy of Ecuador, the Dutch might have similar trouble against the USA in the round of 16.|
|Tyler Adams has played 270 minutes, Yunus Musah 253 and Weston McKennie has looked drained for many of his 203 after battling back from injury. This is not a squad blessed with depth and there are few teams in this tournament that have had to fight in every minute quite like the USA has. Their best players seem to have boundless energy reserves, but one would not be inclined to test that theory.|
|Had they not been drawn with one of the tournament's top sides, the Atlas Lions would be notably higher in these rankings. Until the closing stages of their Canada game, Morocco looked like a team that simply were not going to give up many high-quality shooting opportunities to their opponents. It is fair to assume that was more situational -- their qualification looked well assured by then -- and that this defense anchored by the impressive Nayef Aguerd and Romain Saiss will make it difficult for Spain, even if they might ultimately fall short. |
|The absences of Idrissa Gueye and Cheikhou Kouyate may make it harder for Senegal to hold firm under England pressure, particularly as Edouard Mendy does not look like the goalkeeper he was at the start of this year. Down the flanks, though, they could pose real problems through Ismaila Sarr and Iliman Ndiaye.|
|Wednesday's defeat to Argentina was the first game in five where Czeslaw Michniewicz's side conceded a goal; for all the importance of Robert Lewandowski, it has been the exceptional goalkeeping of Wojciech Szczesny (who has made 18 saves in three games and conceded 3.7 fewer goals than the xG value of the shots he has faced) that has gotten Poland this far. He will need to be even better if they are to have a chance against France.|
|Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of their thrilling win over Portugal was the outstanding late contribution of Heung-min Son, whose struggles for form threatened to derail Paulo Bento's attack. In truth, they have probably achieved the maximum possible in simply making their showdown with Brazil, but bettering Uruguay and Ghana is quite the success.|
|As defender Milos Degenek noted, Australia have had the benefit of an earlier game against a top contender to get their eye in and learn something of the standards required at the highest level of the World Cup. Graham Arnold even termed that game a "friendly," a learning exercise for the Socceroos, but the reality of it was a game that showed this team can be brushed aside by the best at this tournament. |