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State of World Cup’s last eight

State of World Cup’s last eight

ELITE EIGHT: Belgium's Kevin De Bruyne celebrates as the match ends and Belgium defeated the USA 2-1 in extra time to advance to the quarterfinals during the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Belgium and the USA at the Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, Brazil, Tuesday, July 1. Photo: Reuters/Natacha Pisarenko

By Patrick Johnston

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Twenty four teams have gone and only eight remain in the hunt to win the World Cup. Some have romped to the last eight, while others have limped. We take a look at the state of the remaining eight sides left in the tournament and their chances of lifting the famous gold trophy at the Maracana in Rio de Janiero on July 13.

BRAZIL

Played 4 Won 2 Drawn 2 Lost 0 Goals For 8 Goals Against 3

Top scorer: Neymar 4 goals

Tournament odds: 3-1 Favorites

Hosts Brazil have failed to convince in their four matches so far. Concerns have been raised about the form of striker Fred, midfielder Paulinho and their defensive frailties down the fullback channels, while the coaching staff have acknowledged the squad is feeling the pressure of an expectant nation demanding a sixth World Cup and first on home soil.

Still, though, they are only three wins away from lifting the title and in gifted forward Neymar they possess a match-winner more than capable of dragging them over the line.

Goalkeeper Julio Cesar put aside a turbulent club season to deliver when his country needed him most in the last 16 penalty shootout victory over Chile. A result greeted with a sigh of relief after their South American rivals came painfully close to an upset.

Despite the stresses and struggles there is a sense of feeling that it is only a matter of time before the team ‘clicks’ and produces a devastating display worthy of the famous yellow shirt.

And if not they can always count on history. Brazil haven’t lost a competitive home match since 1975 meaning they are still the team to beat.

COLOMBIA

P 4 W 4 GF 11 GA 2

Top scorer: James Rodriguez 5

Tournament odds: 12-1

Arguably the form team of the World Cup with four wins from four matches and boasting the tournament’s top scorer in James Rodriguez.

A first quarter-final has been achieved through zippy counter attacks led by Rodriguez and impressive winger Juan Cuadrado.

Greece and Japan were swept aside with relative ease, with Rodriguez coming off the bench to score a brilliant fourth against the Asian champions, bettered only by a stunning volley in the Last 16 win over Uruguay. But a true test of their title credentials will come in the quarter-finals.

There they face hosts Brazil, who they have beaten only twice in 25 meetings and not since a 2-0 win at the 1991 Copa America in Chile.

Colombia’s hopes of success will depend on the ability of 38-year-old defender Mario Yepes and Cristian Zapata, who struggled at AC Milan last season, to keep Neymar and company at bay.

The duo are the obvious week links in an otherwise well balanced Colombian line up more than capable of toppling the hosts. If the backline continues to hold up, they have more than enough attacking options to reach Rio.

FRANCE

P 4 W 3 D 1 GF 10 A 2

Top scorer: Karim Benzema 3 goals

Tournament odds: 8/1

France flew out of the traps with a 3-0 thumping of Honduras and 5-2 thrashing of Switzerland leading to their title odds shortening rapidly.

Always boasting a talented squad, coach Didier Deschamps has also made it a harmonious one, a rarity in French dressing rooms of recent times.

The box-to-box midfield pair of Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi complement playmakers Mathieu Valbuena and Yohan Cabaye, while the defense has been able to comfortably cope with an injury to Mamadou Sakho.

Fullback Patrice Evra also had a strong game against Nigeria, keeping the dangerous Ahmed Musa quiet, but getting the combinations right in attack seem to be the more pressing issue.

Benzema notched three goals in his first two games but missed the 0-0 draw with Ecuador and was off form in the 2-0 last 16 win over Nigeria.

Striker Olivier Giroud struggled against the Africans and was replaced by the swift winger Antione Griezmann, allowing Benzema to play centrally and more effectively.

A tough draw against Germany and then possibly Brazil awaits but if Benzema can return to scoring way the French, in this form and serene state, will cause any opposition sleepless nights.

GERMANY

P 4 W 3 D 1 GF 9 GA 3

Top scorer: Thomas Mueller 4 goals

Tournament odds: 4/1

Despite being ravaged by injuries before the tournament, Germany have made it through to the last eight for a 16th consecutive time.

Mueller bagged a hat-trick in a 4-0 demolition of Portugal but it has been a struggle in their three games since.

Ghana caused them problems in the second Group G game before Miroslav Klose came off the bench to bag his record equaling 15th World Cup goal to snatch a 2-2 draw.

They were guilty of missing several chances in the 1-0 success over the United States and were again wasteful in a labored 2-1 win over Algeria in the last 16 which came after 30 minutes of energy sapping extra time.

Coach Joachim Loew has described his team as a work in process but the knockout stages of a World Cup is not a training ground.

Mesut Ozil has been hit and miss so far, while the defense was vulnerable against Algeria when holding midfielder Philipp Lahm was switched to fullback to cover for the injured Shkodran Mustafi.

Goalkeeper turned sweeper Manuel Neuer nullified a number of possible chances with his alertness and rushing out from goal but the spaces afforded by the German backline will give the remaining seven teams cause for optimism.

NETHERLANDS

P 4 W 4 GF 12 GA 4

Top scorers: Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie both 3

Tournament odds: 5/1

The Dutch blew the tournament wide open by humbling defending champions Spain 5-1 in their Group B opener with Robben and Van Persie bagging doubles. Three victories have followed since but all with less and less conviction.

They dug deep to fight back and beat Australia, struck late to down Chile before grabbing victory out of jaws of defeat against the Mexicans with two late goals in their Last 16 clash under the sweltering sun in Fortaleza.

The Mexicans may have carelessly backed off after taking the lead but Dutch coach Louis van Gaal deserved a lot of praise for switching formations from a 3-5-2 to a 4-3-3.

The bravery of the coach and the flexibility of the squad to switch mid-match has stood out in comparison to the more rigid systems of Brazil and Argentina.

The wing wizardry of Robben has also been key to their success with the Bayern Munich forward in devastating form.

They also have been handed a kinder quarter-final draw in Costa Rica, the worst ranked of the eight sides left. With Van Gaal and Robben on song, the Dutch will be tough to stop.

COSTA RICA

P 4 W 2 D 2 GF 5 GA 2

Top scorer: Bryan Ruiz 2 goals

Tournament odds: 50/1

The surprise package of the last eight, the Ticos run to the quarter-finals for the first time has been built on a sturdy back five that has dumbfounded three former champions already and poured scorn on pre-tournament predictions of woe.

The Costa Rican defense, who have only conceded once in open play in their four matches, is aided by the impressive Celso Borges, who provides an intimidating shield in front of them.

But the Swedish-based midfielder is also an able linkman to the attacking front three of Joel Campbell, Christian Bolanos and Bryan Ruiz, who has recovered from a dismal club season in England to skipper the side superbly.

His efforts, though, fall second to the obvious work of coach Jorge Luis Pinto who has left nothing to chance in his meticulous planning of a well drilled outfit.

They also boast the form goalkeeper of the eight remaining teams in Keylor Navas, whose penalty save from Theofanis Gekas gave them a shootout victory over Greece in the last 16.

That victory came at a cost, though, with the team looking out on their feet at the end of extra time having been forced to play with 10 men for almost an hour in Recife.

Defender Oscar Duarte will be suspended for the quarter-final against the Dutch, with possible replacement Roy Miller ruled out with a leg muscle injury.

The defensive losses and physical exhaustion from the Greek clash leave the Ticos looking vulnerable ahead of the tough task against the Dutch, but the underdog tag is one that has suited them well so far.

ARGENTINA

P 4 W 4 GF 7 GA 3

Top scorer: Lionel Messi 4 goals

Tournament odds: 3/1

Four wins and four goals for Lionel Messi have Argentina well en route for a first World Cup triumph since 1986, but the statistics mask the struggles they have had so far.

Bosnia threatened an equalizer before a brilliant solo effort by Messi made the game safe, with another majestic strike breaking Iranian hearts in the 91st minute of their second group game that looked set to end goalless.

Nigeria posed problems before succumbing to a 3-2 defeat with Switzerland undone by a mazy Messi run and assist for Angel Di Maria in the 118th minute of their last 16 clash.

While the skipper has flourished, despite frequently being double marked, the same can’t be said for their other attacking threats. Gonzalo Higuain has yet to score, Sergio Aguero has already gone home because of injury and Di Maria was guilty of giving the ball away routinely against the Swiss before his goal.

The defense has looked solid with coach Alejandro Sabella clearly instructing his fullbacks to concentrate on their first duty to protect rather than to break forward.

Belgium will provide another step up in class but with Messi in flying form and a fanatical support backing them in Brazil a third World Cup title is a strong possibility.

BELGIUM

P 4 W 4 GF 6 GA 2

Top scorer: Six players with one goal

Tournament odds: 12/1

The highly-touted Belgium line-up is slowly cranking into gear ahead of a last eight clash with Argentina.

Three sluggish group stage wins were followed by a far more impressive display against the United States in a humdinger of a last 16 clash.

However, the 2-1 extra time win should have been settled in 90 minutes with the Belgians deserving as much blame for wasting opportunities as U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard earned praise for saving them.

Only Costa Rica have scored fewer goals than Belgium so far with the pre-tournament loss of first-choice striker Christian Benteke clearly hampering them.

However, with a brilliant goalkeeper in Thibaut Courtois behind a strong backline more often than not only one goal is needed to win games.

With a dearth of creative midfielders the chances should continue to flow for either Romelu Lukaku or Divock Origi, who have both failed to nail down the sole striking berth.

If one of the two can find their feet then the novice but gifted squad can cause a major shock.

(Reporting by Patrick Johnston; editing by Justin Palmer)

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