Friday evening marked the end of the group stage at the 2022 FIFA World Cup. There was plenty of drama on the way to determining the Round of 16 lineup. Potential title contenders like Belgium or EURO 2020 semifinalists Denmark, as well as past world champions like Uruguay and Germany were unceremoniously tossed aside, as their teams simply fell short of clearing the first hurdle. Even Mexico, a team that while never really going very far in past tournaments, one could usually count on to advance past the group phase, failed to do so this time. Tata Martino’s men were one of a number of sides that ultimately did not make it though, despite winning their last match of the group. This shows the importance of starting a World Cup strongly. Most of these high-profile teams that went out, did so because they dug themselves a hole early in the group stage. Even in the case of Belgium, who won their tournament opener vs. Canada, they were extremely lucky to do so and never raised their game to their normal level.
The perhaps most dramatic example of this may have been Tunisia. They beat none other than the defending champions France in their last game, (albeit with a weakened French lineup), but because Australia toped Denmark at the same time, it was the Socceroos who advanced instead.
As for Germany’s early elimination, after their nonsensical protest ahead of the Japan match and all the dysfunction on the pitch in the games that followed, even for a fan of German football, there is nothing left to say other than good riddance and auf wiedersehen! With only a year and a half left until UEFA EURO 2024, which Germany will host, there is very little time for analysis and reflection. Everything has to be on the chopping block, including coach Hansi Flick and his most-trusted inner circle of players. But even with all of that said, sooner or later this giant of world football will bounce back!
Croatia, for their part has made the Round of 16. However, even doing that was too close for comfort. Had Romelu Lukaku converted even one of his sitters in the decisive game, he would surely have sent Belgium through at the expense of the Vatreni. At the end of the day Croatia went through as a result of two scoreless draws with a fine 4-1 victory over Canada sandwiched in between. As strong as they have been so far defensively, Zlatko Dalić’s side has so many good attacking players. Fear of losing to Morocco and later the Belgians has caused them to prioritize the back line in those matches. That could have easily gone wrong. In the next encounter against Japan, they must play their own game, while never underestimating their opposition.
To all the underdogs that remain in this World Cup, one can only say congratulations for making it this far, but keep living in the moment and your journey may continue.
With that said, let’s bring on the Round of 16!
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