A little more than two weeks ago, 32 teams began the journey to crown the next world champion of soccer. With only eight teams remaining, the waters of picking a potential favorite are murkier than ever.
Brazil was saddled with the crown of World Cup favorite entering the tournament. The Brazilians have been less than convincing since then however, slugging their way through the group stages before narrowly escaping Chile in the Round of 16.
Most still consider Brazil the favorite since they haven’t lost a competitive home match since 1975. But the Selecao have already displayed a vulnerability seldom seen in favored Brazilian sides. If not Brazil, then which team really represents the role of favorite? Good luck answering that one definitively.
Four years ago, Spain was nearly everybody’s pick to stand on top of the podium and they came through in fine fashion. In this year’s tournament, any of seven teams have a realistic chance to lift the World Cup Trophy in Rio de Janeiro on July 13th.
Brazil’s primary strength still revolves around Neymar’s explosive tendency to score goals. Whether that is enough to carry them to the world title is dicey, especially if Fred and Hulk aren’t more consistent up front. Even the defensive corps led by Thiago Silva has been a bit leaky, so the Brazilians will need to sharpen things up against Colombia in the Quarterfinals on Friday.
The Colombians certainly won’t be intimidated by the Brazilians. James Rodriguez is blossoming into a star and the rest of coach Jose Pekerman’s squad plays with precision and pace. It therefore wouldn’t be surprising if the youthful and exuberant Colombians eliminated Brazil before the weekend ends.
Another potential favorite in the Netherlands faces surprising Costa Rica on Saturday in a contest that looks a whole lot like a David versus Goliath scenario. None of that has bothered the Costa Ricans so far, but eclipsing a side with the likes Arjen Robben and Robin Van Persie would represent the Ticos greatest achievement to date.
Friday’s other contest sees a couple of heavyweights tangle when Germany and France take aim at one another. The Germans entered the tournament considered a favorite alongside Brazil and looked good in the group stage. Their Round of 16 match with Algeria left plenty to be desired however and now it’s up to coach Joachim Low to get this team ready to play a solid dark horse in the French.
France have been wholly impressive to this point, breezing through four games while netting 10 goals. The forward combination of Karim Benzema and Olivier Giroud have been a handful and talented midfielder Paul Pogba might have finally found the form many predicted for him at Juventus.
Considering the Germans can counter with the likes of Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos, their meeting with France could become an instant classic.
Perhaps the greatest threat to Brazil’s predicted World Cup win comes from their next-door neighbors Argentina. No team in the tournament boasts better attacking options than the powerful Argentinians. Lionel Messi is still one of the very best players in the world and when you add in Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria, Argentina’s offensive potential is scary for any opponent.
Don’t expect that to phase Belgium however. The Belgians are also stacked, as the United States found out first hand on Tuesday. Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne are a nightmare to deal with in midfield and Divock Origi is improving with each game.
Add it all up and the potential for memorable encounters exists in virtually every Quarterfinal. If there’s one thing the World Cup has taught us, it’s to expect the unexpected. Brazil may have entered the competition the favorite, but make no mistake, this World Cup is as wide-open as ever. The weekend’s action will only further prove that fact.