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Guest column: Canisius coach Dermot McGrane breaks down World Cup Round of 16

Canisius men's soccer coach Dermot McGrane will be serving as a guest correspondent for The Buffalo News during the World Cup. A two-time Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Coach of the Year, McGrane has been at Canisius since 2011 after nine years as coach at Niagara. McGrane is originally from Leicester, England, and has been coaching at U.S. colleges since 1995. 

The group stage of the 2018 World Cup is complete and it certainly did not disappoint with quality games and plenty of drama.

One of the best games of the 48 in group play was on the second day of competition, as Portugal, led by superstar Ronaldo, took on Spain in a highly anticipated game. While I am not a big Ronaldo fan, I appreciate how good he is and he showed up for his team that day. He scored a hat trick to account for all of Portugal's goals, with his third goal coming in the 88th minute to tie the match of what became a 3-3 final.

His counterpart from Argentina – fellow world superstar Lionel Messi – has not had such a great World Cup. His Argentinian team have underperformed and barely made it out of the group stage with two “lucky” wins against Iceland and Nigeria.

But in a tournament filled with scoring and surprises, nothing has been more shocking than defending World Cup Champion Germany failing to make it out of the group stage following a 2-0 loss to South Korea. This is the third time the defending champ has not made it out of the group stage, but it marks the first time since 1938 that Germany didn’t get to the knockout round.

Now that we know we are going to see a new World Cup champion in 2018, here are my thoughts on what the next four days of the tournament will look like during the Round of 16.

SATURDAY

Portugal vs. Uruguay, 10 a.m.; France vs. Argentina, 2 p.m.

Many fans would like to see Argentina and Portugal win its games to set up another Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo battle in the quarterfinal round, but this might be tough ask.

Portugal plays Uruguay, a team that won all three games and the only team left in the tournament that has not conceded a goal. Portugal has looked average, and if Ronaldo doesn’t show up, Portugal will struggle to advance.

Argentina has shown nothing to make me believe that they will get past a French team that has a lot of talent up front and in the midfield to go with a very stingy defense. France has has only conceded one goal in the tournament through three games.

SUNDAY

Spain vs. Russia, 10 a.m.; Croatia vs. Denmark, 2 p.m.

The Russian team surprised a lot of fans by winning its first two games by a combined score of 8-1, but keep in mind that was against very weak opponents in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. When Russia played a good Mexico team, it lost 3-0.

Spain has been one of the top teams in the world for the past decade and has looked to be one of the better teams in this tournament with a lot of dynamic players and a very entertaining brand of soccer.  However, Spain is counting on older players, and that could catch up with them with numerous games to play on a quick turnaround. Spain showed it is beatable after a tie  with Morocco in the final game of the group stage.

Croatia has been one of the biggest surprises of the tournament so far and looks like a side that could be a dark horse to win the whole thing. I see them beating Denmark fairly easily, as I do not think the Danes have enough offensive power to compete with the Croats. 

MONDAY

Brazil vs. Mexico, 10 a.m.;  Belgium vs. Japan, 2 p.m.

Brazil vs. Mexico could be one of the best games in this round.  Mexico has played better than most people expected, and Brazil has yet to look like the powerhouse everyone thought it would be before the tournament started. The rivalry between the two countries should make it a very interesting clash, but I think that we will see Brazil come away with a narrow victory.

Belgium has looked very good through the group stage, and I think could be a favorite to win the Cup at this point. They were able to rest nine starters in the last group match after qualifying for this round after its first two games. Japan was very lucky to make it through its group and I cannot see them being able to cope with all the weapons that Belgium has.

TUESDAY

Sweden vs. Switzerland, 10 a.m.; England vs. Colombia, 2 p.m.

Switzerland qualified out of a fairly weak group and will have its hands full with a Swedish team that has performed well. The Swedes seem to be the more physically dominant and are coming off a 3-0 victory against Mexico in the final game of the group stage.

England came into the competition with the lowest expectations of any recent World Cup and is fielding a very young squad. I think it is fair to say that the team has raised a few eyebrows and is looking very good.  Like Belgium, England rested eight starters in its last group game and will be well-rested going into the Colombia game. England could be another dark horse to win the World Cup this year, considering it is now playing on the weakest side of the bracket.

Colombia has been underwhelming in its performances and barely managed to qualify, scoring a late goal after being dominated by Senegal in the final game.  Colombia will be tested by England’s young team, and will have to stop Harry Kane, the leading scorer in the tournament.

Overall, it should be a fun four days of soccer that will deliver plenty of shock, drama and excitement. Despite not having a team in the field this year, American fans have shown up in droves to games in Russia. More than 80,000 tickets to games in Russia have been bought by Americans – which ranks second among all countries. That speaks volumes to the game’s popularity here in the States.

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