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The first two weeks of the FIFA World Cup were awesome! While it was dramatic and unexpected, there were a ton of unique things about this tournament that will make it one of the most memorable!

 

VAR was used for the first time at a World Cup and had major implications on the game itself. Numerous goals, penalty kicks, yellow or red cards, etc. were all put to the test with VAR. Overall, VAR has done a great job in the tournament and has benefited the game in two ways. First, it has overturned a number of very close calls that have influenced games directly with either a PK or other outcome such as a set piece, corner kick or otherwise. Secondly, it has also taken controversy way from some of the referees. VAR has validated more calls than it has overturned and that should restore some confidence in our referees at the Cup.

 

This has become the PK World Cup! It has been surprising not only in how many penalty kicks there were, but also the outcomes. Lionel Messi was bashed harshly for his PK miss in Argentina’s 1-1 tie with Iceland when his kick would have won the game and spared Argentina some major drama. On the same day, Cristiano Ronaldo converted his kick against Spain to bring up the comparisons between the two again and make Messi the “goat” instead of the “G.O.A.T.” Ronaldo had a similar miss two games later against Iran on another PK which cost Portugal the group’s top spot! Other PKs in the tournament were key deciding goals as well.

 

A new crop of stars is also emerging on the international stage as well. While Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar are the three biggest names at the tournament, others – not all unknown – have started to emerge as well. Luka Modric of Croatia has had a coming out party. While he has long been considered a top player and is also a valuable member of Real Madrid as well, Modric has become the Rockstar leading the charge for Croatia – which has had it’s own “coming out” party at this Cup. Romelo Lukaku of Belgium was already one of the most feared players in the tournament. He is among the goal leaders despite sitting out the final game against England. While this Belgium team is loaded with talent, shutting down Lukaku is going to be the goal of every defense the rest of the way. And, what about Tottenham’s Harry Kane? England’s striker  recorded a hat trick against Panama and has proven to be every bit of the star that England needs him to be to be able to advance in this tournament.

 

The World Cup Top 5 heading into the knockout stage? These may not be the best teams on paper, but they were the teams playing the best heading into the knockout stage:

 

  1. Croatia: Croatia is one of only three teams to go unblemished through the Group stage. They have been electric and shown the ability to score at will, defend ferociously and perform in big spots. They will be a dangerous team this tournament. They open with a pesky Denmark team in the Round of 16, but they have a clear edge going into that game. If they can get by, it will set up what can be another epic game against a Spain team that played a classic against Portugal, but then sputtered in its last two games.
  2. Belgium: Raise a Stella Artois to these guys! Lukaku, Hazard, De Bryune, etc. – this is probably one of the most explosive rosters at the World Cup and they also performed up to their potential. They have one of the most favorable matchups in the Round of 16 against Japan, but facing the winner of Brazil-Mexico in the quarterfinals will either validate this team or bring them back to earth.
  3. France: This is another loaded team that can easily be in the top 2, if not for a tie against Denmark in the final match. With Chelsea’s Kante, PSG’s Mbappe making his WC premier, Griezmann, Giroud and a strong supporting cast, this team was a pre-tournament favorite and has been a steady, although not overwhelming performer so far. They were not challenged in the opening rounds until Denmark, but they already were guaranteed of advancement, so that game was not an indication of their true potential. They now face an underwhelming Argentina team that will be looking for their own validation in the knockout stage.
  4. Colombia: While they had to sweat it out after an upset loss to Japan where they played most of the match with 10 players, Colombia is an explosive team as well. Ospina is a top tier goalkeeper as well who came up big in Colombia’s rout of Poland. Ospina stifled Poland’s star Robert Lewandowski multiple times, while Falcao, James, Quintero all showed how well quickly Colombia can pounce.
  5. Uruguay: Suarez, Cavani, and company were kings of the weakest group at the tournament, but after a sluggish opener, them developed their chemistry and began to show some real potential in the tournament. They pounded host Russia in a very hostile environment which shows that they will be able to perform under pressure. They will be able to prove they belong when they take on 2016 Euro champion Portugal. Of the group winners, they may face the toughest road to the finals – if they can knock off Portugal, they face the winner of France-Argentina, and then the presumptive winner of Brazil-Belgium in the semifinals. Ouch!

 

The dark horse of the tournament?  I would say that is Sweden! Sweden devoured a Mexico team that, while likely, was not guaranteed advancement. They essentially gave Germany everything they can handle and suffered probably the most devastating game-winner on Tony Kroos’ miraculous game winner in their second game. While conservative in their opener against South Korea, they showed patience and poise and got stronger as the match unfolded. They will face another upstart team in Switzerland in the Round of 16, but a win against the Swiss can give them a quarterfinal against the winner of England-Colombia, which can be a favorable match up either way.

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