The knockout stages of a World Cup always take me by surprise. The lurch from round-robin group games to sudden-death eliminators always seems somewhat jarring; one minute teams are celebrating getting through the group stages, the next they are on the plane home. The margin for error is almost immediately reduced to zero and now we’re at the quarter-final stage, the excitement emanating from this amazing tournament is on the rise again.
With the first two last-eight games taking place this Friday, I’ve been giving some thought to the individual performers that I’m most looking forward to seeing in action.
First up is France v Germany and with European teams (perhaps predictably) enduring a torrid time in Brazil, this pits two of the sides coping better against each other. Karim Benzema has caught the eye with his performances so far, and it will be interesting to see if he can continue his dazzling form against a German defence that seemed uncharacteristically porous in their narrow win over Algeria. Benzema’s ex-Real Madrid team-mate Mesut Ozil, however, has struggled to make his mark on the tournament so far and I’m expecting him to raise his game on Friday evening.
I’ve long been a fan of Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud and despite a lacklustre performance in the last round, it will be fascinating to see how he does against his Arsenal team-mate Per Mertesacker. The player I’m most looking forward to seeing in action, however, is Paul Pogba. The former Manchester United man has captured the imagination ever since he left Old Trafford and is continuing to make waves in Brazil. He has the ability to be the difference between the two sides and it will be intriguing to see how Pogba copes with the pressure of a World Cup quarter-final in the world’s most famous stadium, the Maracana.
As if this mouth-watering clash wasn’t enough, hot on its heels comes Brazil v Colombia. After sneaking through against Chile, Brazil face another huge challenge in Colombia and after a series of mediocre displays from the hosts, the pressure on Neymar will reach new heights. The Barcelona star will be under increased scrutiny after suffering injuries against Chile, but with the hopes of a nation resting on his slight shoulders, he’ll be desperate to deliver.
Luiz Gustavo is one of Brazil’s most influential and important performers but is suspended for the game with Colombia. His replacement is likely to be Tottenham’s Paulinho, who will be required to stop one of the biggest stars of the tournament, James Rodriguez. He has scored five goals in four games and is brimming with confidence. It will be thrilling to see him in action against the hosts and if Paulinho and Brazil fail to keep him quiet, Columbia could be well on track for a semi-final appearance. With Real Madrid reportedly preparing a £40 million bid for Rodriguez, it will be fascinating to see how he performs with the eyes of the footballing world trained upon him.
Winger Juan Cuadrado is another Colombian that I (and the Brazilian defence) will be keeping a close eye on. The Fiorentina man has had a great tournament, being heavily involved in a number of his team’s goals and scoring one himself. He’s helped Colombia establish themselves as one of the most exciting teams in the tournament, and his pace and trickery will ensure that the host nation are in for another close encounter.
This World Cup has continued to produce drama and entertainment, and looking at the players that will be on display during the Quarter Finals, it’s difficult to see anything other than a continuation of this trend.
And then there were eight. Bring. It. On.
Mike Parkin is a lifelong football fan, a season-ticket holder at Watford FC and a fervent supporter of the national team. Mike presents the popular Watford podcast ‘From the Rookery End’ and will be documenting his trip to the World Cup on the website: www.fromtherookeryend.com. You can also see Mike’s images on Instagram (RookeryEnd) whilst you can interact with Mike directly on Twitter by following @RookeryMike.