Danged if the knockout rounds haven't gotten off to a flying start. Brazil and Chile battled into penalties, with Gonzalo Jara denied by the post after bravely stepping up to take the fifth penalty despite having run 9.6 miles in brutal heat during the course of the game. The host and favorites heading into the tournament have looked distinctly beatable so far. The Dutch needed two very late goals - including a deserved penalty on a frankly foolish challenge by Rafa Marquez - to get by Mexico, and Greece's inability to break down ten men over the span of an hour led to their elimination in a shootout against Costa Rica. Only Colombia's 2-0 win over a Suarez-less Uruguay was comparatively relaxed, and even it provided one of the goals of the tournament on James Rodriguez's brilliant volley. On to today's games...
France v. Nigeria, 12pm kickoff
France trounced the competition in group F, going through with eight goals scored and looking for all the world like a dangerous dark horse contender. Their 4-3-3 features Paul Pogba, Mathieu Valbuena, and Yohan Cabaye handling the midfield business behind a lively front line featuring Karim Benzema's three goals in three games. Nigeria, on the other hand, tied Iran in the most boring sporting event of the year and nipped Bosnia-Herzegovina largely on the strength of a poor offside call. They did look a little more lively against Argentina, though it should be noted that they lost that game.
On paper, this game shouldn't be competitive. They don't play them on paper, though, and if Jon Obi Mikel - the Nigerian Xavi - can help the Nigerian midfield stand firm, there's a chance the strike force led by Ahmed Musa and Peter Odemwingie can pinch a goal and shake the French. Further back, there's always a chance keeper Vincent Enyeama can play the game of his life and keep the side in it. The more likely result is France catching a goal early and overrunning the Nigerians.
Germany v. Algeria, 4pm kickoff
Germany completed more passes than any other team in the group stage, relying on a rotating cast of attacking players to keep the ball and probe for weaknesses in an opponent's defense. Germany's own weakness is their back line, which consists of four center backs, not all of whom can play center back at the same time for the national team. The obvious answer to that problem would be to shift Phillip Lahm from holding mid to fullback, but lingering fitness concerns regarding Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira have so far prevented coach Jogi Low from making that move. Algeria's plan against talented sides has been to play a packed defense and try to counter through striker Islam Slimani, whose pace might be an issue for Germany's back line. This strategy has met with mixed results so far, as Belgium and Russia were able to eventually find a way through, but South Korea couldn't score until Algeria just started inviting pressure to see out the win.
If Germany can grab an early goal, there might be no way back for the Algerians. This is another game that looks like it shouldn't be competitive, but teams with defensive strategies have had enough success so far this Cup that Germany fans (including your author) won't breathe easy until the first goal is home.