The first day of the 2018 World Cup's second-round matches is arguably the most exciting of the lot. Four nations that began the tournament with hopes of going all the way will be knocking each other out on Saturday; only one of France, Argentina, Uruguay, and Portugal will make it to the semi-finals of the World Cup.
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In the first game of our bitcoin betting guide, two giants clash in unusually troubled circumstances. France's form stuttered for much of the last two years and Argentina teetered on the verge of crisis. The second is between two decidedly feistier outfits, Portugal and Uruguay, in which the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suarez look set to battle it out in a frantic, tempestuous match in Sochi.
France v Argentina June 30th 14:00
Two of the tournament's biggest underachievers go head-to-head at the Kazan Arena. France and Argentina are both great footballing nations, but so far neither has shown anything like enough quality to deserve a place in the quarter-final. One of them will make it to the final eight in spite of the consistent tactical failures of their respective head coaches.
And one of these nations will exit the World Cup on Saturday in disgrace; either Lionel Messi will crash out of the competition – possibly playing his final ever World Cup game – or Didier Deschamps' young side will bottle it despite being the most talented squad in the competition.
Tactics & line-up:
Jorge Sampaoli has effectively handed over the reins to Javier Mascherano, according to some insiders, which explains their dramatic shift back to a basic 4-3-3 shape after two years of failed experiments under the former Chile coach. However, in the 2-1 victory over Nigeria they played a hybrid of Sampaoli's football and Messi's wishes: they pressed high and played with great energy but also fielded Messi favourites Gonzalo Higuain and Ever Banega. We can expect a repeat of this formation and line-up on Saturday.
France will also play in a 4-3-3, although their system involves considerably less pressing. They not only stand off their opponents but rarely make off-the-ball movements when in possession, hence why Deschamps' side lack fluidity. They are far too static and disjointed, although against Argentina's high press there will be much more space on the counter than France were afforded in the group stage.
Things to look out for:
Argentina's tactical openness might mean Ousmane Dembele and Kylian Mbappe are easily released down the flanks on the counter-attack, exposing a lack of pace (and quality) in the Argentina back four. A serious concern for Sampaoli's side is their disorganisation in preventing breakaway opportunities, handing a key advantage to France. However, Deschamps will likely instruct his full-backs to stay deep (through fear of Messi and Angel di Maria), and so we could be set for a relatively cautious, fumbling 90 minutes in Kazan.
It won't exactly feel like a titanic battle, but with Argentina's shambolic defending and France's stuttering attack it should be great fun to watch.
It is worth keeping an eye on France's midfield selection: Deschamps will presumably restore Paul Pogba to the side as part of a three-man midfield, which inevitably means space will only up centrally for Argentina as Pogba drifts wherever he wants. This might allow Banega to dominate the ball and create chances, as he did against Nigeria, and give Messi too much space as he drops deeper. This match will be defined by the togetherness of the France midfield and how effectively Argentina's defence can compress space.
Prediction: back the draw (after 90 minutes) at 3.12*
Uruguay v Portugal June 30th 18:00
The second match on Saturday could hardly be more different from the first. Portugal and Uruguay are two underdogs at this World Cup and both are more than happy to win ugly; neither has exactly impressed so far, but importantly both nations will believe their chances increase as the tournament progresses.
Both harbour realistic ambitions of going far in this tournament and both aim to do so by restricting space and winning by a single goal, but this doesn't mean the game won't be entertaining. Their respective reliance on individual moments of quality makes this the sort of contest in which one star player – whether it's Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Saurez, or Edinson Cavani – will probably become the iconic figure of the contest.
Tactics & line-up:
The Portuguese are still reliant on Ronaldo, whose four goals in Group B helped them scrape together enough points to finish behind Spain. Iran and Morocco both went close to snatching vital results, primarily because Portugal's central defence is too old and their central midfield lacks creativity. Fernando Santos's side will stay compact, take few risks, and hope for some more magic from Ronaldo.
Portugal and Uruguay are much better at grinding out wins against bigger nations than dominating a group stage.
Ricardo Quaresma's wonder goal against Iran gives Santos a selection headache as he contemplates restoring Bernardo Silva to the starting lineup, and likewise Leicester City's Adrien Silva might have done enough to push Joao Moutinho to the bench. In a flat 4-4-2, the most defensively resolute payer in both of these positions will get the nod.
Uruguay are trying to shake off their tag as aggressive, Machiavellian winners, and indeed their 3-0 win against Russia in the final match of Group A hints that things are coming together for Oscar Tabarez. They should hold the majority of possession at the Fisht stadium.
Things to look out for:
The introduction of young midfielders Rodrigo Bentancur and Lucas Torreira was supposed to evolve Uruguay into a possession team, but there was little evidence of this until Tabarez changed from a flat 4-4-2 to a diamond 4-4-2 against Russia. This will continue against Portugal, meaning Bentancur, Torreira, Matias Vecino, and Nahitan Nandez playing as a quadrant of central midfielders. They might badly outnumber Portugal's two-man midfield, swarming the centre with bodies to match-winning effect. It will be fascinating to see whether Santos adds a third central midfielder to the starting line-up on Saturday.
For Portugal, there is only one player to watch. Ronaldo is carrying his nation through this tournament, but he should struggle against the Atletico Madrid centre-back pair of Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez. These two have helped Uruguay to three successive clean sheets in the World Cup so far – and as cross-city rivals in Madrid will know Ronaldo's game inside out.
Prediction: Back Uruguay to win at 2.78*
The second day of the last-16 round is perhaps among the least exciting, but with Spain and Croatia both emerging as tournament front-runners over the last fortnight this is an excellent chance to see how they handle the pressure. Russia have surprised everyone this summer and in front a raucous home crowd will hope to ruffle the feathers of a nation effectively manager-less after dismissing Julen Lopetegui before the World Cup got underway.
After which Croatia and Denmark go head-to-head in Nizhny in an all-European encounter. It might not contain one of this year’s finalists – certainly Spain will expect to beat whichever qualifies to the quarters – but with Luka Modric and Christian Eriksen on the pitch we should see goals.
Spain v Russia July 1st 14:00
This is surely the biggest mismatch of the round of 16 - and the final game of the tournament for the hosts. Russia shocked the world by winning their first two matches, scoring eight goals in the process, but a meek 3-0 defeat to Uruguay in the final game of Group A was confirmation of Russia’s limited talents. It turns out that Saudi Arabia and an all-but Salah-less Egypt were simply weak opponents for the host nation.
Spain have reacted positively to the earthquake that struck the camp prior to the start of the World Cup. Fernando Hierro has steadied the nation by continuing with the same tactics deployed by his predecessor, and consequently the Spanish have looked relatively accomplished. It is a mark of eventual champions to squeeze through the group stage unscathed and with several gears to still to move through. Russia won’t have nearly enough to stop Spain.
Tactics & line-up:
Russia will expect to be on the back foot throughout, waiting patiently for an opportunity to counter-attack after absorbing long spells of Spanish possession. The home crowd might be left frustrated by the inevitable tactics deployed by coach Stanislav Cherchesov, but it is the only chance they’ve got.
In their victories over Saudi Arabia and Egypt Russia were able to pour forward impressively, with the three attacking midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 formation staying relatively narrow. Aleksandar Golovin, who was rested for the defeat to Uruguay, is an important player on the counter for Russia, but if they are to beat Spain he will need close support from Denis Cheryshev, scorer of three goals so far. Bravery is the key attribute for the Russian midfield; they won’t get anything unless they break quickly when opportunities arise.
Spain have looked vulnerable when the opposition turn over position and try to storm through the centre.
Spain are yet to hit their stride but have shown tactical fluidity in patches of their first three World Cup games, most notably via the quick-tempo interplay between Isco and Andres Iniesta. They look to grind the opposition into submission via short-passing, with David Silva drifting infield to help overwhelm central areas.
Things to look out for:
The action will, for the most part, take place deep in the Russian half. The hosts need to stay compact and disciplined to squeeze the spaces Iniesta, Isco, and Silva like to work in, making defensive midfielder Roman Zobnin the most important player on the pitch for Russia. Their ageing, slow defence isn’t likely to be tested for speed up against Diego Costa.
This is mainly because Sergio Busquets is too slow on the turn to screen the defence effectively, making his head-to-head with Cheryshev particularly interesting.
Back Spain to win at 1.60*
Croatia v Denmark July 1st 18:00
As many of the tournament front-runners continue to falter Croatia must be starting to believe they can go all the way. Having won all three of their group matches, including an emphatic 3-0 victory over Argentina that affirmed the strength and organisation of this team, Croatia go into the second round as clear favourites to reach the quarter-finals.
Denmark have, by contrast, stumbled into the last 16. Christian Eriksen hasn’t exactly lit up the tournament so far, while the tedious 0-0 draw played out with France in their final group match means the Danish have no momentum going into Sunday’s game. They were fortunate to beat Peru and struggled to draw with Australia, scoring just twice in their 270 minutes of World Cup football.
Tactics & line-up:
Croatia’s 4-3-2-1 is heavily weighted to the left flank, where Ivan Perisic is expected to stay wide and swing crosses into the box. The midfield, led by Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, has looked typically controlling thus far, providing Croatia with a composure that should prove useful in the knockout stages. Manager Zlatko Dalic has struggled to settle on a third central midfielder to join those two, but after scoring a goal and defending superbly against Iceland surely Milan Badelj will keep his place.
The Danes don’t play with enough purpose or cohesion to go further in this competition.
The Denmark team is less easy to understand, tactically. Everything filters through Eriksen – the fulcrum in a 4-2-3-1 – but so far they have not gelled particularly well. Thomas Delaney is very talented, and along with Andreas Christensen makes for a strong spine.
Things to look out for:
Eriksen will struggle to find space against a midfield trio that comes from Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Juventus; his individual battle with Badelj is a crucial one. However, the Tottenham Hotspur playmaker could prove to be a major threat delivering set-pieces, particularly considering Croatia’s Dejan Lovren has proved error-prone from dead ball situations at Liverpool.
Keep an eye on Lovren’s aerial battle with Mario Mandzukic, too, the target man who will be looking to get on the end of Perisic’s crosses. Ultimately, Croatia’s intelligence in midfield – coupled with their momentum following successive group stage wins – should give them the edge.
Back Croatia to win at 1.90*
*Odds subject to change. All times listed are UTC.