Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo (right) and Iran’s Omid Ebrahimi challenge for the ball during the group B match Monday between Iran and Portugal at the 2018 World Cup at the Mordovia Arena in Saransk, Russia. (Pavel Golovkin / Associated Press)

Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo (right) and Iran’s Omid Ebrahimi challenge for the ball during the group B match Monday between Iran and Portugal at the 2018 World Cup at the Mordovia Arena in Saransk, Russia. (Pavel Golovkin / Associated Press)

Blue Bloods highlight World Cup’s knockout round

Mexico and Japan are the only teams left not from Europe of South America.

  • Friday, June 29, 2018 9:49pm
  • Sports

By Ronald Blum

Associated Press

MOSCOW — The thunder-clapping Icelanders have gone home, along with the Egyptians and Peruvians. Now comes the business end of the World Cup, a European- and South American-dominated club that rejects most new applicants as unwanted hoi polloi.

The group stage is the crossroads of cultures, a mixture of multitudes filled with happiness and hope.

Then comes the knockout stage, where soccer’s powers pump their pecs and the blue bloods almost always prevail.

Ten European nations reached the round of 16, matching 1998 and 2006 for the most since 11 in 1990, the record since the current format began in 1986.

Four South American teams have advanced, plus Mexico and Japan. For the first time since 1982, no African team made it past the first round.

History is instructive: Europe earned 41 of 64 quarterfinal berths and South America took 16 since 1986. Among the other regions, Africa and CONCACAF got three apiece and Asia one.

Winnowing to the inner sanctum becomes even more pronounced after that: Europe filled 23 of 32 semifinal spots and South America eight, with South Korea in 2002 at home becoming the only outsider to reach the final four.

Among 20 previous World Cups, Europe has lifted the trophy 11 times and South America nine.

Germany’s departure was the biggest group phase jolt. Projected by many as the first repeat winner since Brazil in 1958 and ‘62, Die Mannschaft became the fourth champion in five tournaments to exit early.

FIFA has favored the bottom of the bracket with far easier travel, with the Russia-Spain winner headed from Moscow to a quarterfinal in Sochi, then potentially a semifinal and the final in the capital. The Colombia-England winner in Moscow goes to a quarterfinal in Samara, then would be on track to finish at Moscow.

A look at the Round of 16:

SATURDAY

FRANCE VS. ARGENTINA

Lionel Messi & Co. was on the verge of elimination before Marco Rojos’ 86th-minute goal against Nigeria. With an average age of 26, France is among the youngest teams, led by dynamic 19-year-old striker Kylian Mbappe. At 31, this likely is Messi’s last chance for the World Cup title he needs to match Diego Maradona in the minds of many Argentinians. While Argentina struggled, France must awaken from a somnambulant group-stage finale against Denmark.

URUGUAY VS. PORTUGAL

Cristiano Ronaldo, like Messi a five-time FIFA Player of the Year, has four goals in the tournament. He leads the European champions against a Uruguay team known foremost for the bite marks Luis Suarez left in Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini four years ago. Uruguay is the least-populous of the round of 16 teams.

SUNDAY

SPAIN VS. RUSSIA

World Cup hosts outside the soccer powers usually perform better than expected. Russia should have huge support at Luzhniki Stadium, making it closer than the 10th vs 70th matchup in the rankings. Andres Iniesta, who scored the goal that won Spain’s first World Cup title in 2010, remains on a rebuilt roster that struggled defensively in the group stage.

CROATIA VS. DENMARK

Tottenham past vs. Spurs present, with Luka Modric leading Croatia and Christian Eriksen sparking Denmark. Croatia was among the most impressive group-stage teams, beating Nigeria, Argentina and Iceland by a combined score of 7-1.

MONDAY

BRAZIL VS. MEXICO

El Tri fans hope for the elusive “quinto partido” — to reach a World Cup quarterfinal for the first time since 1986, which was on home soil. This is their best chance in years, with an attack led by Javier Hernandez and Carlos Vela. Center back Hector Moreno is suspended for yellow-card accumulation. Brazilian players are trying to atone for the 7-1 humiliation against Germany in the semifinals at home four years ago. Philippe Coutinho has become as important to the Selecao attack as Neymar.

Mexico’s Carlos Vela (left) and Sweden’s Albin Ekdal (center) challenge for the ball during the group F match Wednesday between Mexico and Sweden, at the 2018 World Cup at Yekaterinburg Arena in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (Eduardo Verdugo / Associated Press)

Mexico’s Carlos Vela (left) and Sweden’s Albin Ekdal (center) challenge for the ball during the group F match Wednesday between Mexico and Sweden, at the 2018 World Cup at Yekaterinburg Arena in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (Eduardo Verdugo / Associated Press)

BELGIUM VS. JAPAN

Belgium was among three teams to go 3-0 in group play, joining Croatia and Uruguay, and No. 61 Japan will be a heavy underdog against the third-ranked Red Devils. Star forward Romelu Lukaku started the World Cup with consecutive two-goal games but missed Belgium’s group-stage finale with an ankle injury. If Belgium advances, it would be in what appears to be the more difficult part of the bracket, lined up against Brazil or Mexico in the quarterfinals, then France, Argentina, Uruguay or Portugal in the semifinals.

TUESDAY

SWEDEN VS. SWITZERLAND

In its first World Cup in the post-Zlatan Ibrahimovic era, Sweden is looking to get past the round of 16 for the first time since finishing third in 1994. Swedish midfielder Sebastian Larsson is suspended, as are Swiss defenders Stephan Lichtsteiner and Fabian Schar. Switzerland is led by midfielders Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka.

COLOMBIA VS. ENGLAND

Harry Kane, whose five goals lead the World Cup, head a young England team that finished group play without a shutout for the first time. Los Cafeteros, led by James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao, advanced over Senegal on a fair-play tiebreaker based on fewer yellow cards and were the only team to reach the round of 16 after losing its opener. Rodriguez’s calf injury is a concern after it forced him out in the first half Thursday. By losing to Belgium, England faces what appears to be an easier path: Sweden or Switzerland in the quarterfinals, and Spain, Russia, Croatia or Denmark in the semifinals.

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