Sky Sports’ the writers reflect on Saturday’s action as the World Cup knockout stage begins…
Messi’s magic lights up this Argentina side
Legs don’t move as fast as they used to and everyone knows we’re in the final stages now, but is there a more exciting sight in football than Lionel Messi with the ball at his feet? Thanks to another quarter-final after beating Australia, his World Cup dream is alive.
It was Messi’s best game of the tournament. He had the most shots and created the most chances. He needed his magic to unlock the opposition and once he had done that he was truly able to have fun. The hope for Argentina is that this is a sign of what is to come.
Argentina have been heavy favorites in every game so far and one of the features of these games has been Messi’s attempts to find space when the opponents are determined to smother him. But if Argentina go all the way in Qatar, there will be different kinds of tests to come.
His performance once his team was in the lead could be a clue to how dangerous he could become in the later stages of this World Cup. If the opponents pursue a more open game against Argentina, it could be a big mistake as Messi is still on it.
Scaloni’s Argentina just got better
“With Leo playing so well,” Lionel Scaloni said afterwards, “these are very exciting times.” The Argentine manager also deserves huge credit. He put this World Cup campaign back on track after that alarming start against Saudi Arabia.
There have been more fluid Argentine teams than this, but at each of the last eight World Cups they have failed. This one at least seems likely to maximize his chances. The winning football they delivered at the Copa America is still with them.
The squad is clearly built around Messi but Scaloni continues to tweak things, making adjustments that are both subtle and simple. The emergence of Julian Alvarez helps. He brings the energy needed given Messi’s relatively limited off-the-ball movement.
Scaloni is capable of rotating full-backs and tactically it’s interesting that he can comfortably switch to three at the back if the situation calls for it. With Angel Di Maria likely to be available again for the quarter-finals, there are options. And with Messi, there is always hope.
Australia exceeded all expectations
Although Argentina were deserved, they created shortly before Messi’s goal and needed some fortune not to concede an equalizer late on. It’s a testament to Graham Arnold’s work in turning his team into such dangerous opponents at this World Cup.
Scaloni praised Arnold’s side for “pressing very smartly” and in that first half hour, in particular, they caused Argentina a lot of problems. If Aziz Behich or Garang Kuol had snatched a late goal then who knows what might have happened in extra time.
Expectations were not high and the coach was criticized as the tournament approached. But a modest side made memories in Qatar, winning as many matches at this World Cup as they had won at all other World Cups combined. There should only be pride.
Van Gaal’s Netherlands show why he prefers caution to chaos in win over USA
At the end of the group stage, Louis van Gaal hit back at suggestions from the Dutch media that his side were boring and needed to open up. His team’s performance in the first half against USA in the round of 16 seemed like a direct message to the press: I know how to progress in the big tournaments.
From the first whistle, the Netherlands allowed the United States to have the ball and fell back to the middle of the block. The Americans, who had thrived on the energy and enthusiasm of their young midfielder in their previous games in Qatar, suddenly found themselves forced to force their way through a well-structured defense. They struggled.
And when they slipped, the Netherlands broke with the rhythm, accelerating up the pitch with excellence to expose their opponents’ lackluster central defense. It was a ploy that required humility from the favorites – but the Dutch were leading 2-0 and comfortable at the break.
In the second half, the calm turned to chaos. Whether it was Dutch overconfidence or the USA’s decision to throw everything they had at the problem, the game was on.
Twice the Netherlands had to clear the ball from their goal line before Haji Wright’s unusual goal halved the deficit for the United States. There were chances on both sides – although the United States’ ambition was ultimately their downfall, with Denzel Dumfries’ goal shortly after Wright’s strike ending the possibility of a dramatic turnaround.
It was an exciting – but unpredictable – second half. And that’s not how Van Gaal wants it to be. He has never lost a match at their head at a World Cup. The fans of the Netherlands must trust his judgement.
Can the United States overcome the hurdle of the Round of 16 on home soil in 2026?
USA coach Gregg Berhalter hailed the ‘progress’ his side have made at Qatar 2022 after losing to the Netherlands in Doha in the first of the round of 16 on Saturday, before admitting they had ‘failed’ in their application. make the quarter-finals of the World Cup for the first time in their history.
Perhaps we would be talking about a first appearance in the last eight if Christian Pulisic, as he really should have, had opened the scoring from the start instead of inflating his lines as the United States dominated the first exchanges.
But in the end, the Netherlands’ greater experience, tournament savvy and ultimately finishing saw Louis van Gaal’s side cross the line as the United States were knocked out of the last 16. final for the third consecutive World Cup.
However, given their impressive performances in the group stage – where they went unbeaten, including having the best of a goalless draw with England – while Tyler Adams, Pulisic, Sergino Dest, Yunus Musah and Weston McKennie have all caught the eye, and the next World Cup is in North America, don’t bet against the United States finally breaking their last eight hoodoos next time around.