Round of 16 nearly set, with quite a few surprises

Japan players celebrate after winning Group E at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO/AFP via Getty Images)
Japan players celebrate after winning Group E at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO/AFP via Getty Images) /
World Cup Rd 16 surprises
Morocco players celebrate after a Hakim Ziyech goal against Canada on Thursday. The Moroccans finished atop Group F, the first time an African club finished atop a World Cup group. (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images) /

Just two knockout-round spots remain unclaimed ahead of Friday’s final slate of group-stage games in Qatar and we’re guaranteed at least six new faces in the Round of 16, including two teams that didn’t even make the Russia 2018 playing field.

The four games on Day 13 of the 2022 World Cup find Brazil and Portugal with reservations to the knockout round in hand, while the other six teams will be battling to extend their stays in Qatar.

Groups G (Serbia-Switzerland and Cameroon-Brazil) and H (Ghana-Uruguay and South Korea-Portugal) will supply the final two Round of 16 berths with Switzerland and Ghana sitting in the catbird seats.

The Swiss and The Black Star have 3 points while Serbia and Cameroon in Group G, and Uruguay and South Korea in Group H are adrift with just 1 point each.

How Sweet it is!

Instead of sifting through the calculations related to Friday’s potential results, we’ll take a quick look at the 14 teams still embracing World Cup dreams and mention a few notable absences.

Three members of the 2018 Sweet Sixteen who were never going to make the Round of 16 in Qatar were Sweden, Colombia and the hosts all of whom failed to qualify for the 2022 World Cup.

Three others came up empty in the group stage this time around – Mexico, Denmark and Belgium. Mexico had qualified for seven straight Round of 16 games while Belgium – ranked No. 2 in the world – and 10th-ranked Denmark were expected to make deep runs in the tournament.

Of the 14 group-stage survivors so far, Holland and Team USA are notable in that they didn’t even qualify for the 2018 World Cup. The other four newbies are Senegal, Morocco, Poland and Australia.

A couple World Cup firsts

Qatar 2022 marks the first time that two African teams are in the Round of 16 since it was first instituted in Mexico 1986. And not a single Confederation of African Football (CAF) team reached the Sweet 16 in Russia.

And if Ghana and Cameroon get the results they need on Friday, there’s a chance we’ll see four African teams. Cameroon would need to defeat Brazil and see a Switzerland-Serbia draw in the other Group G match whereas Ghana controls its own destiny (beat Uruguay and they’re in).

Morocco (1986) and Senegal (2002) are each making their second Round of 16 appearance. The Moroccans stunned Belgium and also finished ahead of Croatia to win Group F, a first for a CAF nation. The outcome was one of the biggest group-stage surprises since Senegal shocked defending World Cup champs France in 2002 and finished second while Les Bleus were last.

Senegal defeated Ecuador to emerge from Group A. That’s not a terribly big surprise since the Africans are ranked No. 18 in the FIFA World Rankings and Ecuador is No. 44, but Senegal – the reigning Africa Cup of Nations – are without star forward Sadio Mané, the reigning African Player of the Year.

Among the unlikely knockout-round teams still chasing the World Cup trophy are Japan and Australia.

Japan (world No. 24) upset Germany and Spain to claim top spot in Group E. The Germans (No. 11) have been eliminated in the group stage for the second consecutive World Cup after reaching the Round of 16 in the eight previous tournaments. And Spain is ranked No. 7 in the world.

El Tri comes up one goal short. dark. Next

As for Australia – FIFA’s 38th-ranked team – the Socceroos stifled a stagnant Denmark side to finish second to defending champions France in Group D. The team from Down Under has reached the knockout stage just once before and that came in 2006 where they lost to eventual champion Italy. This time round, Australia will face Argentina in the Round of 16.