1 Player to Watch from Each Team in World Cup Last 16
Possibly the greatest-ever World Cup group stage is over, and we're down to from 32 teams to 16. If the knockout phase is anything like what's gone before it, this is likely to be remembered as the finest major football tournament ever staged.
The football has been excellent. The cautious, defensive style that characterised many previous finals has been replaced by a focus on attack, making for a brilliant, unpredictable event. World Cups are supposed to be free-spirited and fun, and this one most certainly has been.
It remains to be seen whether the higher stakes we now face sees a return to a more defensive approach from the sides left in, but with the quality of players that remain involved it seems unlikely.
Here we take a look at one player from each nation left in the tournament who is likely to dazzle and excite in the last 16 and beyond.
Considering their status as favourites and host nation, Brazil have yet to hit the heights many expected before the tournament began. It's one of the least strongest sides in terms of attacking quality they've fielded in years, but in Neymar they have one of the true stars of this World Cup so far.
He's a fantastic dribbler, and there is an end product to his tricks and flicks, with four goals already bagged. Keeping him quiet will be imperative to their opponents in the knock-out stages, although Oscar is another who must watched closely. He, too, has been excellent.
Mexico: Rafael Marquez
He may be someway past his very best, but 35-year-old defender Rafael Marquez has been one of the stars of the show in Brazil. The former Monaco and Barcelona man is Mexico's leader and remains their most important player.
He has 123 international caps and has demonstrated all his experience so far. Goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa is another who has impressed for a Mexico side who conceded just once during the group stage.
The Netherlands: Arjen Robben
Bayern Munich's Arjen Robben has been in fine form so far this World Cup, continuing where he left off in qualifying. There are few players in world football quite as direct as the Dutchman, who seems, strangely given his position as a winger, to get better with age.
He's sometimes accused of being greedy, but his ability to beat players and score goals is unquestionable. His goal to open the scoring against Australia was classic Robben: pace, skill and a fine finish at the end of it.
Other Dutch players have also impressed—none more so than Robin van Persie, who continues to show what a wonderful finisher he is, and left-back Daley Blind—but it's Robben who is the Netherlands' biggest threat.
Chile: Alexis Sanchez
Barcelona's flying winger Alexis Sanchez, who may well be on the move from the Camp Nou after a frustrating three years at the Catalan giants, has been Chile's most potent weapon so far.
Sanchez is quick and skillful, capable of bursting past defenders and creating chances for his team-mates. Opposition managers are likely to pinpoint him as a danger man.
With Brazil, who haven't looked fully comfortable in front of their home crowd, the next side to face Chile, it's likely Sanchez is the man they'll be targeting.
Colombia: James Rodriguez
James Rodriguez, Colombia's 22-year-old attacking midfielder, is threatening to steal the show in Brazil this summer. He's scored three goals already, with his ability to orchestrate play and dictate the tempo of a game his defining characteristic.
He's a player capable of changing a game with a moment of brilliance or individual skill. The Monaco attacker has been wonderful to watch so far and will be a big threat to Uruguay in the next round.
Greece: Kostas Manolas
Recovering well from an error is a huge part of tournament football. Teams don't have long to get their form together. A couple of bad performances and the plane home awaits.
Credit, then, to Greece defender Kostas Manolas, who recovered very well from the mistake he made early in the game against Colombia. He's quick, has excellent positional sense and has performed excellently thus far.
Costa Rica: Giancarlo Gonzalez
Costa Rica topped Group D with seven points, despite being considered the weakest side in the group when the tournament began. They beat both Italy and Uruguay, meaning they could rest players for the draw with England. Their campaign has been a major success already.
Defender Giancarlo Gonzalez, who plays for Major League Soccer side Columbus Crew, has been their best performer, showing all his strength and reading of the game at the heart of a defence that has conceded just one goal.
Uruguay: Edinson Cavani
With Luis Suarez out, the pressure on his strike partner, Edinson Cavani, has now increased dramatically. The big PSG forward, who has suffered a mixed first season in France, must now find his best form if Uruguay are to progress even further.
Cavani has scored one and assisted another but has otherwise been quiet. He's a fine player, though, one capable of turning a game in an instant with his pace and power. With added responsibility now on his shoulders, keep an eye on him in the knockout stage.
France: Karim Benzema
Picking a key player for France in this tournament is extremely difficult. They've mesmerised with their brilliant attacking football, with a host of players impressing and in form. It's arguable they've been the standout side thus far.
It's difficult, though, to look past Karim Benzema, who has three goals and two assists already. He misses chances, and has done in this World Cup, but he's a danger to any defence and needs to be watched closely.
Switzerland: Xherdan Shaqiri
The pressure on Switzerland, who were considered a seeded team going into the tournament, has been significant. Qualification from the group was imperative, and it was secured thanks to a hat-trick from Bayern Munich midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri, a player central to their best moments throughout the tournament.
Technically gifted and possessing an excellent footballing brain, Shaqiri is their most valuable player.
Argentina: Lionel Messi
There can only be one player from Argentina on this list. Lionel Messi, the greatest player to ever play the game, has been in excellent form in Brazil, and he will be the key player for them in the knockout phase.
He's scored four goals already—all of which were excellent quality—and generally looks determined to stamp his authority on the competition. Many believe he needs a great World Cup to confirm his status as a great, and he's playing as if he's determined to achieve just that.
Nigeria: Vincent Enyeama
Two clean sheets in their first two games saw Nigeria secure the four points they needed to progress. Their goalkeeper, Vincent Enyeama, was key to those results, and he will be vital to their chances in the last 16.
He looks confident and in form and has impressed hugely over the course of the three games so far.
Germany: Thomas Muller
Much like France, there are a host of players for Germany who have stood out in Brazil. Mario Gotze and Mats Hummels have been inspired, but it's Thomas Muller who has been their brightest star.
He's an intelligent player who takes up excellent positions on the pitch, capable of operating in a number of roles. He's scored four and set up Gotze's opener against Ghana. He's been superb.
USA: Clint Dempsey
The USA's World Cup campaign can be summed up in one word: heroic.
No one epitomises that more than Clint Dempsey, who has been superb. His two goals and all-round leadership have been crucial to their progression from arguably the toughest group in the tournament.
Special mention to goalkeeper Tim Howard, too. He's been in inspiring form.
Belgium: Eden Hazard
One of the stars of this season's Premier League, Eden Hazard has transferred his form for Chelsea to the international stage this summer.
He's brilliant in possession of the ball, always capable of taking defenders on and causing havoc. It's thrilling to see him in action, but stopping him remains one of the most difficult tasks for defenders. Get too tight, and he can turn you and run away; step off, and he can exploit the space.
Algeria: Yacine Brahimi
Yacine Brahimi, Algeria's attacking wide man, has shown in this tournament what a talented player he is. Technically sound and confident in possession, he may well have attracted suitors with his displays.
He's scored one and assisted another in his two appearances so far, and any hope Algeria have of progressing lies in his hands.
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