Eight countries remain, all eight of which won their respective groups. So far, this World Cup knockout stage has very much gone to schedule.
On so many occasions, however, it could have all gone so differently, with just a different bounce here, or a more favourable ricochet there. Five of the eight last-16 matches went to extra time—a new record for the competition—including both of Tuesday's games. On both of those occasions, the presumed favourites won out in the end, albeit not without a huge scare.
Argentina had Angel Di Maria to thank for their late triumph over Switzerland, while the United States so nearly clawed back from a two-goal deficit after Belgium had cut them apart at the start of their extra-time period.
On a different night, perhaps it would have been the other sides celebrating their progression to the quarter-finals.
“Like everybody I was very nervous because we couldn’t score,” Lionel Messi, the provider of Di Maria's strike, told reporters (via The Guardian) afterward. “We knew if we made a single mistake we would have been going home. We didn’t want it to go to penalties and wanted to finish it off.
“We suffered and suffered, all of us. We started to think it wasn’t going to happen. But at the end we had luck on our side and now we have to take advantage and move on.”
Belgium's players may have been singing a similar tune after their game later the same day, as they outlasted the United States by a narrow margin. Thanks primarily to the brilliant goalkeeping of Tim Howard, Marc Wilmots' side were unable to score during regulation time, resulting in an additional 30 minutes to decide the winner.
The extra-time substitution of Romelu Lukaku instantly made an impact, as the powerful Chelsea forward bullied a tired US defence. He provided the assist for Kevin De Bruyne's deadlock-breaker before finding the net himself a few minutes later.
The U.S. looked dead and buried at that point...except it turned out they weren't. Substitute Julian Green became the 11th-youngest player in the history of the tournament to score when he found the net with his first touch of the game, setting up a dramatic conclusion.
The United States pushed and probed, as Belgium sat deeper and deeper and clung on for dear life. They held out in the end, but they knew they had been in a real battle.
There has been much talk over the past few weeks about this being the tournament where the United States finally "gets" football. This seems increasingly silly. More accurately, perhaps this has been the tournament where the wider football public has embraced the United States as a viable contender, rather than a country with other sporting interests masquerading as a footballing power.
They may need to develop better players if they are to continue to progress, but in their organisation, fitness and preparation, Jurgen Klinsmann's side put many more illustrious "soccer" nations to shame this summer.
Results in brief - Day 20
Argentina 1-0 Switzerland
Belgium 2-1 United States
(De Bruyne, Lukaku; Green)
Argentina will face Belgium in Brasilia on Saturday, July 5.
1. Notes from Day 20
We believe in Tim... U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard made a World Cup-record 16 saves during the defeat to Belgium. It was not enough to keep his side in the competition, but it certainly helped further boost the Everton man's reputation.
A perfect four from four... Lionel Messi has now played four games in this World Cup and won the man-of-the-match award on all four occasions. Can he possibly go the whole tournament winning the game's top honours every time?
Klinsi the man... The United States' resolute response to going behind in extra time was another credit to their coach, who has done a great job of compiling an organised, determined and brilliantly fit team at this World Cup in Brazil. Jurgen Klinsmann deserves huge credit for what he has done—could he have been the man to turn England into knockout stage participants?
The master of recovery... The only man to have a similar record to Messi is Belgium boss Marc Wilmots. In his country's four games to date in this competition, the coach has now changed the course of all four with his substitutions. An eye for a game-changer, or a case of getting his starting line-up wrong?
2. Quote of the Day
"Where the f*** does one minute come from?!
- USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann, displeased with the amount of added time at the end of extra time.
3. Tweet of the Day
4. Goal of the Day
In a field of four, let's go for Julian Green's late strike—if only because it helped continue one of the most exciting periods of extra time in the history of the World Cup.
5. A good day for...
Angel Di Maria. Di Maria, Argentina's best attacking player not named Messi for the entirety of the group stages, had a horrible game against Switzerland. Seemingly nothing he tried came off...until it finally did. The Real Madrid winger scored with a slick side-foot finish from a Messi pass toward the end of extra time, a crucial goal that helped his side avoid penalties. Sometimes, even when things aren't going for you, you can still end up being the hero of the hour.
6. A bad day for...
Mikkel Diskerud and Timmy Chandler. After Julian Green's extra-time arrival, Diskerud and Chandler were left as the only outfield players in the U.S. squad not to play a minute of competitive action in Brazil this summer.
7. Tomorrow's schedule
There are no games on Wednesday. We now have two days without World Cup matches (!) before the quarter-finals get under way on Friday.
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