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The Most Entertaining Round of 16 Matches at the World Cup

The USWNT cruised through the group stages and remain the heavy favorite. But as elimination play begins, their meeting with Spain falls well behind France-Brazil as the best game to watch.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Now the real World Cup begins. The group stage offered its share of memorable moments, from the United States’ 13-0 thumping of Thailand to Sam Kerr’s individual brilliance to many moments of VAR madness. But nothing compares to the drama of the knockout rounds, and after two weeks of games that were, at times, sleepy and without much suspense—an unfortunate byproduct of the generous qualification structure—the pre-tournament favorites will soon start to fall.

The round of 16 runs from Saturday to Tuesday with two games played each day and plenty of intriguing stories and tantalizing matchups on deck. But which of the eight matches is the most watchable? Which, if you don’t have 16-plus hours to devote to soccer this weekend, should be appointment viewing, and which can you safely skip? We’re here to help, with an eight-to-one ranking of the most compelling matchups in this round and a prediction for each. For each match, we’ve listed each team’s win probability per FiveThirtyEight’s forecast, as well as its group results, with both observed and expected goal differential, and its ranks among the 16 remaining teams. (All times Eastern.)

8. Germany (91 percent) vs. Nigeria (9 percent)

Saturday, FS1, 11:30 a.m.

Germany: Group B winner; +6 differential (tied-2nd), +5.9 expected differential (2nd)

Nigeria: Group A third place; -2 differential (tied-15th), -2.0 expected differential (15th)

The first round of 16 match is the most lopsided, and should prove another ho-hum victory for Germany after three such wins in the group stage. The Germans are one of just two teams—along with the U.S.—not to allow a goal, and even with star Dzenifer Marozsán likely out of this game with a broken toe, they should advance with ease.

Germany came within an inch of vaulting all the way up to no. 1 on this list, however. Had Chile converted a penalty kick in the waning minutes of its game against Thailand on Thursday, Chile would have advanced instead of Nigeria, meaning Germany would play Brazil this weekend—but that attempt ricocheted off the crossbar and away from the goal, so Germany could breathe easier. That moment provided a bit of justice for the Nigerians, too, after they were thrust to the edge of elimination following a controversial VAR call in the final group game against France. They still advanced, so no lasting harm done—though given the opposition in front of them, that elimination might come soon enough regardless.

Prediction: Germany 3, Nigeria 0

7. England (84 percent) vs. Cameroon (16 percent)

Sunday, FS1, 11:30 a.m.

England: Group D winner; +4 differential (tied-5th); +3.6 expected differential (tied-5th)

Cameroon: Group E third place; -2 differential (tied-15th); 0.2 expected differential (13th)

Cameroon’s 95th-minute goal against New Zealand on Thursday was the most exhilarating moment of the tournament thus far. Ajara Nchout dropped a defender with a cutback at the top of the box and threaded a shot into the goal to boost Cameroon into the knockout rounds. A rollicking celebration followed.

Cameroon already had its World Cup moment, but England’s is yet to come. The world’s best team outside the U.S.-France-Germany troika surged through the group round and has a reasonable path back to the semifinals, where it advanced in a best-ever showing at the 2015 World Cup. England shouldn’t have much trouble against a Cameroon squad that didn’t put up much of a fight against either Canada or the Netherlands in the group stage.

Prediction: England 2, Cameroon 0

6. China (57 percent) vs. Italy (43 percent)

Tuesday, FS1, noon

China: Group B third place; 0 differential (13th), -0.9 expected differential (14th)

Italy: Group C winner; +5 differential (4th); +2.0 expected differential (9th)

If China’s aim was to reach the knockout round, they succeeded; if it was to play entertaining soccer while reaching the knockout round, well, at least the second part came true. China’s three group games ended with scores of 1-0, 1-0, and 0-0, and the team produced just 2.6 xG, 14th out of the remaining 16 teams.

While China is favored at FiveThirtyEight thanks to a better team rating—its model has sincere doubts about Italy’s defense—Italy looks like the stronger team through three games. To win a group with Australia and Brazil is an achievement by itself, and Italy played both of those more renowned opponents essentially even. Italy’s underlying play doesn’t quite match up to its impressive goal differential, though, and for two further reasons, this game tumbles down the watchability list. First, neither of these teams has a realistic chance of winning the title, reducing this game’s macro-level importance; and second, China’s play thus far raises questions about how fun this round of 16 bout could possibly be.

Prediction: Italy 1, China 0

5. United States (78 percent) vs. Spain (22 percent)

Monday, FS1, noon

United States: Group F winner; +18 differential (1st), +12.7 expected differential (1st)

Spain: Group B runner-up; +1 differential (12th), +3.5 expected differential (7th)

As Spain’s xG shows, it probably deserved better results than a 1-1-1 record in the group stage, and Spain did play the United States close in a 1-0 loss in a friendly earlier this year. Spain actually won the possession battle in that game, despite the fact that USWNT coach Jill Ellis started most of the same XI she’ll call on for this upcoming game.

But the U.S. was so dominant in the group round that it’s difficult to imagine an even 90 minutes this time. The U.S. ranks first in goals, goals allowed, expected goals, and expected goals allowed. Here’s a quick summary of the absurdity of their statistics:

  • The U.S. scored 18 group stage goals. That’s more than double any other team. That’s as many as Germany, the Netherlands, and Brazil combined, or as many as France, Italy, and Canada combined.
  • The U.S. tallied 8.1 expected goals against Thailand. Germany (8.5) is the only other team to have tallied at least eight expected goals all tournament.
  • The U.S. tallied five expected goals after its game against Thailand. England tallied 5.4 overall; France was at 5.3.
  • The U.S. surrendered just 0.45 expected goals (0.4 coming against Sweden). France, at 0.9, boasted the second-staunchest defense in the group stage, and France also allowed an own goal.

Spain is a step up in competition from Thailand and Chile, but the U.S. made easy work of Sweden in its final group game. Spain shouldn’t be any more of a challenge.

Prediction: U.S. 2, Spain 0

4. Canada (59 percent) vs. Sweden (41 percent)

Monday, FS1, 3 p.m.

Canada: Group E runner-up; +2 differential (11th), +3.6 expected differential (tied-5th)

Sweden: Group F runner-up: +4 differential (tied-5th), +4.7 expected differential (3rd)

Neither of these teams is likely to win the World Cup or even advance another game beyond this one—Germany likely awaits the winner—but it might be the most even match in the round of 16. Both teams followed similar paths to the knockout rounds, with easy wins against two vastly inferior opponents and then a loss Thursday to the group winner. There’s no shame in losing to the Netherlands or U.S., but neither do those final results inspire much confidence in either team against the competition they’ll face going forward.

Still, a matchup between Canadian striker Christine Sinclair—just two goals shy of tying the all-time international scoring record—and Sweden’s defense is well worth a watch, and as the two teams’ xG totals show, they’ve played among the best overall soccer at this World Cup. Now they just have to prove they can continue that trend against opponents as talented as themselves.

Prediction: Canada 2, Sweden 1

3. Australia (66 percent) vs. Norway (34 percent)

Saturday, FOX, 3 p.m.

Australia: Group C runner-up; +3 differential (tied-8th), +1.8 expected differential (10th)

Norway: Group A runner-up; +3 differential (tied-8th), -3.0 expected differential (16th)

The positive for Norway is that even with reigning Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg absent, the team still qualified for the knockout stages with ease. Norway played France close and won its other two games, never facing any serious trouble along the way. The negative is that of the Norwegians’ six goals in the group matches, two came on penalty kicks, and another two came on own-goal gaffes from an opponent. Norway hasn’t scored a goal of its own in open play since the first half of its first game, and its expected goal differential is the worst for the 16 remaining teams.

Australia, meanwhile, rebounded from a disastrous start to the tournament to move into a favorable round of 16 matchup. The Matildas lost their opener against Italy on a stoppage-time goal, then fell behind 2-0 against Brazil—only to score three goals to snatch their first victory, then romp 4-1 against Jamaica with star forward Kerr collecting all four goals. Their form and top-level talent should push them through to the next round, but that’s still a maybe; a fast-paced, high-scoring affair, on the other hand, is a practical guarantee with Australia’s combination of scoring finesse and defensive stumbles. The team’s three group games combined to produce 13 goals; only Thailand’s and the United States’ games combined for more.

Prediction: Australia 3, Norway 1

2. Netherlands (62 percent) vs. Japan (38 percent)

Tuesday, FS1, 3 p.m.

Netherlands: Group E winner; +4 differential (tied-5th), +3.2 expected differential (8th)

Japan: Group D runner-up; -1 differential (14th), +1.3 expected differential (12th)

What a difference four years makes. These teams have traced disparate trajectories since 2015, when Japan beat the Netherlands in the round of 16. That year, Japan reached its second consecutive World Cup final, while the Dutch—playing in their first ever World Cup—qualified for the knockout rounds as a third-place team in their group.

To set up the rematch this year, though, the Dutch won their group thanks to an emphatic win against Canada on Thursday, while Japan eked out qualification. Before the tournament, FiveThirtyEight rated Group D as the weakest in the tournament, yet Japan was unable to take advantage, barely producing any chances in a 0-0 tie against Argentina and requiring a penalty-kick goal to beat Scotland 2-1. Japan’s 3.7 xG thus far is tied for just 12th among the 16 remaining teams.

The Dutch, conversely, profiled as a dark horse contender before the tournament, and have done nothing to dissuade that assessment thus far. They boast useful experience in a knockout environment—en route to victory at Euro 2017, they won every knockout game by multiple goals—and should earn some payback against their round of 16 opponent. But they still haven’t proved themselves at this level of the World Cup, and knocking out Japan this early would be quite an accomplishment. Japan has reached two consecutive Finals, after all; this match is a clear example of past vs. present and future in the sport, which pushes it near the top of these rankings.

Netherlands 1, Japan 0

1. France (77 percent) vs. Brazil (23 percent)

Sunday, Fox, 3 p.m.

France: Group A winner; +6 differential (tied-2nd), +4.4 expected differential (4th)

Brazil: Group C third place; +3 differential (tied-8th), +1.5 expected differential (11th)

This game fits the past vs. present model even better. Brazil’s golden generation has stirred over the last few weeks in its last go-round at the World Cup, and Brazil might be the surprise team of the tournament. Warning signs blared before play began, as the team lost its last nine games entering the World Cup, but Cristiane and Marta combined to score six goals in group play as Brazil beat Jamaica and Italy, and nearly beat Australia. If a few balls against Australia had bounced differently—the winner in that game was an own goal—Brazil would enter the knockout stages as a group winner and title contender.

Instead, host France awaits as not just a favorite to advance, but as a co-favorite, along with the U.S., to win the whole tournament. After a 4-0 opening win against South Korea, France couldn’t coast through its remaining two group games—a 2-1 win over Norway and a 1-0 win over Nigeria, both with late winners—but the French still feature a deep roster with premier frontline talent and the best defense in the world.

Against any other third-place finisher, France would be an overwhelming favorite in this round and the easiest pick to advance—but Brazil isn’t a typical third-place finisher. Brazil has Marta, the all-time leading goalscorer at the World Cup. Brazil has the kind of attacking force that can challenge the French defense with multiple looks. (Brazil’s xG numbers aren’t fantastic, but it’s drawn a penalty kick in every game thus far.) And Brazil has the veterans with big-game experience who won’t be cowed in front of a roaring French crowd in Le Havre.

France will still probably win. But the match is the most compelling of the round of 16. Marta vs. Wendie Renard is a delicious introduction to the knockout round; Marta and Cristiane trying to match Eugénie Le Sommer and Amandine Henry shot for shot will be as entertaining as it gets. A potential France-U.S. quarterfinal still projects as the match of the tournament—but France has a battle on its hands in the meantime.

Prediction: France 3, Brazil 1