There are countless methods for predicting World Cup outcomes. Countless methods for predicting group winners and champions. And most, if not all, are nowhere near as accurate as they purport to be.
The closest we come is the algorithms. Every four years, with the World Cup approaching, companies such as UBS and Goldman Sachs release picks. FiveThirtyEight and others have their predictive models. And they’re pretty darn good.
But the idea that statistics from past performances can help assess World Cup teams is generally absurd. Samples – qualifiers, friendlies, past tournaments – are so small. They’re also stretched out over long periods of time, diminishing their pertinence.
None of this is a criticism of anybody who tries to make probabilistic statements about the World Cup. It’s just to say that doing so is a fairly futile exercise.
It’s also to set up the following power rankings, and to qualify them with this: the sample they’re based on is still minute. Judging teams on three games – albeit with a lot of peripheral information to frame those three games – is still very difficult. There are rampant unknowns relating to strength of opponent, intra-tournament evolution and randomness.
Oh, and trying to pick one-off games, and hypothetical one-off games further down the line, in a sport where the better team often doesn’t win, is ridiculous.
Nonetheless, the following is an attempt to order the 16 remaining World Cup participants from strongest to weakest, with some notes on group stage takeaways and knockout round matchups mixed in.
All game times ET.
vs. Mexico, Monday, 10 a.m. (Fox Sports 1, Telemundo)
There’s a take making the rounds that Mexico can do to Brazil what it did to Germany. And it’s a fairly foolish take. Germany’s fatal flaw was a porous and deformed midfield. Brazil’s midfield is just the opposite. Casemiro – the very player who enables Toni Kroos at Real Madrid, and whose absence left Kroos exposed at international level – shields the Brazilian defense and closes up the very holes that Mexico exploited in its opener.
That’s not to say Mexico can’t beat Brazil. But the Selecao aren’t vulnerable to any one type of team. Their attack hasn’t been as lethal as hoped, but they’re the most complete and refined unit in the world.
vs. Russia, Sunday, 10 a.m. (Fox, Telemundo)
Three games. Three different midfield alignments. None of them made Spain hum like it should. At what point does Fernando Hierro consider benching Andres Iniesta or Sergio Busquets? Or at least shifting Iniesta out wide? Neither is the player he once was. And their waning mobility seems to be one of a few reasons La Roja hasn’t had unceasing control of games like it often does.
I, personally, would love to see a three-man midfield of Busquets, David Silva and Thiago Alcantara, with either Iniesta or Iago Aspas taking Silva’s place out wide, depending on the opponent and what the game requires.
Oh, and by the way: Spain conceded three shots on goal from open play in the group stage. It conceded five goals. That’s fluky as heck. And it’s a reminder to not overreact to the fact it only took five points from a possible nine.
vs. Argentina, Saturday, 10 a.m. (Fox, Telemundo)
It’s time to stop wondering about when France will “figure it out” and start appreciating Les Bleus for who they are. They’re not as fluid and expressive as we’d like them to be. They don’t use their superior talent to suffocate opponents as a unit. They don’t have an intricate system.
But look where intricate systems got Germany and Spain in the group stage. There’s something to be said for what Didier Deschamps is doing – for putting the clamps on his team, playing cautiously, and depending on moments of magic from his stars. When those stars have “Pogba” and “Griezmann” and “Mbappe” across the backs of their shirts – and when N’Golo Kante can make up for so many structural deficiencies – Deschamps’ formula is one that can win a World Cup.
vs. Japan, Monday, 2 p.m. (Fox, Telemundo)
Belgium scored one more goal than England in their Group G decider … but did it beat England? Its route to the semifinals now likely goes through Brazil. Adnan Januzaj might be an English hero after all.
vs. Colombia, Tuesday, 2 p.m. (Fox, Telemundo)
Hey, in case you haven’t heard, football’s coming home.
On a serious note: We still know absolutely nothing about how well-equipped England and Belgium are for the knockout rounds.
vs. Denmark, Sunday, 2 p.m. (Fox, Telemundo)
The Croatians have been as impressive as anybody through three games. And if both teams progress, they’ll be a major threat to Spain in the quarters. They’re built to give the Spaniards fits. They’re physical, they press well in the middle third of the pitch, and they have the ball-players to evade Spain’s counterpress and release Ivan Perisic and company on counterattacks.
vs. Portugal, Saturday, 2 p.m. (Fox, Telemundo)
Live images of Uruguay’s Round of 16 encounter with Portugal:
This game, unfortunately, has 0-0 written all over it. That’s just what happens in a battle between two teams who want to do the same thing, but count on an opponent to do something different.
The reason Uruguay is one spot ahead of Portugal here is its defense. Diego Godin and his compadres gobbled up everything in and around the penalty box during the group stage. Granted, they didn’t play anybody of note. But they have a better track record as individuals than Portugal’s back line.
vs. Uruguay, Saturday, 2 p.m. (Fox, Telemundo)
The similarities to Euro 2016 are eery. We were even one goal away from identical group stage scorelines. Portugal’s 3-3 draw with Spain was the aberration. The 1-0 win over Morocco was a 50-50 proposition. Its 1-1 draw with Iran was tight and tense.
This is the Portugal team we assumed we’d see. It isn’t incapable of pulling off a complete Euro 2016 repeat. It could beat Uruguay, France, Brazil and Spain in succession. But will it? Probably not. Almost certainly not.
vs. France, Saturday, 10 a.m. (Fox, Telemundo)
Argentina still didn’t create anywhere near as many chances as it should have against Nigeria, with its first coherent lineup of the tournament. But the post-Croatia chaos, at least to some extent, has subsided. With Ever Banega pulling strings in midfield, there’s at least a semblance of control and rhythm. And, well, there’s this guy named Lionel Messi. You might have heard of him.
On that note, Messi vs. Kante could be one of the most compelling individual battles of the Round of 16. Kante shut down the whole right side of the field against Peru. With Messi preferring to drift to the attacking right – France’s left – will Deschamps swap Kante and Paul Pogba in an attempt to shut off service to the Argentinean catalyst?
vs. Brazil, Monday, 10 a.m. (Fox Sports 1, Telemundo)
Juan Carlos Osorio’s decision to pick an unchanged starting 11 for the first time in 51 matches was stunning. And if Mexico hadn’t gotten help from South Korea, we’d be talking about JCO’s decision like we talk about Bruce Arena’s in Trinidad.
Hindsight is 20-20, of course, but Osorio got it wrong. Very wrong. And now he’s in a pickle. Now he has run his regulars into the ground. Their performance has declined successively from game to game. But Osorio now has to ask for a fourth game in 16 days from them, because he certainly can’t roll out a reserve side against the best team in the world.
If and when Mexico loses to Brazil, we’ll dissect Osorio’s decisions once again. We’ll dissect individual players’ performances. We’ll talk about the “curse of the fifth game.” But Osorio and Mexico will have lost their Round of 16 match five days earlier.
vs. England, Tuesday, 2 p.m. (Fox, Telemundo)
James Rodriguez’s injury is a major concern. He’s presumably a doubt for the England clash. Colombia was quite fortunate to survive the Senegal game without him.
vs. Switzerland, Tuesday, 10 a.m. (Fox Sports 1, Telemundo)
No team has had a tougher route to the World Cup knockout rounds. Sweden had to survive a qualifying group that featured France and the Netherlands. It had to beat Italy in a playoff. Now it’s advancing on top of a group that featured Germany and Mexico.
This team is legitimately better without Zlatan Ibrahimovic. A lot better. And there are actual soccer reasons for that. Strikers who don’t dwell on the ball – who instead lay it off to each other and to midfielders in one or two touches – are integral to the Swedish style. Ibrahimovic didn’t mesh with that style. He confounded it. And this Sweden team keeps on proving the point.
vs. Sweden, Tuesday, 10 a.m. (Fox Sports 1, Telemundo)
Switzerland will have to deal with those Swedish strikers and that robust Swedish attack without two of its starting defenders. Stephan Lichsteiner and Fabian Schar both picked up second yellow cards in the ultimately meaningless 2-2 draw with Costa Rica. Those cards could prove costly.
vs. Croatia, Sunday, 2 p.m. (Fox, Telemundo)
Denmark has been by far the most underwhelming team of the 16 that advanced.
vs. Spain, Sunday, 10 a.m. (Fox, Telemundo)
vs. Belgium, Monday, 2 p.m. (Fox, Telemundo)
Manager Akira Nishino’s decision to rest six starters against Poland on Thursday was absurd. And it very nearly cost Japan its World Cup.
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More World Cup on Yahoo Sports:
• Why World Cup champs have flopped so miserably four years later
• Brazil wins Group E, deepens World Cup bracket imbalance
• Germany crashes out of World Cup with loss to South Korea
• Mexicans celebrated South Korea’s win by carrying Koreans on their shoulders