Yesterday’s last-minute heartbreaking equalizer by Portugal versus the United States is the latest wrinkle in a World Cup that’s been full of surprises. Supporters of multiple nations are left to work out the multiple scenarios and math in the final group games. The simultaneous starts of the two final games in each group are designed to keep teams playing for the win, but teams and their fans are certainly aware of how they can advance with ties or even close losses. Here are five games to watch in the coming days that will help settle the final 16.
With Netherlands dispatching Chile in Group A and likely setting up a South American battle between Chile and Brazil, this match will likely position the winner (or Mexico, if it’s a draw) into a match against one of the strongest teams in the tournament, winning all three of its group matches by a combined 10-3 score — with two of those goals against coming from a spirited but last place Australia. This game will be a case of irresistible force (the Croatian team that scored four goals against Cameroon) vs. immovable object (the human force field that is Guillermo Ochoa).
Even if surprising Costa Rica crashes out against playing-for-pride England and doesn’t become the most unexpected group winner, the Ticos’ place is assured in the Round of 16, making this matchup of Top 10 teams a bonus knockout match. Look for two players who missed their teams’ first games with injuries but who played key roles in their team’s second games—Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez and Italian goalie Gianluigi Buffon—to be key.
An Ivory Coast win or draw — barring a blowout win by Japan over favored Colombia—puts the African nation into the Round of 16, either against Costa Rica or the Italy-Uruguay winner. A rejuvenated Gervinho, an inspiring Didier Drogba, a rock-solid Yaya Toure, and a driving-up-his-price-for-Premier-League suitors Serge Aurier—are leading the charge for the African team poised for its continent’s deepest run.
This match is most interesting, in the scope of the overall tournament, to gauge if Argentina’s performance against Iran on Saturday was a fluke, a testament to Iran’s lockdown defensive prowess, or a sign that Lionel Messi may need to continue to carry the load for the team’s other three still-scoreless goal threats, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, and Angel di Maria. Though Nigeria’s in second place in the group, a loss plus an Iran win could allow Iran to vault out of group, while an upset Nigerian win would likely set up an Argentina vs. France battle of titans.
A tie gets both teams through the group stage, but if there’s a victor in both games, the loser of U.S-Germany and winner of Portugal-Ghana go to tie-breaking scenarios to determine who faces the Group H winner — who will most likely be Belgium. This match has both teams regretting their prior 2-2 ties after victories in their first outings, and while Germany is still favored to win the group, the Americans have shown admirable resilience so far—be it captain Clint Dempsey playing with a broken nose, scoring late second-half goals to gather the points they’ve gathered to date, or holding Cristiano Rolando scoreless in a game which required a Portugal result in order for the team to stay alive. It’s hard to imagine there’d be any more compulsion needed for a U.S. soccer fan to tune in on Thursday, but the final play of Sunday’s match rekindled the cauldron the U.S. has been in all tournament.