France v. Nigeria
What to watch for:
Even taking into account a rather dull 0-0 draw with Ecuador on their third matchday, France may have put together the most exciting group stage of any team in the tournament.
Les Bleus have recaptured a sense of verve, imagination and efficiency going forward while also showcasing a rather surprising measure of depth. French manager Didier Deschamps has rotated his squad considerably through three matches, which has offered his first-choice lineup a certain freshness that other teams with a more arduous road to the knockout phase have not enjoyed.
France will roll out in a 4-3-3 that has looked particularly cohesive and dynamic going forward. Typified by quick link-up play through the midfield, overlapping fullbacks that get deeply entrenched in the attacking third, and great layoff play from striker Karim Benzema, the French attack will provide a difficult test for a Nigerian defense that surrendered a great many chances to Argentina.
Benzema, in particular, has been France’s main danger-man. He has combined extremely well with midfielder Blaise Matuidi, who will look to make late runs into the box on Benzema’s left, and Olivier Giroud, who despite playing under 100 minutes in the group stage, combined thrillingly with the Real Madrid striker in a 5-2 win over Switzerland. Smart money is on Giroud not starting against Nigeria, but he will be a dangerous option off the bench if the match is within touching distance.
Nigeria’s group stage, in contrast to France, was a mixed bag. They began with a tentative 0-0 performance against Iran, a fortunate 2-1 victory over Bosnia & Herzegovina, and an electrifying encounter with Lionel Messi’s Argentina, which they lost, 3-2.
Overall, Nigeria can feel as though they got better with each game and their final group stage clash with Argentina saw the rise of wunderkind Ahmed Musa, who scored two goals. The 21-year-old Musa is a game-changer for the Super Eagles and a handful to mark. He frequently pulls out wide left in support play, but also makes darting runs through the middle that almost graze the central striker Emmanuel Emenike and force defenders to choose between the two in terms of who to follow and mark.
Musa scored a goal deriving from both such postures last match. His first was a pile-driver to the far post, which he unleashed after cutting in on his right foot from the left flank, while his second was a cool side-footed finish after blazing straight past both center-backs.
Musa will be key against a French defense that betrayed some difficulty against a speedy, direct style of play late in the game against Switzerland.
Prediction: France wins.
Germany v. Algeria
What to watch for:
The Germans went through to the knockout rounds as the winners of Group G, finishing ahead of the United States, Portugal and Ghana.
While the Black Stars gave them some trouble in a 2-2 draw, Die Mannschaft exhibited an attacking flair and ease going forward matched by only a few other teams in the competition.
The Germans line up in a 4-3-3 of sorts, with Thomas Müller leading the front-line. He has four goals so far this tournament—including a right-footed effort that he curled into the back of the net against the USA—and, much like last World Cup, has thrived in a role that allows him a measure of positional freedom.
Look for Müller to play as a “false nine”—an intricate forward role that is not a dedicated striker, but rather an attacking player who drops deep from the opposing back-line to receive the ball, turn, and initiate an attack from a deep position. In so doing, Müller rarely goes it alone, but rather is almost always flanked by passing options, be they wingers Mesut Özil and Mario Götze or midfielders further down the pitch like Toni Kroos and Philipp Lahm.
In the back, the German rearguard has proved suspect at times this tournament, particularly on crosses, but for the most part is renowned as a solid unit.
The Algerians come into this match with a tall task on their hands, but one they are most happy to have the opportunity to undertake.
After a 2010 tournament in which the Algerians were derided as a boring, uninventive, stubborn and defensive side, they have been completely transformed in the space of four years.
Manager Vahid Halilhodži?, who was sacked by the Ivory Coast only months before that 2010 World Cup—despite the fact that he guided them through qualifying—has been rightfully praised for modifying the Algerians’ personality during this cycle, utilizing attacking talent like Valencia winger Sofiane Feghouli and Sporting Lisbon striker Islam Slimani to their fullest extent.
While the team’s soul is still primarily predicated upon the logic of the counter—as seen most notably against Belgium—they aren’t afraid to use their talent with ferocity and in a number of ways. In particular, Algeria are extremely proficient at beating high defensive lines with the long ball, something seen repeatedly in their 4-2 win over Korea. Given Germany’s proclivity to play an advanced back-line when in possession, the potential for Algeria to spring their attacking players in the air on a counter-attack will be something to watch.
The biggest storyline in this one, however, is revenge. The Algerians defeated West Germany in the opening group match of the 1982 World Cup, but were eliminated on the final matchday when the Germans and Austrians conspired on the pitch to achieve a mutually beneficial result that sent them both through at the North African team’s expense. The event has become known as the Disgrace of Gijón (where the match took place) and after 32 years, the Algerians finally have their chance for vengeance.
Prediction: Germany wins.