Before we get going, you need to study the bracket. As I wrote with Brazil in one of the rankings, in modern World Cups, the winners have usually only had to defeat two major powers in order to take the Cup. Barring major upsets, Brazil and the Netherlands have that, with non-powers in their first match, then each other, then a semifinal with the Uruguay/Ghana/Korea/USA quadrant. England and Germany, on the other hand, are almost certain to have to play a major power in each remaining round, which will be extremely difficult.
Speaking of the Uruguay/Ghana/Korea/USA quadrant, one of those teams is guaranteed a berth in the semifinals, which means that unlike in 2006, this World Cup will revert to form and have a surprise team in the semis (Colombia 1990, Sweden/Bulgaria 1994, Croatia 1998, Turkey/Korea 2002). I'd say Uruguay is the favorite of the group, but not by very much - the USA are entirely plausible.
For this ranking, since we're losing half the teams, I went back and checked out my predictions. I ended up doing quite well. Italy and France were massive disappointments, but they were always the most likely flameouts. I did underestimate Japan and Slovakia, but I doubt I'm alone there. I put my rankings so far in the list so you can decide if you agree or not - the second number is the most relevant, as it's the last pre-tournament prediction.
Round of 16 Previews (ranked in order of interest)
England v. Germany - If it were simply soccer history, this would be a titanic match. England beat Germany in the 1966 final for their only World Cup. More recently, the Germans knocked the English out of Euro 96 on English soil. England returned the favor in Euro 2000 and again in World Cup qualifying the next year, whipping the Germans 5-1 in Munich. In English football culture, Germany is The Enemy. Darth Vader. And that's not even getting into the World Wars between these two.... The soccer should be good. The intensity will be incredible.
Prediction: England 2-1. The Germans will miss Schweinsteiger too much.
Argentina v. Mexico - As I mentioned last week, this is a rematch of one of the best matches of World Cup 2006. These are two similar sides, in that they both have a lot of talent, especially on attack, but big questions about chemistry and defense. Argentina are the favorites, but it would be no surprise if Mexico pulled it off.
Prediction: Argentina 2-0. Too much quality.
Spain v. Portugal - The Iberian rivals may have a match to compete with England-Germany for emotion, but Portugal's stalling, fouling, diving, and whining may break up the rhythm. I expect a repeat of the "Battle of Nuremburg." I'd love to be wrong, but Portugal has yet to convince me they can play with anything but cynicism and arrogance.
Prediction: Spain 2-1. My head says Portugal on penalties, but I'm listening to my heart.
Brazilv. Chile - Chile won a lot of fans with their attractive, attacking football, but didn't win enough games, and now take on their South American rivals. Brazil have a side designed to crush attacking opponents. Brazil won both qualifying matches with ease, 3-0 and 4-2. If Chile pulled it off, it would be a major upset.
Prediction: Brazil 3-0. If I'm wrong, this could be a classic. I hope I'm wrong.
USA v Ghana - The Americans have demonstrated that a bit of flair and a lot of spirit can make for really exciting soccer matches. Ghana, meanwhile, have been involved in a grand total of four goals in three games - 1-0, 1-1, and 0-1. The fans will be behind Ghana, the last African team in the tournament. This will be a tough, physical, low-scoring match.
Prediction: 1-1, Ghana on penalties. It'll really be a sign that soccer has made it in America when we lose on penalties in the World Cup.
Uruguay v. Korea - Two hard-working, well-organized sides with a bit of extra skill and flair. Uruguay has the stars up front, and that may be the difference.
Prediction: Uruguay 1-0. Forlan with a bit of genius, and the defense holds on.
Paraguay v. Japan - One of the reasons I love the World Cup? Pairings like this. The Japanese have been the big surprise of the tournament, and their two beautiful free kick goals against Denmark, and Keisuke Honda the possible breakout star. Paraguay are solid, yes, but haven't really been threatened.
Prediction: Japan 2-0. The upset for the upstarts!
Netherlands v Slovakia: I haven't been impressed by Slovakia, and the Netherlands are just getting going. This would be a massive upset if Slovakia won, and a surprise if they keep it close. Stranger things have happened at the World Cup, but not many - especially if Arjen Robben is getting close to full strength.
Prediction: Netherlands 2-0. A scoreline which flatters the Slovaks.
Rankings: 6th-2nd-2nd-2nd Results: 2-0 v. Denmark, 1-0 v. Japan, 2-1 v. Cameroon Next Match: Slovakia
How did I do? In terms of rankings, excellent. I expected more stumbles for the Dutch against this group, but neither Cameroon nor Denmark lived up to expectations.
The Dutch also have arguably the best draw of any of the major contenders. Slovakia is certainly the weakest team in the round of 16, and although Brazil is their likely quarterfinal opponent, the semi-final would be against the weaker top-left with no contenders.
Rankings: 2nd-3rd-10th-11th Results: 0-1 v. Switzerland, 2-0 v. Honduras, 2-1 v. Chile Next Match: Portugal
How did I do? I certainly didn't see the loss against Switzerland coming, but Spain still ended up winning the group and avoiding Brazil. So I'll give myself a 'B'.
The next match against Portugal will be tough, as despite being neighbors and almost two halves of a whole geographically, the two sides couldn't be more different in terms of style of play. Spain good, Portugal evil. Let's see it!
Rankings: 4th-4th-4th-1st Results: 1-0 v. Nigeria, 4-1 v. South Korea, 2-0 v. Greece Next Match: Mexico
How did I do? Just fine. Argentina may well implode, but they weren't likely to in the group stage.
The Argentines are humming, but they'll face a real test in a revenge-motivated Mexican side, and if they win that, a match against a perennial power in Germany or England. If they win this tournament, they'll have to have done it the hard way.
Rankings: 9th-9th-17th-4th Results: 0-0 v. Cote d'Ivoire, 7-0 v. North Korea, 0-0 v. Brazil Next Match: Spain
How did I do? Okay, I suppose. Portugal is going a good job of ensuring that they belong in the Big 9. They didn't necessarily tear it up against the Group of Death, but they did exactly what they needed to in order to ensure qualification. If I praise Uruguay for that, I have to praise Portugal.
The Iberian derby against Spain coming up could be magnificent, but I fully expect Portugal to bunker down, kick the Spanish into submission, and try to win on the counter-attack...or penalties. Prove me wrong, Portugal. Please.
Rankings: 20th-15th-14th-5th Results: 0-0 v. France, 3-0 v. South Africa, 1-0 v. Mexico Next Match: South Korea
How did I do? So-so. For some reason, I though Uruguay were better off with Alvaro Recoba than Diego Forlan. Still, I expected Group A to be weird, and certainly didn't write Uruguay off.
They're looking strong heading into the knockout stages as well. South Korea is tough, but Uruguay will be favored. We could be witnessing the resurrection of one of the classic soccer powers, especially as they're probably the favorites of their quadrant to reach the semi-finals. Diego Forlan has been the best player of the tournament for me.
Rankings: 3rd-5th-5th-9th Results: 1-1 v. USA, 0-0 v. Algeria, 1-0 v. Slovenia Next Match: Germany
How did I do? I've continued to treat England as contenders, even though they didn't always play like they deserved it.
They should have done more to win the group, as they're in the more difficult part of the bracket now, but they're in the knockout stages and they've got the quality to do damage. They're now set to take on arguably their two greatest rivals, and the two countries who have broken their hearts more than any others - Germany and Mexico. Er, I mean, Argentina. If you're an England fan, disappointment seems inevitable. A soccer fan? This could get fun!
Rankings: 5th-6th-1st-7th Results: 4-0 v. Australia, 0-1 v. Serbia, 1-0 v. Ghana Next Match: England
How did I do? Generally well, though the 1st-place seems an aberration. Nobody else stepped up, though.
These Germans are young, industrious, and occasionally brilliant. They may not beat England or Argentina and get far in this World Cup, but it certainly looks like they'll be major contenders at the next two or three. Unfortunately, Basian Schweinsteiger, the German midfielder with the unspellable name and wonderful passes, is likely out injured against the English.
Rankings: 13th-11th-9th-8th Results: 1-0 v. Honduras, 1-0 v. Switzerland, 1-2 v. Spain Next Match: Brazil
How did I do? I expected Chile to qualify for the round of 16, but I didn't necessarily expect them do it either with such style or such drama - it goes both ways, I suppose.
Chile is paying the price for not making their dominance against Honduras or Switzerland show up in the scoreline. Had they scored more goals, they'd be playing Portugal. As it is, they face mighty Brazil, and will be tremendous underdogs.
Rankings: 10th-20th-12th-14th Results: 1-0 v. Serbia, 1-1 v. Australia, 0-1 v. Germany Next Match: USA
How did I do? My love for Michael Essien's ability had me underrate Ghana after he was ruled out with injury. But their young stars showed that they're no one-man team, and they could be a force at this World Cup - with two winnable games to get to the semi-finals - and for years to come.
Rankings: 19th-14th-20th-12th Results: 1-1 v. South Africa, 2-0 v. France, 0-1 v. Uruguay Next Match: Argentina
How did I do? Very well. I said that they were consistently good for a second-round appearance, and this year was no exception. They were the prime beneficiaries of the epic FranceFail, but they made the most of it.
They're no match for Argentina's talent, but they can certainly steal a win if they frustrate Argentina and catch them on the break. They key battle will be between Mexican defender Rafa Marquez and his Barcelona teammate, Lionel Messi.
Rankings: 16th-12th-13th-13th Results: 1-1 v. England, 2-2 v. Slovenia, 1-0 v. Algeria Next Match: Ghana
How did I do? Good, I guess. Hold on, I need to catch my breath.
All right. Much better. You know, I'm a little annoyed at all the people saying "I can't get into soccer" or "does this mean soccer has caught on?" That discussion is over. It's not about non-fans. If they want to get into soccer, great. But the USA has a healthy domestic league, a consistent and improving national team, and a fan base who will get up at 7 in the morning to watch games. Soccer has caught on. Can we move past "what it means for the sport" and just talk about what it means?
So, not only did The Most Exciting Team In The World Cup squeak out a late goal, England's lack of killer instinct means the USA won the group, giving them a much clearer path into the semi-finals. Wouldn't that be something? First things first - a revenge match against Ghana, who knocked the USA out in 2006.
Rankings: 15th-17th-8th-20th Results: 2-0 v. Greece, 1-4 v. Argentina, 2-2 v. Nigeria Next Match: Uruguay
How did I do? Pretty much on the money. I had the Koreans as the second-best team in the group, just ahead of Greece, which is how it finished. I probably ranked them too low last week, as a loss against Argentina is no crime.
Now they go up against Uruguay in what promises to be a tense, tactical match. They may be the least-fancied side in the knockout stage, but that was the case in 2002 also.
Rankings: 27th-28th-19th-17th Results: 1-0 v. Cameroon, 0-1 v. Netherlands, 3-1 v. Denmark Next Match: Paraguay
How did I do? I kept reading things about how the Japanese were organized but lacked flair. Those people were dead wrong, and I was wrong to listen. Did you see Honda's skill to set up the third goal? Now Japan faces an eminently winnable match against Paraguay to get to the quarterfinals.
Rankings: 21st-29th-25th-27th Results: 1-1 v. New Zealand, 0-2 v. Paraguay, 3-2 v. Italy Next Match: Netherlands
How did I do? Terribly. But I can hardly be alone here - who expected Slovakia to beat Italy?
They now go into the round of 16 with a match against the Dutch, who have been playing like Germany - grinding out results when not at their best. They'll be the decided underdogs, but if they can get the jump, they may make it two upsets in a row.
Rankings: 29th-26th-16th-15th Results: 1-0 v. Spain, 0-1 v. Chile, 1-1 v. Honduras Next Match: eliminated
How did I do? Poorly, in that I wanted to underestimate the Swiss and they almost embarrassed me. Or perhaps the Spain victory was just luck.
The Swiss have been punching above their weight class for years, but with some of their best attacking players getting older, they'll need to find good replacements to continue to qualify and threaten in major tournaments.
Rankings: 14th-18th-30th-21st Results: 0-2 v. South Korea, 2-1 v. Nigeria, 0-2 v. Argentina Next Match: eliminated
How did I do? I overrated the Greeks slightly. Their run through Euro 2004 certainly made an impact on me, but they didn't manage to replicate it. Really - how could they?
Greece probably goes home disappointed, but qualifying for the World Cup - and not being a joke once there, as in 1994 - are big improvements and may point towards a rising power in European football. They're not fun to watch, but that doesn't always win in sports.
Rankings: 32nd-31st-27th-22nd Results: 1-1 v. Slovakia, 1-1 v. Italy, 0-0 v. Paraguay Next Match: eliminated
How did I do? Like everyone else, poorly. Three points from three draws can be enough to qualify, but not this time.
Thanks to Australia's departure from the Oceania region, New Zealand now has the fast track to qualification. We may be seeing the Kiwis more and more, and I'm sure they've made a lot of neutrals into fans.
Rankings: 28th-30th-21st-29th Results: 1-1 v. Mexico, 0-3 v. Uruguay, 2-1 v. France Next Match: eliminated
How did I do? Even though they were eliminated, I underestimated Bafana Bafana. Some previous World Cups allows third-place teams a shot at the second round, allowing weak hosts (like the USA in 1994) a shot to progress. No such luck for South Africa here. Still, they can exit with their heads held high, and maybe turn this into a chance to regain their prowess as a top African team.
Rankings: 25th-25th-23rd-23rd Results: 0-1 v. Argentina, 1-2 v. Greece, 2-2 v. South Korea Next Match: eliminated
How did I do? Dead on the money, but it could have been otherwise. Probably the best 1-point team of the tournament. Maybe one of the best ever.
The Nigerians missed two easy chances against South Korea, as well as slamming another ball off the post. Not that the Koreans played badly and the result was undeserved, but it could have swung the other way. And to add another what-might-have-been to make Nigeria's summer worse, that red card against Greece looks dumber and dumber.
Rankings: 30th-27th-28th-30th Results: 0-1 v. Chile, 0-2 v. Spain, 0-0 v. Switzerland Next Match: eliminated
How did I do? Unfortunately well. I hoped for more out of the Hondurans, but a difficult group was compounded by having a very difficult schedule. Had they played the Swiss - whom they should have beaten - things could have gone differently.
Rankings: 26th-23rd-32nd-26th Results: 0-1 v. Slovenia, 0-0 v. England, 0-1 v. USA Next Match: eliminated
How did I do? Slightly overestimated Algeria based on their intense victories over Egypt, but I still didn't really expect them to qualify.
Although it was fun to tease the Algerians for their negative, counterattacking tactics against the USA when they needed a win, I think it had more to do with the fact that the US was simply overrunning them. They'll still be unhappy, and a tiny bit unlucky, to leave without a goal.
Rankings: 24th-13th-26th-31st Results: 0-1 v. Japan, 1-2 v. Denmark, 1-2 v. Netherlands Next Match: eliminated
How did I do? I guess I had it right the first time, when I ranked Cameroon low. I really thought they had the players to do well in this group, but fighting with the manager isn't a good start, and they never recovered.
Rankings: 8th-7th-7th-25th Results: 0-0 v. Uruguay, 0-2 v. Mexico, 1-2 v. South Africa Next Match: eliminated
How did I do? Before the tournament, I figured France and Argentina were the wildcards. One would flame out spectacularly, the other would make a deep run. To be honest, I thought it was more likely the opposite of what happened.
But even those who didn't expect France to qualify from the group have to be shocked at this stunning display of incompetence.If only they'd been half as entertaining on the pitch as they were off it.
Rankings: 31st-32nd-29th-32nd Results: 1-2 v. Brazil, 0-7 v. Portugal, 0-3 v. Cote d'Ivoire Next Match: eliminated
How did I do? Perfect, but it's not really something to brag about in this case.
In 1938, supposedly Mussolini threatened the Italian team with execution if they failed to win the World Cup. They did win, so we'll never know if he was serious, but it's both great to see how far the sport has come along since those days - and frightening to wonder if anything like that could happen to the North Korean players.