How to win a shootout: Five things to look out for in the quarter finals

The Rio Report

After the excitement of the first round of knock-out games, the eight teams left in the World Cup all won their groups. As we approach the quarter-final stage, Ben Lyttleton highlights a few things to look out for in the next four matches.

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More extra-time please (and if you do go to penalties, try to make sure you go first)

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Penalty shoot-outs were meant to represent the dramatic denouement to the 120-minute battle and while the two spot-kick battles in which Brazil and Costa Rica prevailed were fascinating, there was arguably more drama in the three matches that went to extra-time but didn't make penalties: Germany’s humdinger against Algeria; Switzerland coming so close to levelling against Argentina; and USA’s late onslaught on the Belgium goal.

The normal pattern is for players to be so shattered in extra-time that we, the spectators, wait it out for the inevitable shoot-out. But here were three games where we wanted more time to be played! Sometimes just 90 minutes is not enough.

If it does go to penalties, however, watch that your captain does not make the mistake Giorgios Karagoiuns made, of winning the toss and electing to kick second. Your chances of winning if you kick first are, historically, 60-40; the Greek skipper did his side no favours with his choice.

[Ed's note: Ben actually wrote a book about penalties - so he knows what he's on about. Let's hope all the quarter-finalists read this blog!]

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James Rodriguez (just don't call him a 'break-out star')

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He leads the race for the Golden Boot and best goal scored in Brazil. He has been directly involved in seven goals so far (five scored, two assists), closing in on the likes of Zico (eight in 1982), and Rob Rensenbrink (eight in 1978) – and maybe even Pele (ten in 1970) and Maradona (ten in 1986).

In stark contrast to Spain’s all-conquering team ethic of the last six years, this World Cup is all about the individual: Neymar bailing out Brazil, Lionel Messi coming to Argentina’s rescue and Arjen Robben saving Holland with some late magic.

It's slightly different for James, who in autumn 2011 was anointed by Carlos Valderrama as his successor. A few months later, Faustino Asprilla said, “James Rodriguez could become the best Colombian player of all time”.

But more than any other side left in the competition, Colombia are the only ones not to have shown great weakness. They made light work of their group, and clinically beat a Luis Suarez-less Uruguay in the Round of 16. No need for shoot-outs, injury-time woodwork drama or late controversial penalty decisions.

And while James is a bona fide star at this tournament, talk of him ‘breaking out’ seems a little late given he cost Monaco €45m last summer. That’s hardly the price of an unknown quantity. For a breakout star, try DeAndre Yedlin: 20 years old, uncapped until February and with one full season at Seattle Sounders behind him.

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A scored free-kick (don't be afraid to improvise)

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Only two free-kicks have been scored in this competition so far, below the number in previous tournaments of five (2010) and nine (2006 and 2002). This has been one World Cup where no-one has complained about the ball, the Brazuca, while the referees’ use of vanishing spray, deemed to help the shooting team, has not had that effect.

Maybe it’s down to the goalkeepers, many of whom have put in heroic displays so far. The Wall Street Journal analysed the free-kick success of players, noting that Cristiano Ronaldo (zero from five efforts) and Andrea Pirlo and Neymar (zero from four) have had no luck.

The two scorers so far? Lionel Messi against Nigeria and Blerim Dzemaili against France.

Despite those, the best free-kick routine so far has to be the USA’s last-minute effort against Belgium, a training-ground move that broke to Clint Dempsey but was denied by Thibaut Courtois. Let’s have more moves like that please.

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That one iconic game (the 'best World Cup ever' surely needs one)

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The Round of 16 had so much drama while the only game in which the result was rarely in doubt, Colombia’s win over Uruguay, saw James score one of the best goals.

But it seemed somehow too early in the World Cup for a classic tournament-defining match: sure, Chile-Brazil and Belgium-USA were sensational games but what a tournament that has given us this much drama deserves is a game to last the ages: a France v West Germany (Spain 1982), a Holland v Argentina (France 1998) or a Germany v Italy (Germany 2006). Will it happen? With three of these games almost too close to call, we might just get lucky.

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Which coach will make the difference? (Tactical buffs will love one clash)

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As the stakes, and the pressure, gets higher, the margins between success and failure become finer. Team selections are scrutinised in even more detail; substitutions become vital.

For the coaches, there are some big decisions to be made. Will Marc Wilmots start with Romelu Lukaku or Divock Origi against Argentina, given both have excelled as substitutes?

Will Didier Deschamps use Antoine Griezmann’s pace against Germany’s full-backs from the start or, as he did against Nigeria, start with Olivier Giroud and allow Griezmann a run when the opponents were tiring? “Giroud was the guy who wore them out, so I owe him great thanks too,” said the winger after the game.

For the tactics buffs among you, the Holland-Costa Rica game will be perhaps the most interesting of all, pitting two of the most fascinating coaches of the tournament, Louis van Gaal and Jorge Luis Pinto, against each other. Get your notebooks at the ready…

Ben Lyttleton (On Twitter: @benlyt)

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