After a group stage full of twists and turns, the business end of the tournament kicks off with 16 teams dreaming of plotting a path to the final in Doha in just over a fortnight.
The USA and the Netherlands open the second round at the Khalifa Stadium on Sunday (2am AEDT), with the Americans aiming to advance to the quarter-finals for the first time since 2002. The winner will face either Argentina or Australia after Sunday morning’s other match (6am).
The USA, like the Netherlands, failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup but have impressed in Qatar, drawing with Wales and England before beating Iran to finish second behind England.
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While the Dutch possess the greater historical pedigree, reaching three previous World Cup finals, the USA head into the knockout rounds brimming with confidence.
“It’s a great opportunity, but it’s not something that we’re going into it thinking it’s an honour,” Coach Gregg Berhalter said. “We deserve to be in the position we’re in.”
Captain Tyler Adams declared “We have that American mentality that in a playoff setting, we might be the underdogs but anything can happen.”
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Dutch keep Qatar winless in horror WC | 00:38
The US face a Dutch team who finished first in Group A with 2-0 victories over Senegal and Qatar and a 1-1 draw against Ecuador. But the heavyweights haven’t showed their best form – and a conservative game-plan has drawn brutal criticism back home.
Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal is unbeaten in a record 10 World Cup matches as a coach, having also led the Dutch to a third-placed finish in 2014 in Brazil, where they lost to Argentina on penalties in the semi-finals.
But the Dutch press have repeatedly criticised his tactics, saying the current team is too pragmatic and does not play the attacking style for which the Netherlands first became known in the 1970s.
“In 2014 it was exactly the same, it was not different. It was very negative,” Van Gaal told a pre-match press conference.
“But, exact same thing now, same old, so I’m used to it and I think my players are also used to it.
“So we’re going to calmly continue on the path that we’ve embarked on.”
Van Gaal is also wary of the threat posed by the energetic Americans, describing Berhalter’s team as one of the best in the tournament.
“They have an excellent team, I would say even one of the best teams,” said Van Gaal.
“It’ll be a tough match but it’s nothing we can’t overcome. We also have a good team.
“But I’m not going to downplay the USA. I think they’re an example of what a good team is.”
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WHO TO WATCH
Dutch forward Cody Gakpo was the only player to score in all three group games — carrying over his red-hot form for PSV Eindhoven onto the biggest stage. Gakpo’s header in the Netherlands’ opening match against Senegal broke the deadlock late on in a 2-0 victory. He drilled the Dutch ahead with a fierce left-footed drive against Ecuador in a 1-1 draw and again set the Oranje on their way with another tidy finish on his right as they cantered to a 2-0 win over Qatar.
“He has everything it takes to become a star,” said Netherlands coach Louis Van Gaal.
Netherlands and Ecuador share spoils | 01:03
Christian Pulisic may have the “Captain America” nickname, but there is no doubt about who is the USA’s leader at the World Cup.
From the moment he was named skipper by US coach Gregg Berhalter on the eve of the tournament, Tyler Adams has been an inspirational captain — on and off the pitch.
The 23-year-old defensive midfielder was arguably the key figure in the USA’s journey into the last 16. In Tuesday’s nerve-shredding 1-0 win over Iran — the Leeds midfielder was a towering presence, a beacon of calm authority in a game that ended with the Americans under siege. His nine tackles won in the tournament is second only to Morocco’s Achraf Hakimi.
“His leadership has been vital to us from day one,” Berhalter said. “In this World Cup, he’s been extremely focused and his play has been outstanding over the course of these three games. He’s been performing lights out.
“When you start talking about captain types, Tyler fits a very specific role. He’s the general, he’s the strategist. He’s the guy that goes out there and leads by example. When he talks, people listen.”
There was a major concern over American star Christian Pulisic after he suffered a pelvic contusion following a heavy collision while scoring the winning goal in Tuesday’s 1-0 victory over Iran.
The 24-year-old was subsequently substituted and went to hospital following the game for tests.
But he returned to training on Friday and was officially cleared to play, as announced by the US team.
However, there remain concerns over Norwich striker Sargent, who also picked up a knock in the win over Iran. “With Christian we’re hopeful, with (Josh) a little less so,” Berhalter said. “But we’ll see. At this stage of the tournament it’s go time. If you can push through it, you do. I’m sure he’ll have that mindset.”
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