by Trevor Whenham - 06/28/2006
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We're down to the last few games of the World Cup. When you're making your picks for the quarter-finals and beyond there often isn't much to separate the teams. The decisions, then, often come down to the small little things you noticed about the teams that are advancing that put them ahead or behind their next opponents. With that in mind, here are 19 things I learned about the quarterfinalists in the round of 16:
Refs are going to be a factor - The officials will undoubtedly affect the outcome of games, but it's hard to know how. They were overactive in the Dutch-Portugal game and let it get completely out of hand. They swallowed their whistles in the Ukraine victory and let several possible calls go. They essentially gave Italy the win with a very dubious penalty. They are truly the X-factor here.
Germany has three straight shutouts - The home team is playing great defense to match their great offense. They have been the most rounded and consistent team so far and are truly dangerous.
Michael Ballack may be hurt again - Ballack, the German captain, looked a bit off at times in the last game, and he missed practice Sunday with a foot problem. He is expected to return against Argentina, but he has already missed one game this tournament with a leg injury. Germany would miss him.
Did Argentina peak too soon? - Argentina looked completely deadly in their first two games, but then a lackluster performance in a meaningless game against the Dutch followed by an unnecessarily difficult win against Mexico must have fans and backers concerned. You never would have guessed them to be underdogs against Germany, but they are for now and they deserve to be.
Maxi Rodriguez may be key to Argentinean victory - Messi, Rinquelme, Crespo and the other superstars get all the attention, but Rodriguez deserves as much credit as anyone for where the team is. He scored the winning goal against Mexico with one of the most amazing plays you will ever see. He leads the team with three goals and the midfielder has quietly been a real spark on both sides of the ball for the team. His teammates need to follow his example against the Germans.
Ronaldo is still fat, but not too fat - I was about ready to write him off after the first two games, but Ronaldo is still a huge factor. He has three goals, including an amazing step-over to score early against Ghana to set the tone. He's still dangerous and seems to be getting better as the stakes get higher.
Where's Ronaldhino? - The so-called best player in the world hasn't even been noticeable so far this tournament. His presence would certainly help his team.
Brazil is incredibly explosive - The team is not as artistic and exciting to watch as they have been in the past, but they are perhaps more dangerous than ever before. They are at a different level over the last two games then they were in the first two, and they clearly look like they have a whole lot left that they aren't using yet. They're still the favorites and still deserve to be.
Brazil has sketchy defending - The 3-0 score against Ghana was flattering to the Brazilian defenders. Ghana had too many good chances and just couldn't capitalize on them. They need to tighten up next time out, because the French can take advantage of chances better than Ghana.
France found their offense at the right time - They started out like the France we have come to expect internationally, but they potted two against Togo and three against an impressive Spanish side. They are finally taking advantage of the tools they have.
Zinedine Zidane isn't ready to retire yet - He took the free kick that led to second goal and scored the third goal himself. He had to earn back a starting spot after a stint on bench, but he's now in form and set for a rematch of the 1998 final where he scored two goals against Brazil.
Portugal is wounded - They will lose two starters to red cards and Cristiano Ronaldo is only 80 percent likely to play after a thigh injury. They will be challenged to match up to England with those holes.
Portugal has absolutely no discipline - After a player famously punched a ref last World Cup, you would think they would have learned. The ridiculous number of cards in the Dutch game, led by a terrible tackle after the play had ended by Deco, and several missed calls -- like the headbutting by Figo -- show that this team still can't control its temper. England, if they're smart, will exploit that.
England has yet to play well - They looked incredibly flat against Ecuador. They are doing enough to win, but just barely. They have been lucky to have an easy draw and will have no one but themselves to blame if the don't beat Portugal. Brazil in the quarters is another issue entirely. They have tried many things, including the bizarre choice to play just one striker against Ecuador, but it hasn't woken them up. They say they aren't worried about their level of play, but I'm a bit worried for them.
Beckham is annoyingly good - Becks is everywhere and you just want to hate the guy, but he has an annoying ability to rise up when needed. He has largely been invisible and ineffective, but he appears when he is most needed, like the sick free kick he scored on in the last game. As the pressure grows, he'll be key for the English chances.
Italy should have beat Australia by more - Australia was one of the great stories of this tournament, but Italy is a much, much better team. That it took Italy so long to win that game is of huge concern. They can and must play better. Fortunately, Ukraine is the easiest opponent left in the tournament.
Ukraine owes me an apology - That game against Switzerland was the worst game I have ever watched. It was totally listless and pathetic. They only won because the Swiss apparently forgot how to hit the net. They desperately need to find another level if they don't want to go home. Italy will crucify them if they play like that again.
Was it Australia's heart? - If Australia's grittiness was Italy's problem then they should have an easier time against Ukraine. The Ukrainians apparently have no heart, unless they are saving it up for later.
The draw is very relevant - Despite the high stakes, or perhaps because of them, teams are playing tight and two games were tied after regulation in this round. This betting tie will continue to be a factor. England - Portugal seems the likeliest spot for one to occur this round, given Portugal's strong defense and England's lack of punch.