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Previewing the World Cup's round of 16: Who's in, who's out and storylines to watch

Japan played like they can beat anyone (and they did, topping both Spain and Germany). Brazil is still the favorite to win it all, even as they wait to see if their star striker Neymar can return from injury. And the U.S., led by team captain Tyler Adams, has looked better than expected.
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images; Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images; Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images
Japan played like they can beat anyone (and they did, topping both Spain and Germany). Brazil is still the favorite to win it all, even as they wait to see if their star striker Neymar can return from injury. And the U.S., led by team captain Tyler Adams, has looked better than expected.

This year's World Cup has already been a soccer spectacle: Steamrolls, upsets, dramatic goals, penalty kicks, pelvic contusions, tears of joy, tears of devastation, mere millimeters of shoulder and soccer ball making all the difference between elimination and ecstasy.

And that was just the group stage.

Now, the knockout stage begins. A thrilling mix of Goliaths and Davids alike are set in a bracket of 16. Each will play until only one remains undefeated, crowned the champion for four years of glory and bragging rights.

And a true World Cup it is this year: For the first time ever, teams from all six populated continents are represented in the knockout stage, including two teams from Africa and two teams from Asia. No team from outside Europe or South America has ever played in a World Cup final. This year, six teams hope to break that streak.

When are the games? Who should you root for? Who's got the best shot at winning it all? Here's your conversation guide to the round of 16, along with a game-by-game preview, as we head into the weekend:

I like winners. Who should I root for?

There's no sure thing in the World Cup, but Brazil appears to be the top dog – not surprising for the winningest team in World Cup history. Although it's struggled in the knockout stage since winning their last trophy in 2002, this year Brazil has drawn a relatively easy path to the finals.

Other safe picks include France, Argentina and Spain, all of whom looked dominant at times in group stage play. Argentina is led, of course, by Lionel Messi, one of the greatest players of all time. France, the 2018 winner, has the electric Kylian Mbappé, who at 23 already has too many noteworthy statistics and records to list them all – just know he's in historic company with the likes of Pelé and Ronaldo. And Spain is hoping to rekindle the magic of its 2010 World Cup win with a suite of new young phenoms, including the 20-year-old midfielder Pedri, who was crowned the best young player in Europe last year.

Who's the plucky underdog I can bandwagon?

The trendy pick is Japan, who notched two electric group stage wins against heavyweights Spain and Germany with tenacious play that made the most of limited opportunities. The Samurai Blue has never before won a game in the knockout round; Monday's match against Croatia could be its first.

Another option is Morocco, who may be the biggest surprise of the tournament in helping take out Belgium with a 2-0 win. It's only the second time Morocco has advanced to the knockout round, and it too is looking for their first-ever win in this round – though it has a tough draw with Spain.

Most notable exits from the group stage

Belgium is officially at the end of an era: Its so-called "Golden Generation" of players had led the team to a third-place finish just four years ago, and this year it was considered a favorite to win it all. Instead, it's out already after a surprise 2-0 loss to Morocco and a disappointing 0-0 draw against Croatia on Thursday.

Germany, too, felt the sting of elimination after it failed to overcome their stunning 2-1 loss to Japan. The 2014 winners have now failed to advance the two World Cups since. Uruguay had a similar exit after drawing with South Korea to open the tournament, failing to advance even after besting Ghana 2-0 in its final game.

A look at each game in the Round of 16

Netherlands v. USA (Saturday, Dec. 3, 10:00 a.m. ET): The Netherlands' squad cruised to advancement in a relatively easy group. Dutch forward Cody Gakpo is the standout for his team with a goal in each of the three group games, making him one of the top scorers in the World Cup so far. The U.S. has the goods on defense – it didn't allow a single goal in the run of play during the group stage – so, instead, its challenge will be scoring. The Americans have managed just two goals so far, and Christian Pulisic was involved in both. Pulisic has been cleared to play Saturday after his injury versus Iran, but whether he's truly at 100% could be the determining factor for the U.S.

Argentina v. Australia (Saturday, Dec. 3, 2:00 p.m. ET): The expectations for Argentina were sky-high as it came into what's likely to be Messi's final World Cup. The team stumbled early with a historic upset loss to Saudi Arabia – maybe the biggest upset in the tournament's history – but has since righted the ship with 2-0 victories over both Mexico and Poland. Messi hopes to lead Argentina back to the final for the first time since 2014, when they lost to Germany 1-0. Anything less will be a disappointment. While Australia may have the best nickname at the World Cup, the Socceroos do not have the best chances of a deep run – their advancement was a surprise that hinged on a 1-0 upset of Denmark, and they will need an even bigger upset to advance past Argentina.

France v. Poland (Sunday, Dec. 4, 10:00 a.m. ET): Through its first two matches, defending World Cup champion France looked like the team to beat this year too, with its systematic offense smothering opponents. Mbappé has three goals already in this tournament. France is the favorite, by a lot. This isn't to say Poland doesn't have a shot: The white and red have their own star in Robert Lewandowski, the 34-year-old striker who's among the best players in the world. And Lewandowski is hungry for World Cup glory: Though he has scored more than 500 goals over his career, he only just scored his first-ever World Cup goal last week.

England v. Senegal (Sunday, Dec. 4, 2:00 p.m. ET): The expectations are perennially high for England, who always fields top-tier teams yet has not finished better than 4th place since winning the 1966 World Cup. Ouch. Its 6-2 romp over Iran showed what this squad is capable of – raining in goals, especially from set pieces like corner kicks. But so too did the nil-nil draw with the U.S., where the Three Lions offense struggled to build chances out of the midfield. Senegal is the top-ranked African team left in the tournament. It's playing without its star, the world-class striker Sadio Mané, who was injured just before the World Cup. But even without Mané, Senegal is no easy out, with a high-level energy and pace of play that could pose a challenge for England.

Japan v. Croatia (Monday, Dec. 5, 10:00 a.m. ET): Japan has leapt into fan-favorite territory after its unlikely emergence as winner of Group E, besting both Germany and Spain. The team won both games despite its opponents dominating the time of possession (74% for Germany, 82% for Spain) – it's dangerous despite limited chances. Japan will head into Monday's match feeling like it's capable of beating any team left in the World Cup, and it's true. It's an unfortunate momentum draw for Croatia, who is the better team on paper. Croatia returns much of a core team that made it all the way to the finals in the 2018 World Cup, but it's often struggled in international play since, including two nil-nil draws in group play this year. This one's a tossup.

Brazil v. South Korea (Monday, Dec. 5, 2:00 p.m. ET): Brazil entered the World Cup ranked #1 and cruised to the top spot in its group. But its star Neymar was injured in Brazil's opening match with Serbia – his return for the knockout round is still an open question. With or without Neymar, Brazil will be a heavy favorite over their opponent South Korea, which snuck into the Round of 16 with a stunning (and delightful) upset Friday over Portugal. South Korea's Premier League forward Hwang Hee-chan came into the crucial game as a substitute after missing the first two matches with a hamstring injury; his sneaky stoppage time goal sent his team through.

Morocco v. Spain (Tuesday, Dec. 6, 10:00 a.m. ET): Morocco's upstart run may meet its buzzsaw here in Spain, who backslid into this spot in the Round of 16 after an upset loss to Japan. Spain has only won the World Cup once, in 2010, but this year's squad is a nice mix of experienced veterans and young playmakers getting their first taste at World Cup play. Spain will be favored – but if Morocco can best Belgium 2-0 (and it would have been 3-0 if not for a disallowed goal), it can beat anyone.

Portugal v. Switzerland (Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2:00 p.m. ET): Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, perhaps the most famous soccer player in the world, has accomplished everything there is to do in soccer – except win a World Cup. At 37 years old, this is likely his last shot to bring the trophy home to Portugal, and the team around him is stacked. Yet Portugal has underachieved lately, and Switzerland has come on strong. The Swiss went toe-to-toe with Europe's best teams in international play in 2021. In June, these two squads faced off twice and split the wins. But Ronaldo may have been the difference maker: He sat out the first game, which the Swiss won 1-0, then returned for the rematch and scored twice en route to a 4-0 Portugal romp.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.