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Age likely to count as the World Cup knockout phase approaches

 As the group stage of the World Cup comes to an end, the reality of winning this competition emerges in the forefront of the minds of the remaining teams. They will need to be well conditioned and fit to compete hard over the next fortnight and age is a relevant factor. Of the fancied teams, only Germany have departed and the abiding lesson to take from their experience appears to be that a team needs to be kept fresh over time.

Their core group that landed in 2010 as a band of thrilling young players and realised its potential in 2014 with a World Cup win started to creak at Euro 2016. Sami Khedira, in particular, looked like he had seen better days, yet here he was two years on starting both the games that Germany lost and in which they looked most defensively vulnerable. 

Ever more, football is becoming a younger man’s game, with speed paramount and maintaining a level of performance fit for the top tier beyond the age of 30 becomes harder still. Perhaps Germany were on the cusp of this, and only failure has emphasised the reality that they have been unable to move on from their title winning core.

Questions will now surround Thomas Müller and possibly even Mesut Özil as to whether they are able to perform at the absolute peak required to compete deep into this kind of competition. Muller’s goalscoring in particular has dropped off across the last couple of seasons while could Ozil’s edge been blunted by seasons within the creeping mediocrity of latter era Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal? Harsh? Possibly so, but unless sentimentality perseveres it is hard to see Germany’s feted generation regrouping once more for another international tournament. Not after this.

That’s the essence of a World Cup: it allows countries to draw a line under past achievements and transition, but often they have to fail to understand that.

Spain exist in a similar flux, and largely due to having landed on what is generally deemed to be the “soft” side of the draw, are now favoured by some judges to contend. They too have the similar problem to Germany insofar as a fair handful of their squad are living legends and date back to their World Cup and European Championship winning sides of 2010 and 2012, and even as far back as their Euro 2008 winners.

Andrés Iniesta, David Silva, Gerard Piqué, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets and Sergio Ramos all date back to the 2012 vintage, at least. They are hugely decorated and experienced players and have started every Spain game so far, but they’ve also largely been the core of the flop 2014 World Cup side and the Euro 2016 team that limped out against Italy. Another two years on, can it really be possible that better days remain?

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Isco, Diego Costa and David De Gea are the only three players from outside that core to have started all three games, and Spain appear to be struggling to effectively transition to their next generation. They have had the better of each game they have played, but the results haven’t quite followed and it remains to be seen if this Spain team has the legs to play another four progressively trickier fixtures. On balance, and with a big question mark over Fernando Hierro’s capabilities in decisive moments, Spain could be as vulnerable as any of the tournament favourites to a well-organised, more vigorous team.

And that feels like another takeaway from this tournament. While none of the traditional giants have impressed with a sweeping run of form, the second tier has stepped up.

Croatia won all three games conceding just once, Uruguay won their three games and allowed none. Denmark and Switzerland qualified unbeaten and Sweden came up with a huge performance to nearly hold Germany then managed to regroup to beat Mexico. Betting markets might favour teams with World Cup heritage, but few of these sides will be swept aside routinely, and at least two of them are guaranteed to take quarter-final slots. 

The knockout stage is nearly upon us and we can only hope that teams embrace a philosophy designed to enable them to win rather than an ethos that prioritises not losing. However, the bottom line is the winner of this tournament will have to emerge victorious from the emotional turmoil of four knockout fixtures, each of which could feature extra time and penalties. That’s a minimum of 360 minutes and a possible 480 minutes of play, all within just 13 to 16 days.

It’s a huge workload on top of a long season for most of the participants. The winners will have earned their plaudits.

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