Group C and D have come to a close on Wednesday, providing jam-packed drama, heartbreak and comeback stories. Thursday promises to be full of more surprises, and we wait to see who steps up for Germany, and whether Japan and Costa Rica can add to the upsets of the 2022 World Cup.
Be sure to check in with ESPN throughout the tournament as we bring you the latest from Qatar. Here's what you might have missed from Wednesday's World Cup happenings, and a look ahead to what's next on Thursday.
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Joy for Argentina, heartbreak for Mexico
Another day of drama, edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting soccer was on show to conclude Group C. In the end, it was heartbreak for Mexico and Saudi Arabia who are headed home, and joy for Argentina and Poland who are through to the last 16. It came down the wire, but Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski, two talismans for their respective countries, are through!
And just as Lewandowski had his penalty saved against Mexico, Messi endured the same against Poland. Who would have thought? Luckily for the Paris Saint-Germain player, teammates Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez stepped up to seal the win.
Of course, Messi is key to Argentina's success, but Wednesday's match showed how important it is that the supporting cast carry the load. Enzo Fernandez is another example alongside Mac Allister and Alvarez of players who can deliver when called upon, and if the Albicelestes are to win the whole thing, every one will need to chip in.
And now we go to the heartbreak. Mexico's 2-1 win over Saudi Arabia was not enough to send them through. They pushed hard for a third goal to get them into second in the group, but ended up conceding in injury time, which sealed their fate.
Goals from Henry Martin and Luis Chavez for Mexico gave El Tri a glimmer of hope in the second half, and as they pushed for a third, Saudi Arabia's Salem Al-Dawsari went through on goal to score from close range, eliminating both sides from the World Cup.
With that, Mexico manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino's future with Mexico is over. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia will always have that massive upset against Messi and Argentina to remember.
Not watching El Tri play in the knockouts will be a first for many of us. The last time Mexico failed to qualify for the knockouts was in 1978.
Wonder who won the World Cup that year? Oh yeah, it was Argentina! Are the stars aligning once again? We shall see...
Germany face consecutive World Cup group stage exits
It all comes down to Thursday for Spain and Germany's World Cup fates. Luis Enrique's side opened the tournament by scoring seven past Costa Rica, and now La Roja are guaranteed to qualify for the round of 16 with a win or draw vs. Japan.
Meanwhile, Hansi Flick's side are in a more precarious position, and need a win against Costa Rica to have any chance of making it to the knockout stages. Germany failed to advance in the 2018 World Cup, and things aren't looking great this time around. Niclas Fullkrug rescued the Germans with his equalizer against Spain, but can he do it against the Central American team?
This World Cup is full of surprises, and anything is possible after Japan beat Germany but then lost to Costa Rica. You can read more here about every possible permutation and how tie-breakers are decided ahead of a massive matchday.
Today's top reads
Luis Enrique talks life and tactics during World Cup with his Twitch chat
Apologies to all the Twitch streamers playing Call of Duty and Among Us (is that still a thing?): The best live-steamer during the World Cup just might be Spanish national team manager Luis Enrique, who goes live every non-matchday to talk about everything from tactics to his dislike of cheese. Can we get a Hype Train going?!
Dutch-born USMNT star Sergino Dest has a date with destiny vs. Netherlands
Sergino Dest was instrumental in the USA's big win over Iran to advance, but now the Dutch-American must face his countrymen as the Netherlands wait in the knockout round for the USA. "I know almost every single guy over there," Dest told ESPN's Jeff Carlisle of the Dutch team. Should be interesting!
Iran's Saied Ezatolahi embodied the despair of World Cup defeat
It doesn't matter where you were born or who you were rooting for after the USA-Iran game: It's hard not to feel something when you witness the Iranian player's dreams being crushed. Saied Ezatolahi was Iran's midfield enforcer, and not the player you'd expect to be sobbing, but the heartbreak of the World Cup is unique and acute.
Your best bets (odds via Caesars Sportsbook)
If you're looking to bet on the World Cup, ESPN contributors Paul Carr, Dan Thomas and Dalen Cuff are here to give you key tips on odds, options and futures. Here's what we have for the Thursday's matches.
Group E: Japan (+750) vs. Spain (-250), Draw (+340)
Carr: Japan likely need a win to advance, so at some point they'll have to shift into attack mode, if Spain will let them. Either way, the game flow should result in plenty of scoring chances. Each team's games have had 5.5 expected goals so far, and I think that trend continues. At -135, I like over 2.5 goals in this one.
Cuff: One of the shock results of this tournament was Japan losing to Costa Rica after beating the Germans. Spain will possess and control the ball the majority of the match but Japan is athletic and talented they can hit on the break. I think the over is the right play like Paul does, but I also think both teams to score +100 is a solid move.
Group E: Costa Rica (+2100) vs. Germany (-1100), Draw (+900)
Carr: How can this be anything but a Germany romp? Admittedly, I thought the same thing about Japan's match against Costa Rica, but I suspect Los Ticos will be emotionally drained after their win. Germany has a history of pounding lesser opponents at the World Cup, and goals scored could matter for Germany if Japan keeps it close with Spain. Germany should come out strong and attack early and often to eliminate all doubt. I'll take over 1.5 goals in the first half at +115.
Cuff: The Germans can play a high line and will dominate this match. I could see Costa Rica possibly getting their best chances in transition. That said, I ultimately think the Germans control this match and their opponent in a match they will play to win from the outset. It's hard to find any value in playing this match, but Jamal Musiala has been knocking on the door to score. He's +130 for anytime goal I think he gets one on Thursday.
Group F: Croatia (+170) vs. Belgium (+160), Draw (+225)
Carr: I've been betting against Belgium the whole tournament, and I'm not stopping now. Croatia may not have the pace that Canada and Morocco used to trouble Belgium. But the midfield should dominate the center of the pitch, and the young Croatian defense has only allowed 16 shots and 0.8 expected goals so far. That won't help Belgium's scoring woes, so I'm taking Croatia to win at +170.
Cuff: The Belgians have been one of the more disappointing teams thus far. I didn't expect much out of them in terms of threatening to win the tournament, but I thought they were still capable of playing good, inspired football. They're not. I'm not sure they even want to be on the field together. I like Croatia to win +170 as well.
Group F: Canada (+260) vs. Morocco (+105), Draw (+240)
Carr: Morocco are one of three teams that didn't allow a goal in the first two group matches, and they'll be comfortable defensively with whatever Canada throw at them. Having already been eliminated, Canada might be spent from the opening whistle, or they might wear down later in the match, which will help a Morocco side that were at their best late against Belgium. Morocco to win at plus-money.
Cuff: Canada is in their first World Cup since 1986. As one of the hosts, they'll be back in 2026 as well. This group has pride and despite just running out of gas early against Croatia they battled. I think they'll acquit themselves well, but Morocco is the superior team with everything to play for. Morroco to win is the play, but with the Moroccans tied with the Croatians on 4 points, but 1 goal down on goals difference, it's more likely they could blowout Canada by a few and end up winning the group which pays +225. Worth a sprinkle there.
News and notes
England defender Ben White's World Cup is over after he has flown back home for "personal reasons," according to the Football Association. The Arsenal center-back was yet to play a single minute in Qatar and missed Tuesday's 3-0 win over Wales for what the federation said was illness illness. World Cup rules don't allow for a replacement to be called up, so England manager Gareth Southgate will need to make due with 25 players, starting with Sunday's knockout game against Senegal. In World Cups past, managers only had 23 players, so at least there is more of a buffer this time around.
Remember that joint collective bargaining agreement signed by the US men's and women's national teams earlier this year? Now that the men have reached the knockout stage in Qatar, the women will earn more than they earned for winning the 2019 Women's World Cup. That's because now the US teams split their prize money evenly, and FIFA is offering $440 million in prize money for the 2022 men's World Cup, but only offered $30 million for the 2019 Women's World Cup. The US Soccer Federation has taken matters into its own hands, creating its own even split after the women filed a lawsuit in 2019. Meanwhile, FIFA, the organizer of the World Cup, has not closed the huge gap between the two tournaments -- even as the Women's World Cup sets new records in viewership and attendance -- for reasons that FIFA has never explained.
The Australian men's national team -- known as the Socceroos, one of the best nicknames in soccer -- have returned to the World Cup's round of 16 for the first time since 2006. With a 1-0 upset win over Denmark on Wednesday to close the group stage, the Socceroos advance, the Danes go home, and this World Cup keeps delivering unpredictable results. Team Chaos reigns again!
If there's one player who has dominated headlines during this World Cup, it has to be Cristiano Ronaldo. Just before he boarded a plane to Qatar, he threw just about everyone at Manchester United under the proverbial bus, and he did it as publicly as possible. Then two days before Portugal's first game, Man United terminated his contract. And more recently, as Portugal beat Uruguay, Ronaldo tried to take credit for a goal he didn't even score. It's been a lot. Well, here's the latest: a club in Saudi Arabia has offered him a deal worth more than £300 million, sources told ESPN's Rob Dawson on Wednesday. Ronaldo is said to be putting off a decision until after the World Cup, but it doesn't look like European clubs are all that interested...
What else caught our eye
Everyone's favorite pundit, ESPN's own Stephen A. Smith, has offered his take for the USA's round-of-16 knockout game against the Netherlands on Saturday: The US isn't that good, and no one expects the Americans to win, so stateside fans should enjoy their World Cup while it lasts, even if it only lasts as long as Saturday.
He's not wrong. The Americans have scored just twice in the group stage, and their attack doesn't seem poised to get any better, unless maybe coach Gregg Berhalter decides to give Jesus Ferreira his first minutes of the tournament and the striker lights it up. Or maybe Gio Reyna will finally start and go off on the Netherlands. That doesn't seem likely, especially against a good Dutch side, but who knows -- weirder things have happened at a World Cup. Either way, the Netherlands are definitely the favorites for Saturday's match, so we should probably all heed Stephen A.'s advice and check our expectations at the door.
Matches on tap for Thursday
Group F: Canada vs. Morocco (Al Thumama Stadium; 10 a.m. ET)
Oh, Canada. The Canadians are out of the World Cup already, even though, let's be honest, they deserved to beat Belgium in their opener, which would've put them in a much different position. Morocco, meanwhile, guarantee themselves a spot in the knockout round if they win or draw, but even a loss could get them through depending on the other Group F game.
Group F: Croatia vs. Belgium (Ahmad bin Ali Stadium Stadium; 10 a.m. ET)
Belgium haven't looked great in Qatar, but if they find a way to win, they are guaranteed to advance to the knockout round. As for Croatia: a draw or a win and they are in. But Group F is a close one, so you'll want to take a deep dive into all the scenarios to see how losing and drawing teams can be the ones to advance. All eyes are sure to be on whether Belgium -- with talented players like Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard -- can get their attack together and stop the infighting where players are openly accusing one another of being too old and too slow at this World Cup.
Group E: Costa Rica vs. Germany (Al Bayt Stadium; 2 p.m. ET)
Everything is on the line for this one. Germany must beat Costa Rica to even have a chance to advance to the knockout round, but Germany will also need Spain to win the Group E's other game. Otherwise, if Spain lose, Germany would need to somehow make up a goal differential of eight in a win -- probably not a good bet. Meanwhile, a win for Costa Rica is enough to get them into the knockout round. Even if Costa Rica draw, if Spain wins, they are in, but not if Spain loses (unless Costa Rica makes up a goal differential of 13). Did you get all that? If not, you can check out our longer explanation.
Group E: Japan vs. Spain (Khalifa International Stadium; 2 p.m. ET)
If you looked at the previous blurb for the Costa Rica-Germany game, you already know that Group E is tight, and you know that a lot is riding on the result of this game. Spain are into the round of 16 with a win or draw, and Japan are in if they win. Japan's coach Hajime Moriyasu has made no bones about the fact that European teams, like Spain, are well ahead of Japan, but ESPN's Gabriel Tan wonders if that attitude is setting up Moriyasu's team to play scared in a must-win scenario.