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England’s defender Phil Jones (top) vies for the ball against Belgium’s midfielder Marouane Fellaini during their Group G match at the Kaliningrad Stadium in Kaliningrad Thursday night. PHOTOS:AFP

Only six countries have won the World Cup in the last 50 years, but a thrilling group stage in Russia has increased the possibility of a fresh name at least making it to the final.

The first phase, featuring just one goalless draw and already a record number of penalties, has been marked by Germany’s stunning exit, their earliest in 80 years.

So after the drama of the last fortnight, who is best set to go far in the knockout rounds?

Of the half-dozen winners of the trophy since 1970, Germany have gone home, while Italy, of course, never even qualified. Meanwhile, France and Argentina play each other next, so only one will make the quarter-finals.

That leaves Spain and Brazil, with the latter fresh from topping their group at a 10th consecutive World Cup even if they have been slow-burners so far.

“This team created high expectations because of what we did in qualifying and in friendlies. But now we are at a World Cup, it’s a new cycle, a new format,” said coach Tite in an attempt to keep feet on the ground.

Neymar has not yet captured his best form, but the five-time champions have other match-winners, not least Philippe Coutinho, and have looked strong at the back.

The standout last-16 tie on paper pits France against Lionel Messi and Argentina, two teams who laboured through the group stage — in Argentina’s case they were lucky to advance at all.

“We didn’t start in the best way. We got ourselves into a real mess,” admitted Javier Mascherano, while France coach Didier Deschamps still seems incapable of getting the very best out of his talented squad.

Argentinians might be happier than anyone at Germany’s elimination, having been knocked out by them at each of the last three World Cups.


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