MOSCOW — Every World Cup group stage has its so-called Group of Death: the section of the draw where a cluster of good teams makes advancement difficult.
This year the knockout stage bracket has one, too.
A tumultuous group stage that saw Brazil start slowly, France going through the motions, and Argentina flirting with elimination — a fate that the defending champion, Germany, did not avoid — has produced a knockout round in which one side of the bracket looks demonstrably tougher than the other.
On one side is a daunting mix of legacy teams, tournament favorites and star power: Brazil, France, Uruguay, Portugal, Mexico, Belgium and Japan. Over here, drawing Argentina — a two-time World Cup champion — qualifies as a welcome relief.
The other side of the bracket features Spain and England, but both enter knowing they wouldn’t meet until the semifinals. Croatia, the only team on this side to win all three of its group-stage matches, presents a tough challenge to both. But the rest — Russia, Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden and Colombia — do not share the same World Cup pedigree, or inspire the same kind of fear, save Colombia.
The seeming imbalance led to a week of discussions in Russia about whether Belgium and England would be better served by tanking their final group-stage match to fall into second, and the “weak” side of the bracket. But the England players were among those playing that down as a fool’s errand.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.