By DAVID MOSSE
Spain's remarkable run of success recently might carry over into another tournament with Julen Lopetegui's side looking like a serious contender to capture the FIFA U-20 World Cup after blitzing through the group stage in dominating fashion. Sergio Canales has been impressive form, while strikers Rodrigo and Alvaro Vasquez can't stop scoring.
The only team with more impressive numbers so far has been Nigeria, which topped Group D thanks to a 2-0 victory over previously unbeaten Saudi Arabia in the final match. The Super Eagles are just one of several teams to be rewarded for an attack-minded approach in what has been a highly entertaining tournament through 36 games. Coach John Obuh even sent out a lineup with four strikers against the Saudis.
Brazil bounced back from a disappointing 1-1 draw with Egypt to hammer Austria and Panama in the subsequent two games, with Oscar and Philippe Coutinho pulling the strings. Ney Franco's side looks the strongest of the four South American teams remaining. Six-time champions Argentina deserve respect, however, after navigating through a difficult group that included both Mexico and England.
Although Juan Iturbe has yet to find the back of the net, both he and Erik Lamela are potential match-winners against any opponent. Lamela capped off a terrific all-around performance with a beautiful strike in the 1-0 win over Mexico, though Juan Carlos Chavez's side recovered to advance as well.
Uruguay was without a doubt the biggest disappointment of the group stage, failing to record a single victory after finishing second in the South American championships earlier this year. Hosts Colombia more than picked up the slack with three straight wins, and Los Cafeteros are a major threat in what should be an electrifying knockout stage.
Here is a closer look at the Round of 16 matchups:
Argentina vs. Egypt: Tuesday, 6 p.m., ESPNU
Argentina is one of only three teams not to concede a goal, but the back-line will be tested by Egyptian star Mohamed Ibrahim, who fired home a sensational hat-trick in the 4-0 win over Austria. Roberto Pereyra misses out for the South Americans through suspension, while captain German Pezzella has been ruled out due to injury.
Portugal vs. Guatemala: Tuesday, 6 p.m.
With 11 goals conceded and just one scored, Guatemala’s goal difference is the worst of any team ever to advance to the second stage of an U-20 World Cup, so this looks to be a great draw for Portugal. The Lusitanians topped Group C thanks to the talent of Nelson Oliveira and strong leadership at the back from Nuno Reis.
Colombia vs. Costa Rica: Tuesday, 9 p.m.
The hosts should continue to count with strong support and will be confident against Los Ticos after winning all three group games. Midfielder James Rodriguez has been as good as advertised, but captain Pedro Franco, Juan Cabezas and Luis Muriel have also impressed for Eduardo Lara's side, which looks capable of going all the way.
Cameroon vs. Mexico: Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPNU
Mexico needs to improve its finishing with Ulises Davila and Erick Torres two of the main culprits so far. Taufic Guarch missed a penalty against England but made up for it with a wonder strike in the win over North Korea that sealed qualification. Cameroon will be minus defender Ghislain Mvom, who was sent off against Portugal.
Nigeria vs. England: Wednesday, 6 p.m.
England squeaked through as one of the third-place teams and now faces arguably the most impressive side in the competition. Goalkeeper Jack Butland figures to be busy against a Nigerian attack that features two talented strikers in Ahmed Musa and Olarenwaju Kayode, who have combined for six goals already.
Spain vs. South Korea: Wednesday, 6 p.m., ESPNU
Only Spain could afford to leave home the likes of Thiago Alcantara and Iker Munian and still emerge as perhaps the strongest team overall. While several players have impressed so far, Sergio Canales will be the chief threat for the Koreans. After a wasted season at Real Madrid, Canales appears hungry to rebuild his reputation.
Brazil vs. Saudi Arabia: Wednesday, 9 p.m., ESPNU
Philippe Countinho also suffered through difficult moments at Inter Milan, particularly after Leonardo replaced Rafa Benitez, but the 19-year-old has been in great form in Colombia. His three goals lead the team, and right back Danilo is probably the most versatile player in the entire tournament. Nevertheless, Brazil will be tested against the Saudis.
France vs. Ecuador: Wednesday, 9 p.m.
France arrived at this tournament with big expectations, but Francis Smerecki's side has been disappointing so far and faces a tricky opponent in Ecuador. While Gael Kakuta and Yannis Tafer are struggling to exert much influence, Alexandre Lacazette has come off the bench in all three games and provided a nice spark.