The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar is starting to heat up. The group stage is in the rear-view mirror and the knockout stages begin in less than 24 hours, with the United States taking on the Netherlands. In came 32 teams and now only 16 remain. More will be going home in the next few days as the pretenders are weeded out by the contenders.
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Group stages tend to be where the World Cup is at its most surprising, as the minutes build up in these players' legs, the quality and depth of the traditional powers tends to show and that is even more likely with the tight turnarounds from the group stage. If there is a team capable of springing a shock, it might just be the U.S., who have the intensity to disrupt the more sedate approach the Netherlands favor. Once it gets to the last eight, one could make a case for almost any team winning it; the England-France and Spain-Portugal matchups could either be crackers or standoffs decided by the barest of margins.
The brackets seem to be leading Argentina and Brazil inexorably toward each other, another game that could go in absolutely any direction, but on the assumption that Neymar is available again, I would make the Seleçao slight favorites both in that match and to win the tournament outright. With the exception of their brilliant No. 10 they have quality to deal with any injuries and drop-off in form and their defense has looked rock solid so far.
What has been a topsy-turvy World Cup will begin to stabilize now that we're reaching the knockout stages. Teams have had three games to work their kinks out and Brazil, despite their injuries, have been too strong defensively to be broken down easily. France are likely the strongest attack remaining in the World Cup, but if Portugal give Rafael Leao more minutes, they could make a deep run in the World Cup. The United States have a winnable match against the Netherlands, but inexperience will show as they come undone in the second half of their match.
Despite Lionel Messi's misses from the penalty spot, I'm still backing Argentina to win it all because they can open teams up in attack or shut them down with their defense. As many teams have weaknesses somewhere, it's hard to find a major one in Argentina. The only way I can see them toppled is by self-inflicted mistakes.
A wild group stage makes way for what could be an even more bonkers knockout stage. Some big teams have gone home, but the true contenders -- Brazil, Argentina, England and France -- remain. Spain are a team that can shine or lay an egg, while the Netherlands, Japan, Morocco and Switzerland have nothing to lose. I suspect South America's big two make a deep run, while France again make the final. In the end, the Samba Boys do it again and for the first time in 20 years.
This bracket is mostly chalk, with Morocco as the notable exception. They played an extremely impressive group stage, even if their group turned out to be easier than expected with Belgium imploding and Croatia showing their age. Still, Portugal have seemed somewhat less than impressive, especially carrying Cristiano Ronaldo up front. And Japan provided the blueprint for how to upset Spain.
England's defense, meanwhile, has been great, and while France have looked strong there are only so many injuries you can fade, and eventually even a side as deep as Didier Deschamps' is going to get stretched too thin. And then there's Brazil and Argentina. Despite a brief wobble, Lionel Messi and company still look as good as anybody, and the world's best player is having another excellent tournament. While for Brazil, Neymar's health remains a giant question. And while their depth can take them far, can it really be enough without their star?
It's finally Messi's time.
Everyone can win and anyone can lose. That's the main lesson out of these chaotic matches in the group stage. Those matches have undoubtedly set the tone for some possible upsets in the knockout rounds. Spain and Argentina snuck into the round of 16 and that may motivate them to be more clinical. USA's relentless efforts on defense could frustrate some more teams along the way. France's player management could pay off all the way to the final, but Messi will dazzle through the knockout rounds to the podium.
The group stage has reshuffled the deck, and pre-tournament predictions no longer reflect the reality of the knockout draw. No single team emerged with maximum points, so there is no strong favorite between Argentina, Brazil, and France -- the three frontrunners. All three of those picks have already been beaten, but the trio have also looked more convincing than the likes of the Netherlands, England and Spain. Switzerland arguably look the best bet of the surprise qualifiers to go one step further while Portugal have looked the least convincing in Qatar. I still believe that Lionel Messi will hold the World Cup trophy aloft at Lusail Iconic Stadium come Dec. 18.
It's impossible for me to deduct any points away from the Brazilian team after they had to rotate nine players for their final group-stage game against Cameroon, a 1-0 loss for Tite's men. My hot take is that I believe they have enough in the tank to win without the services of Neymar, but it may take some time to adjust with life without their No. 10. Rodrygo has the potential to fill Neymar's role to a degree and Vinicius Junior and Richarlison will need to score when it matters for them to win without Neymar.
We've seen a ton of heavyweights lose in the group stage, so why not challenge our traditional logic and fade from the chalked picks. Give me Morocco over Spain in what promises to be a home game for the well-traveled fans of the Atlas Lions. I am in love with what Japan, led by manager Hajime Moriyasu, have done thus far. This is Cristiano Ronaldo's last hurrah, and what better way to send him off than having him face his Portuguese-speaking friends from South America. Neymar (if healthy) vs. Ronaldo for all the marbles.
Despite a slow start in their opening clash, I still expect Argentina to win the competition at the end. The expected semifinal between Messi's team and Brazil will be the most awaited clash of the tournament, one year after Argentina won the Copa America against that same Brazil. On the other side of the bracket, I see England and France as the strongest sides and one between them will be the other finalist in my opinion.