THE World Cup has now reached the quarter-final stage, but the four games over the next two days will have to go some to match the efforts of the last-16.
Two absolute classics and three penalty shoot-outs made for mountains of drama, completed by England’s shoot-out success against Colombia. Let’s be honest, if England are winning on penalties, then you know it’s a special tournament!
But while people up and down the country get excited about the possibility of England reaching the final, it will be exactly the same for the seven other nations still left standing.
FRANCE v URUGUAY (3pm, today, Nizhny Novgorod)
AFTER spluttering through the group phase, France showed their hand in the thrilling 4-3 win over Argentina, which was more convincing than that scoreline suggested. Kylian Mbappe took the headlines with an absolutely sensational performance, but the teenager won’t find the Uruguayans as generous or naïve as their South American neighbours. The French will have been encouraged by their resilience to come back from 2-1 down and also Paul Pogba’s display in midfield. He was strong, purposeful and dominant – words that have not been used often enough during the last two years at Manchester United.
For a country of 3.5 million people, Uruguay are footballing heavyweights. Never easy to beat, they can rely on four brilliant players – centre halves Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez and strike duo Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez. With that ability to keep it tight and nick a goal, they have a chance in any match against any opponent. That took them past Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal, although they will find it harder against a more cohesive French outfit.
Antoine Griezmann v Diego Godin: As Atletico Madrid team-mates, these two should know all about each other especially as Godin is godfather to Griezmann’s daughter. Both of Griezmann’s goals in Russia have been penalties and there is more in the locker, but Godin is a wily campaigner and an excellent defender with few better on show at the World Cup.
France to shade a very even contest, but they may need extra-time to overcome their opponents – 2-1.
BRAZIL v BELGIUM (Today, 7pm, Kazan)
SO Belgium’s reward for their thrilling comeback against Japan on Monday night is a quarter-final with the tournament favourites. The Belgians showed plenty of character and no little skill to turn it around against the Japanese culminating in Nacer Chadli’s winner with almost the last kick of the game.
But after quarter-final failures in the last two tournaments, this is the defining moment for their ‘Golden Generation’. Roberto Martinez will not be considered an upgrade on Marc Wilmots unless he takes the Red Devils to at least a semi-final. No one has scored more than them in Russia, but the team still seems slightly out of kilter and the deployment of Yannick Carrasco as a left-wing back is a high risk strategy against a top side.
Brazil have reached the last eight with the best defensive record having only conceded once. That has given them the platform to control matches and eventually wear the opposition down. Whether they can dominate Belgium though is another matter. This is a crucial game for their coach, Tite, too. The Brazilians have not beaten a top European side at a World Cup since victory over Germany in the 2002 final and the only way to expunge their humiliation on home soil four years ago is to take home the trophy.
Fernandinho v Kevin De Bruyne: Two of Manchester City’s ‘Holy Trinity’ (David Silva being the other) face each other. Fernandinho replaces the suspended Casemiro in the Brazil midfield and he will be tasked with keeping an eye on his City team-mate, who has been deployed in a slightly deeper role for his country, although he still played an integral part in their winning goal against Japan on Monday.
Brazil’s better balanced team will overcome Belgium’s gifted individuals – 3-1.
ENGLAND v SWEDEN (3pm, tomorrow, Samara)
SO have you all had chance to recover after Tuesday night then? Yes, England survived a last minute equaliser and still won on penalties. That did happen! Now let’s hope the fridge is stocked with food and drink and you know where you’re watching the match. That is the easy bit. Watching England try to reach a first major semi-final for 22 years will bring on the tension and anxiety.
Gareth Southgate has already ticked so many boxes at this World Cup as England manager. He has got the fans back onside. He has made the team more likeable and open with the Media. He has masterminded a penalty shoot-out win and has got through a knock-out game. But why stop there? Despite reaching the last eight, England have still not hit their straps fully and produced that complete 90-minute performance. But if they can play like they did in that opening period against Tunisia, they will be hard to stop.
Now let’s get all those Swedish stereotypes out of the way. The team doesn’t look great on paper, they will be strong and physical and they will make the game ugly if they can. Tick to all those things. But England should win, right? That has been said so many times but England have only won one of the four meetings at major tournaments, albeit the last one, a 3-2 success at Euro 2012. This unheralded Swedish group beat France at home in the qualifiers, finished above Holland, knocked out Italy in the play-offs, topped a group including Germany here at the World Cup, thumped Mexico and outlasted Switzerland. So give the Swedes their due as a deserving quarter-final opponent.
Harry Kane v Andreas Granqvist: It’s the tournament’s Golden Boot versus Sweden’s captain and rock of their defence. With six goals in three matches, Kane is heading the race to be the leading scorer and he is always the man most likely to make something happen for England. Granqvist has been equally assured from the penalty spot, scoring twice against South Korea and Mexico. He had an underwhelming spell at Wigan many years ago, but he is a real leader for his country and he uses his physique to make life difficult for the players he marks. However, Kane represents a real step up from the other strikers he has faced at the World Cup.
This won’t be pretty to watch and the baking heat won’t help the game, but England won’t care if they make it to the semi-finals – 1-0.
RUSSIA v CROATIA (7pm, tomorrow, Sochi)
ONLY the most optimistic supporters in Russia would have expected their team to reach the quarter-finals. Simply getting out of the group and avoiding humiliation would have been considered a success. But having effectively blunted Spain last Sunday, they now have a realistic shot at a semi-final berth. However, whether coach Stanislav Cherchesov can send his team out in such a negative manner again is open to debate. Suddenly, there will be expectation on mighty Russia to see off pesky little Croatia and that brings a different pressure.
On the opposite side of things, Croatia will be happy to try and play second fiddle. It suits their psyche to play the underdog card despite the gifted players at their disposal. They positively ground to a halt against Denmark in the last-eight under the weight of expectation, before goalkeeper Danijel Subasic’s heroics in the ensuing shoot-out. Now the neutrals want to see the team that shone in the win over Argentina, rather than the timid version on offer against the Danes.
Artem Dzyuba v Dejan Lovren: Russia’s target man unsettled crack Spanish duo Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos last Sunday and he’s contributed three goals in his country’s run to the semi-finals. Lovren can be shaky but he is the leader of Croatia’s defence and must stand up to this threat.
Don’t expect a thriller given what is at stake. Croatia to nick it – 1-0.