It’s Uruguay-France and Brazil-Belguim, followed by Russia-Croatia, Sweden-England for coveted semifinal berths
As you would expect, the level of intensity builds incrementally as each World Cup match passes. Trends develop. Underdogs are identified. Favorites play themselves in or out (poor Germany). The fans watching the matches in town squares and pubs grow increasingly edgy.
Well, the time has come.
On Friday, the quarterfinals begin with Uruguay-France and Brazil-Belgium. On Saturday, its Sweden-England and Russia-Croatia.
The semifinals will be played on Tuesday and Wednesday with the championship match coming Sunday, the 15th.
Here’s a look at the quarterfinal match-ups:
Uruguay vs France
If Uruguay needed to provide evidence that it belonged in the final eight, it was provided in the group stage when it emerged without allowing a goal. And then they shutdown Portugal, and its renowned star Christian Ronaldo, with a pair of goals from Edinson Cavani providing victory. But Cavani was injured in the process and ESPN reported he will likely miss this quarterfinal match after not being able to train because of his injured calf. There isn’t anyone on the bench who might adequately replace him.
France is a perennial world power, which was demonstrated again with its 4-3 win over Argentina. Trailing 2-1 early in the second half, the French mercilessly attacked Argentina’s back line which ultimately resulted in a pair of second-half goals from Kylian Mbappe, who is only 19. How talented is Mbappe? He makes $220 million playing professionally for Paris Saint-Germain where he and Cavani are teammates. Keep an eye on France’s midfielder Paul Pogba. He has taken a lot of heat from the French press for not playing well in big matches.
Brazil vs Belgium
Brazil advanced with a hotly-contested win over Mexico, a match essentially dominated by their superstar and captain, Neymar, who has nicely recovered from a broken metatarsal. Their defense, almost flawless (one goal in four matches) will have to deal with the loss of Casemiro, who will miss the match because of multiple yellow cards. Brazil hasn’t defeated a European side in the knockout stage since beating Germany in the World Cup final in 2002. The Brazilians will likely never forget their 7-1 thrashing by Germany is the 2014 quarterfinals.
As poor as Brazil has performed again European teams, Belgium has experienced the same disappointment against South American teams. Never has it won. Never has it even scored. But Belgium been one of the most entertaining clubs in the tournament. Its comeback from a 2-0 deficit to Japan in the final stages seemed almost too miraculous to believe. It has a ton of international talent with the likes of Romelu Lukaku, goalie Thibaut Courtois and Kevin DeBruyne. But it was two substitutes that scored the game-tying and winning goals against Japan.
Russia vs Croatia
If you listen to Vladimir Putin and the boys, you would know the government already considers this World Cup a roaring success, since Russia entered World Cup play as the lowest-ranked team. But things haven’t turned out the way the prognosticators figured, as mighty Spain found out in the round of 16. The Russians played the match quite smartly, certainly in the second half when it was tied 1-1. They hung back, played defense and prayed for penalty shots. And once there, goalie Igor Akinfeev was masterful. Here is something to remember: The last five hosts to play a quarterfinal all made it to the semis (Italy 1990, France 1998, South Korea 2002, Germany 2006 and Brazil 2014).
Much like Russia, the Croatians had to fight their way to the quarterfinals, after allowing only one goal in group play. Exactly like Russia-Spain, Croatia-Denmark went to penalty kicks tied 1-1. And that’s where Croatia prevailed. Croatia’s best player is likely striker Mario Mandzukic, but its midfield and defense are stellar. Croatia’s eight goals in four matches here are as many as it scored in its six previous in their last two World Cups (2006 and 2014).The Croatians do not have a long World Cup history, first making a name for itself by beating Germany in the quarterfinals to set up a third-place finish in its finish in 1998.
Sweden vs England
It is quite possible Sweden would not have made the quarterfinals if not for the bizarre goal by Emil Forsberg that provided the only score of its round of 16 win over Switzerland. Swiss defender Manuel Akanji was in the wrong place at the wrong time and inadvertently deflected Forsberg’s shot into the net. World Cup mavens will recall it was the same kind of goal that allowed the Swiss to knock Italy out of the World Cup. Sweden will be without starting fullback Mikael Lustig due to yellow cards. Sweden’s advancement is also admirable when you remember that one of its great players, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, decided to stay with his Major League Soccer team in Los Angeles instead of playing for Sweden, which is in its first quarterfinal in 24 years.
After being eliminated from three World Cups and six major tournaments over 22 years, England finally advanced by penalty kicks in its win over Columbia in the round of 16. But England had only two shots during the 120 minutes of the match. After the match, England’s John Stones told the world press that Colombia was “probably the dirtiest team” he has ever played against. The match featured 36 fouls and eight yellow cards. England’s captain, Harry Kane, already has six goals at the World Cup.