With the business end of the tournament fast approaching, it is only fair to accept that while there have been some truly wonderful moments at this World Cup, the patience of many fans has been tested by a few drab fixtures (France v Denmark, anyone?). However, one can finally reap the rewards of enduring some woeful football, with a captivating set of quarter-final clashes on offer this weekend. By Sunday night, 4 teams will be left standing, and with all contenders laying equal claim to a semi-final spot, nobody would dare guess who will be the winners in the coming days. Well, except for a brave few…
France V Uruguay; Friday July 6, 3pm
By Laura Stack
32 teams have become 8 – and after what has been an incredibly exciting World Cup so far, several mouth watering ties are in store at the quarter-final stages, one of which being the clash between France and Uruguay. While France will be favourites, Uruguay are tipped by many to cause a shock on Friday evening, with Belgium or Brazil awaiting the winners in the semi-final.
There has never been much separating the two countries as they played out goalless draws on two occasions in the group stages of the 2002 and 2010 World Cups. They also clashed in the group stage way back in 1966, with Uruguay holding the advantage on that occasion, winning 2-1.
France topped group C with 7 points from two wins and a draw. In the round of 16, teenager Kylian Mbappé became a global sensation and golden boot contender by scoring two goals in a seven-goal thriller versus Lionel Messi’s Argentina. Uruguay were also unbeaten on their path to the final 8, maintaining a 100 per cent record in the group stage and overcoming Portugal in the round of 16. Two goals from PSG striker Edinson Cavani gave them a 2-1 victory over the reigning European champions.
Les Bleus are expected to be at full strength, with reports that Djibril Sidibe’s ankle injury sustained during training is merely precautionary. Didier Deschamps had another worry in Manchester City defender Benjamin Mendy, who sustained a thigh muscle injury but has reportedly been back in training. Hoping to progress to the next stage, discipline will be vital with Olivier Giroud, Corentin Tolisso, Paul Pogba and Benjamin Pavard all at risk of missing the semi-final should they pick up a yellow card. Midfielder Blaise Matuidi is suspended for this game due to an accumulation of yellow cards, with Ousmane Dembelé expected to replace him. In the Uruguay camp, Cavani is a major injury doubt after limping off in the Portugal game and his performance is likely to be limited, if he is to feature at all. Luis Suarez had a minor injury scare but is expected to be passed fit before Friday evening. Rodrigo Bentancur will be suspended if he is booked against France and Uruguay progress.
It is a tough game to definitively call. France, Euro 2016 finalists, are unbeaten in nine World Cup games against South American opponents, and their win over Argentina showcased their formidable strength. They will look to Antoine Griezmann to deliver, having scored six goals in his last five appearances in the knockout stages of major tournaments. They found the net on four occasions after splitting the Argentinian defence, but Griezmann and Co. will not be afforded the same space and gaps in the Uruguayan defence. Uruguay have won seven matches in a row, with three clean sheets in their last four games, and their defensive cohesion should enable them to cope with the French attack, even if only half of their star forward partnership of Cavani and Suarez is on the field of play. It is difficult to see this game being decided in normal time, so another penalty shootout looks likely.
Brazil V Belgium; Friday July 6, 7pm
By Ronan O’Hanlon
Brazil vs Belgium, a fixture that on paper is worthy of the final, yet neither team has come up against a team of real quality in this tournament so far. Brazil played some pretty uninspiring football against a similarly prosaic Mexico team that only progressed through their group thanks to Germany’s champion’s curse. It seems they have not yet hit their stride; we have not seen the free flowing brand of football we have come to expect from the Canarinha over the years.
As for Belgium, their comeback against Japan suggests that they might finally be ramping up their game to its full potential. On paper Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ has produced one of the best teams of the tournament, if not the best. They possess two proven world-beaters in Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, one more than any other team at this World Cup. Moreover, the Belgian starting XI as a whole contains players who have proven their worth in Europe’s top five leagues.
It’s important to keep in mind, however, that no matter how impressive and miraculous Belgium’s comeback against Japan may have been, it came against a team that has never progressed passed the last 16 in a World Cup; a team that is also the first in history to progress past the group stages on merit of fair play, earning two fewer yellow cards than Senegal. It will be interesting to see if Belgium will stick with their three at the back, as Japan slipped through them like a knife through butter. Yannick Carrasco was a serious weak link struggling with his defensive duties as a makeshift wing-back. This could be a serious issue with the quality and pace that Brazil possess up front. Belgium’s formation so far this tournament has prioritised putting as many of their star players on the pitch as possible while not considering the strengths of the opposition. Martinez will need to be less naïve in his team selection to stand a chance against Brazil.
This is where one of Brazil’s greatest strengths come into play; the depth of their squad. While not many would argue that Belgium have the stronger of the two starting elevens, Brazil undeniably have the stronger bench and while Belgium lack out and out full-backs, Brazil possess two of the best in the world in Dani Alves and Marcelo. Luckily for Belgium, their centre-back trio of Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld are three of the Premier League’s best and are in their prime. However, Brazil have far more depth in defence overall. Brazil’s attacking potency is self-evident but it’s their defensive depth where they really outclass Belgium. Champions League winners with Real Madrid, Marcelo and Casemiro will provide defensive crux of the team. They will be hoping their winning mentality can translate to the rest of their team, although Marcelo will surely still be haunted by the ghosts of that semi-final defeat to Germany in 2014.
This is the first real test either of these two pre-tournament favourites have faced and it will undoubtedly be another highlight of a tournament which has already seen some of the World Cup’s all-time greatest game.
Sweden V England; Saturday July 7, 3pm
By Cameron Hill
They say you measure your own success. This is a mantra to which England certainly subscribe, if their World Cup optimism is anything to go by. Having broken the, “Penalty Shootout Curse,” against Colombia on Tuesday night, more and more English fans are beginning to believe that the elusive trophy will be landing on their shores in two weeks’ time. However, Gareth Southgate will be aware of the tough obstacles ahead. Indeed, if any team is to knock the wheels off the Three Lions’ wagon, it is Sweden.
The Swedes have been very impressive in the tournament to date, with players like Emil Forsberg and captain Andreas Granqvist shining for their side. Notably it has been their rigid defensive formation that has seen them through to their first World Cup quarter-final since 1994. Their back four, which includes Celtic’s Mikael Lustig and Victor Lindelof of Manchester United, have held firm through the group stages, shipping only two goals so far. Both against Germany and included that marvellous Toni Kroos strike at the death. Their round of 16 clash against Switzerland was the perfect showcase of their defensive prowess. The Swedes showed excellent composure against a side which included the sensational Xherdan Shaqiri, with Granqvist leading by example from the back. Their grit and determination was epitomised by manager Janne Andersson’s post-match comments: “We’re not satisfied with what we’ve done – we want to win the next match too.”
For England, Sweden will represent something that they have seldom faced at this World Cup; a team with a strong defence. Expect for Belgium, their opponents so far have been defined by their dull attacking style and porous defence. England demonstrated encouraging attacking play against Colombia, with most players, not just their forwards, playing ball into dangerous areas and bringing a high level of intensity into their game. However, their poor finishing is what has let them down since their opening game against Tunisia, with key players like Raheem Sterling taking too long over the ball before being dispossessed. The Three Lions will have to improve on their precision, as it is likely that Sweden will not afford them as many chances as their previous opponents. Moreover, Sweden are quite a tall team, so drilling crosses into Harry Kane will be out of the question. If they are going to score, Kane and Co.’s efficiency on the ball will be of utmost importance. While they have scored 9 goals so far, 4 of them have been from the penalty spot. Far more creativity and accuracy in open play will be required to trump this well-drilled Swedish team.
This quarter-final promises to be an intriguing battle, an evenly-balanced contest in which any swing in momentum could be decisive. Andersson’s words will echo in his players’ heads; they won’t be satisfied with a quarter-final, not even a semi-final. They want to go one better than in 1958; they want the World Cup. Southgate’s army stand in their way. The difference between him and previous England coaches is his remarkable eye for detail and shrewd tactics. He shares these traits with a certain manager from the 60’s, and if England can pass this Swedish test, who knows; football may be, “coming home,” after all.
Russia V Croatia; Saturday July 7, 7pm
By Ciaran Sunderland
Croatia, perennially the football eccentric’s preference, find themselves in a World Cup quarter-final against the host nation Russia. After a nerve-wracking penalty shootout against Denmark, with Luka Modric stepping up to make amends for his extra-time penalty miss, and Ivan Rakitic slotting home the last crucial penalty to deal the final blow. A courageous display by Danish goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel was not enough to deny the Croatians their advancement. The Croatians could be forgiven if they find themselves dreaming of even further glory in this World Cup with bigger teams failing to advance in the face of inferior competition. After their outstanding display against a hapless Argentina, they must surely fancy their chances against Russia.
Having come third in 1998, the Blazers are well positioned to continue their strongest competition performance to date. A manageable Russian side lies ahead, and just like two years ago at Euro 2016 against Portugal, the stage is set for the dark horses. Russia have shown their stubborn ability to hold formation and defend to the final minute, so it is crucial that possession is used effectively. As ever, anything positive that is going to happen will come through Modric and Rakitic. Mario Mandzukic should want to add to his world cup tally too.
Russia, the lowest ranked team in the tournament, are through to the quarter final. Something not even the most patriotic producer in Russia Today could have concocted in their wildest dreams. A dogged display against Spain proved that, “passes do not win matches,” on their own. Qualified by virtue of being the host nation and widely predicted to not advance beyond the group stages of the competition, Russia gave a startling display in the opening World Cup game against Saudi Arabia with a convincing 5-0 victory.
Having more than made up for a dismal performance at the Euro 2016 in France, the host nation can look back on this tournament with pride. Their fans are swelling with excitement with one penalty shootout victory behind them already, while the reality check of defeat to Uruguay in the final group stages has kept them grounded. The own goal they shipped against Spain should also give them reason to tighten up further. Hanging on for a draw and another penalty shootout is most likely on the cards.