After two weeks of action from 56 matches that have yielded 146 goals, 196 saves, 28 penalties by 19 countries, and Video Assistant Referee (VAR), the 2018 World Cup is into the quarterfinals – where the best eight countries in the world will, from Friday, jostle for a place in the semis.
Brazil and Uruguay will represent South America while Croatia, Sweden, England, Russia, France, and Belgium will represent Europe with Africa and Asia needing to do more to join this elite class.
The introduction of VAR has seen more penalties awarded, penalty decisions rescinded, even though more players and managers have requested VAR for other decisions the technology cannot adjudge. VAR has power only to award goals, penalty decisions, red card decisions, and cases of mistaken identity.
Uruguay v France
Stoic versus flair will be the appropriate description of this encounter, which opens the quarterfinals on Friday at 3 p.m. Uruguay, led by the defensive master, Diego Godin, have only conceded one goal in four matches, while France, with the most exciting young talent in world football, Kylian Mbappe, put four goals past Argentina in their last match.
Many still believe with the talent in the French ranks, they would ultimately be let down by the paucity of tactical competence of their manager, Didier Deschamps. In the opposite dugout will be 71-year-old Oscar Tabarez, who is at his fourth World Cup and has led Uruguay to a semifinal spot in 2010 in South Africa.
Brazil v Belgium
Brazil is still many pundits’ firm favourite for the title with Tite at the helm. The Selecao have conceded just one goal in Russia – that disputed goal against Switzerland – and have scored two goals in each of their last three matches.
In Belgium, they will face a talented squad, who may be let down by the lack of tactical astuteness of their manager, Roberto Martinez. There is every possibility that Belgium will score against Brazil, whether they can score more goals than the Brazilians is the pertinent question.
After overturning a two-goal deficit against Japan, and winning with the last kick of the game – the Belgians will be confident they can surprise the five-time champions.
Sweden v England
England went through to the quarterfinal after triumphing over Colombia on penalties – never achieved by an English squad at a World Cup. For Sweden, who have become the surprise team in Russia, it is one game at a time. It was scrappy, but finally, Emil Forsberg showed up for the Swedes and they will be high on the belief they can stymie this young English side, who believe ‘the trophy is coming home’.
In Harry Kane, England have the highest goal scorer, with six goals, and he has continued to lead the young group with distinction though they will have to be braver against a Swedish team that is expected to give up possession of the ball.
Russia v Croatia
The hosts have been perfect – and not just the facilities but also their team. Getting over the Spanish obstacle will have done more for the group of players than any pep talk from Stanislav Cherchesov.
In Croatia, they will face a supremely talented group, who weathered the storm of Denmark to squeak through. Artem Dzyuba, who started the tournament on the substitutes’ bench, has become the team’s talisman.
The Russians will be chomping at the bit to get a piece of the Croats and elongate their fairy tale. For Luka Modric and his team, going past the semis has always been the objective and beating the hosts will take them to that cusp.
FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, has described Russia 2018 as a ‘crazy’ tournament. “So far, it is a great World Cup with incredible games, a lot of passion and a lot of people celebrating. The matches are crazy, crazy, crazy, so let’s hope it continues like that,” he was quoted as saying by the BBC.
From the neutrals, there would be a loud Amen!