The line-up is complete for the quarter-finals in Russia 2018 and just eight nations are left standing in the race to succeed Germany as World Cup winners.
Time to look ahead to the four games we will see this weekend and pick our best bets.
Uruguay v France, Friday 3.00pm
Uruguay appear to be a team who are improving throughout the competition and had the look of genuine hunger in their eyes in the 2-1 win against Portugal.
There is a very raw desire to succeed and they have the players, both at the front and back, to implement the game-plan their manager has carefully chosen. They are conservative but dangerous when chances come their way, while they are tight at the back, having conceded one goal in four games so far.
France shone against Argentina, scoring four times having failed to impress in the group phase. In truth, any team with aspirations on winning this tournament would shine against an Argentina defence that was woefully exposed.
Les Bleus face a vastly different challenge this time and I feel they will come up short. Didier Deschamps still has the appearance of a manager not entirely convinced of his own plans, something that showed when they could not dispose of the Ronaldo-less Portugal in the Euro 2016 final on home soil.
The fitness of Edinson Cavani is a major concern for Uruguay, but Luis Suarez is perfectly capable of holding the fort should he miss out. For the French, Antoine Griezmann has been a disappointment so far. The ruthless and success-craving Uruguayans can win what should be a tense battle.
Brazil v Belgium, Friday 7.00pm
It took around 22 seconds of Monday’s last-16 tie to convince me that Belgium are going to end Brazil’s challenge in this World Cup. That was the time it took from Keisuke Honda’s corner for Japan until the Belgians broke forward with breakneck pace and accuracy to win the game via Nacer Chadli’s goal.
In essence that is what this Red Devils team is built to do. Previously in the tournament they had faced three games against teams content to contain in Panama, Tunisia and England’s reserves. They still scored goals, more than any other team in the group phase, but we were not quite being wowed by their football.
Brazil are unlikely to adopt the stoical approach. They too are growing in confidence and Tite’s team may fancy their chances having watched the Japanese craft a two-goal lead only to be caught so dramatically.
Belgium will be at their peak if they can steal possession and thrust forward at pace, as Kevin De Bruyne did in the lead-up to Chadli’s winner.
Brazil are improving and are likely to make chances too, give Belgium’s defence has not exactly been watertight. Philippe Coutinho, Willian and Neymar could make this prediction seem ill conceived, but I fear there is a fragile centre to Brazil, the scars of their mauling by Germany four years ago can be opened by Belgium if they go for it.
Roberto Martinez’s team showed their stomach for the fight by recovering against Japan from a perilous position, while the manager got his changes spot and those in reserve showed they are capable of a contribution. The ‘Golden Generation’ can deliver perhaps their defining performance here.
Sweden v England, Saturday 3.00pm
England fans may need some time to come back down to earth after the rollercoaster that was the Colombia game. Amateur dramatics (mostly of South American origin) rather spoiled things for 70 minutes but the Three Lions appeared to have done enough to get through with Harry Kane’s penalty before Yerry Mina levelled in the dying minutes.
Extra-time was fraught and England had to cling on at times, but winning a penalty shoot-out at a World Cup finals for the first time may galvanise Gareth Southgate and his men.
They are still left with work to do however. The performance was disjointed at times and lacked penetration in the final third. Only a moment of madness that saw Kane wrestled to the floor broke the deadlock.
Sweden will not lose their cool as Colombia did so often, that we can safely assume. They have shown their organisation in ousting Italy in the play-offs to get here and in games against Germany and Switzerland, while they ruthlessly dispatched Mexico in between times when given the chance.
All the talk of England being on the ‘easier side’ of the draw must be kept outside the squad. Sweden are a tough nut to crack and they too are high on momentum now.
In Kane, England have the superior goal threat. The Spurs frontman has scored in six straight games and will shoot on sight. This all-European quarter-final has the makings of a cagey affair, where set-pieces could easily be decisive.
If Jordan Pickford dominates his penalty box on such occasions, England can likely nick something at the other end and, with Sweden’s attacking not especially dangerous, hold tight for a narrow victory and a first semi-final since 1990.
Russia v Croatia, Saturday 7.00pm
The two penalty shoot-out survivors meets in the last of the quarter-finals. They certainly got to their shoot-outs in contrasting fashion.
The Russians dug in and grafted for all they were worth against a Spanish side guilty of lateral and unimaginative play that ultimately got them about what they deserved – elimination. The tournament hosts did what was needed.
Croatia meanwhile quickly recovered from an early setback against Denmark but lost their way afterwards and, like Spain, could not fashion a winner against an opponent that was there for the taking.
Will we see more of the same on Saturday evening? It seems highly likely. The Russian do not have the quality to get into a free-flowing contest against what is a talented Croatian side.
The latter must hope that the likes of Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric can exert more influence in the final third and find those killer passes.
It will not be easy, as Russia have proved they are good at what they do, but they were also exposed by Uruguay in the group stage finale. The Danes were able to offer an attacking threat that ensured Croatia had a cause to be concerned if they attacked with abandon. Russia really didn’t find that again Spain.
The host nation have exceeded expectations, wildly some might say, but their run should be ended this time by a Croatian outfit capable of better than they showed last time.For all new customers,
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