We have now entered the real business end of the World Cup, with just eight teams remaining. Only three of these have won the tournament in the past – France, Brazil and England. The rest of the pack, which consists of Uruguay, Belgium, Croatia, Russia and Sweden, are anything but pretenders, and have shown qualities that could take them all the way.
France vs Uruguay
France take on Uruguay in the first quarter-final on Friday, in a battle that can be described as the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object. The Europeans have dazzled with their attacking qualities, especially in a stunning 4-3 win over Argentina in the previous round. On the other hand, Uruguay have the best defensive record in the tournament, conceding just once en route to four straight victories. The one goal they let in was in the round of 16 against Portugal, whom they beat 2-1.
The two individuals who shone the brightest in the previous games for these teams were Kylian Mbappe (France) and Edinson Cavani (Uruguay). Both the players have three goals each, and will once again look to be the talismans for their respective sides.
It will be interesting to see how Mbappe uses his pace against a rock-solid unit marshalled by captain Diego Godin. Two of the four French goals against Argentina came on the counter, when the 19-year old Mbappe ran riot by getting in behind the backline. Uruguay will set up to be compact and attack on the counter, which could make it difficult for France to get into their fluid passing rhythm. The South Americans will, of course, depend on the brilliant duo of Cavani and Luis Suarez up front to deliver the goods on that end of the pitch.
Brazil vs Belgium
Brazil against Belgium is a prospective classic that almost never happened. Eden Hazard and Co. were put through the toughest of tests in the round of 16 by Japan, and needed three goals in the last 20 minutes to seal an incredible comeback and a 3-2 win. This tested the Europeans resolve to the hilt, and they came out passing with flying colours. Their defensive frailties in that game, however, will be a concern for manager Roberto Martinez ahead of the clash against the mighty Brazil, looking for their sixth World Cup. In an attacking sense, they are the highest scorers of the tournament so far, with 12 goals in their 4 matches.
On the other hand, the Samba boys were arguably the most convincing team in the round of 16, as they sealed their third successive 2-0 win of the tournament over Mexico. The South Americans have been very solid at the back, something that was completely absent four years ago. Their attacking prowess has never really been a problem, and Neymar, Philippe Coutinho and Willian have all been deadly so far.
This is probably the pick of the matches in the quarter-finals, and we can expect to see an open, attacking affair between two teams filled with technical ability.
Croatia vs Russia
Russia are a surprising face in the last 8, after beating Spain on penalties in the previous round. After winning their opening two group matches, the hosts succumbed to a 3-0 defeat to Uruguay and many people had written them off against the 2010 champions before a ball was kicked. However, they put in a performance of dogged determination and kept Spain out despite the latter having over 1,000 passes in the game. Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev was the hero at the end of the day, making two saves in the shootout to put his country through.
Croatia were one of the most impressive teams in the group stages, winning all their matches including a 3-0 thumping of Argentina. They struggled in the round of 16, however, only coming through via a penalty shootout against a stubborn Denmark side. They will, of course, depend on Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic to come good.
England vs Sweden
England have been given the best route possible on paper to reach the finals for the first time since 1966. They take Sweden in the last 8 and if they get through, will play the winners of Croatia vs Russia in the semi-finals. Had they finished top of their group, they would be playing Brazil and France en route to the final in Moscow. The Three Lions stumbled through to the quarters, winning their first World Cup penalty shootout ever against Colombia, after conceding a last-minute equalizer in normal time. Striker and captain Harry Kane has scored six of their nine goals in the tournament so far, and will once again be the man Gareth Southgate depends on to deliver the goods.
Sweden have stunned one and all, coming back from their heartbreaking loss to Germany to qualify of top of their group by beating Mexico 3-0 in their final group match. The Swedes followed this up with a 1-0 victory over Switzerland in the round of 16, to enter their first quarter-final since 1994, when they finished in third place. They are compact and well-drilled unit, led by captain and centre-back Andreas Granqvist.
England may be favourites to qualify here, but Sweden, without the self-proclaimed “God” Zlatan Ibrahimovic, have proven that cohesion and grit can defy every odd in the book.