FIFA World Cup – After 56 matches and 144 goals, just eight teams remain at the World Cup. Coen Lammers* looks ahead to the quarter-finals and beyond.
Four years after 207 countries started the first qualifying match, the 2018 FIFA World Cup has reached the quarter-final stage.
Looking at the matches ahead, the favourites for the title look to be on one side of the draw, with Brazil, Belgium, France and Uruguay contesting one spot in the final.
Each of these countries is able to win the final on 16 July (NZ time), but their possible opponents that day will come from an eclectic mix of teams who can’t believe how lucky they are to suddenly be so close to the big showdown.
Read more of our FIFA 2018 coverage:
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- FIFA World Cup: England breaks its penalty curse
- Squeaky Bum Time: A FIFA World Cup podcast
- FIFA World Cup: British media reacts as England beat Colombia to advance to quarter finals
- FIFA World Cup: A dummies’ guide
Not even the most ardent fan of England, Sweden, Croatia and especially Russia would have expected their heroes to be in the quarter-finals with a realistic pathway to the final.
England in particular will now carry the incredible hopes of the nation that invented football. After yesterday morning’s penalty shoot-out win over Colombia, they will fancy their chances to beat Sweden – and then Croatia or Russia – for a place in the final.
On their side of the draw, England is the only team that qualified with ease for the World Cup. Croatia and Sweden made it to the tournament after play-off matches, while Russia would have struggled to even qualify if they were not hosting the event.
The lack of quality in this part of the draw was summed up on Wednesday morning by a forgettable match and the fact that only a deflected shot could separate the Swedes and the Swiss. The best part about that match was that at least one of them had to go home.
Based on world rankings, England at #12 is the only team that can mix it with the other half of World Cup draw, where world #2 Brazil takes on #3 Belgium, and #7 France takes on #14 Uruguay.
But that’s all on paper. One thing we learned in this World Cup is that you can throw rankings and reputations on the scrap heap.
After the carnage in the earlier rounds, Brazil is the only team left with a genuine global superstar – Neymar Jr – who delivered the goods with a goal and an assist to send Mexico packing. The five-time World Cup winners have been solid without reaching supreme heights, but the potential for something extraordinary is just beneath the surface.
Opponents Belgium are ranked third in the world for good reason – they have the best generation this tiny country has produced since the golden side of the 1980s, who reached the semi-final in 1986.
They will be brimming with confidence after their astonishing comeback win over Japan after going 0-2 down. If they can overcome Brazil, who would bet against them going all the way?
In a potential semi-final, they would meet France or Uruguay, who square off in the other mouth-watering quarter-final.
France tipped over Argentina and their star-studded squad showed glimpses of their enormous potential with young prodigy Kyrian MBappé starting to put his stamp on the tournament.
Uruguayan goal poachers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani will have noticed France still conceded three goals against Argentina, and with four straight wins under their belt and conceding only a single goal all tournament, the Celeste (Sky Blues) have no reason to fear anyone.
These two quarter-finals would make up wonderful semi-finals or even a final, but instead these star-studded giants of football present and World Cup past could end up battling for the trophy with unlikely finalists like England and Croatia, who should be fancied to beat Sweden and Russia.
Sweden has stumbled through the tournament, but somehow ended up in the quarter-final. England looked composed and in control for most parts of their heart-stopping match against Colombia, and will be kicking themselves that they let the Colombians off the hook to force a penalty shoot-out. On the flipside, winning their first ever shoot-out lottery in a World Cup will do wonders for their morale.
In the final quarter-final on Sunday morning, the Russians will try to continue their fairytale against Croatia.
Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev has become the biggest national hero since Yuri Gagarin circled the earth in 1961, after stopping two penalties against Spain and has turned this colossal country into one giant flag-waving, vodka-fuelled carnival from Murmansk to Vladivostok.
Croatia is faced with a double-edged sword of playing the lowest ranked opponent in the entire tournament, but also a team with nothing to lose and 144 million Russians backing them to the hilt. After their historic defence and victory over Spain, anything is possible.
Russian media have drawn comparisons to the legendary Greeks who shocked the footballing world by winning Euro 2004 and defied the odds game after game.
But surely, Russia party must come to an end soon.
Or will it?