Then there were eight
A look at World Cup’s quarter-finalists
Battle heats up as glory comes within touching distance of sides
The 2018 FIFA World Cup has so far been the most unpredictable in recent memory, with shocks and upsets almost becoming the norm.
It is around the quarter-finals that the teams really start believing that they can go all the way, allowing themselves to dream and hope of glory.
We take a look at the remaining eight teams — how they have fared so far and their chances going forward.
The feeling that Oscar Tabarez has created something special grows by the day. Uruguay have conceded just one goal at the World Cup so far; it remains the only goal they have let in in all of 2018.
In Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez, Uruguay have the perfect centre-back pairing. Their time together at Atletico Madrid means they know each other’s game inside out; Godin’s experience blending perfectly with Gimenez’s youthful exuberance.
Add two of the finest strikers in the world to the most miserly defence in all of international football and you have a recipe for success that seems simple on paper but has required a lot of hard work behind the scenes.
Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez showed just how devastating they can be together as both played their parts superbly in the former’s brace against Portugal in Uruguay’s round-of-16 tie.
They may be taking on one of the tournament favourites in France but nobody with any sense will be writing off this Uruguay side out just yet.
If the drab 0-0 draw between France and Denmark was an embarrassment for its lack of enterprise from either side, then Les Blues’ 4-3 win over Argentina was a statement of intent.
The final scoreline flattered the South Americans, who found France’s attack impossible to deal with. Kylian Mbappe’s pace, Olivier Giroud’s power and Antoine Griezmann’s guile combined to devastating effect as Didier Deschamps is finally figuring out what his favoured starting eleven is.
Any side boasting such a potent front three alongside the likes of N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba and Raphael Varane is doomed to carry the burden of expectations but this young France side seem to be thriving under the pressure.
Their Euros 2016 final defeat left many questioning their mentality in big games but signs of nerves have been few and far between.
There are few tougher tests in international football than this Uruguay side though and France will have to be at their very best if they are to have any hopes of progressing further.
The elimination of Germany means Brazil are now almost unanimously tournament favourites and the Selecao showcased their abilities in a ruthless display against a Mexico side that had looked quite impressive until the two sides met.
Brazil reached the semi-final four years ago, only to be humiliated in historic fashion, but they are much better equipped to go all the way this time around.
Neymar and Philippe Coutinho are finding their range, while the support cast of Gabriel Jesus, Willian and Roberto Firmino have all shown they are capable of producing moments of sheer brilliance.
What will be most worrying for the other seven teams though is not the usual Brazilian magic in front of goal but how solid they look in midfield and defence.
In goal Alisson continues to vindicate Tite’s decision to play him ahead of Manchester City’s Ederson, while Brazil flaunted their strength in depth when they replaced the injured Marcelo with Filipe Luis. The experienced centre-back pairing of Thiago Silva and Miranda require little protection on their own but still have the world’s best defensive midfielder in Casemiro in front of them.
This Brazil side is as difficult to break down as it is dangerous in front of goal. The free-scoring Belgium await though.
Belgium have been called dark horses for so long and by so many that they can surely not be called the dark horses anymore.
The dramatic late winner they scored against Japan should serve as a red flag for all teams; if you leave yourself exposed at the back, it will only take a few seconds for the Red Devils to have the ball in the back of your net.
The match against Japan also showed how versatile Belgium’s attacking threats can be. If the pace, trickery and cunning of Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Kevin de Bruyne don’t get you, then the raw power and heading ability of Romelu Lukaku, Marouane Fellaini or one of their three centre-backs surely will.
The tournament’s top scorers are the tournament’s top scorers for a reason. A gung-ho approach has worked well so far against weaker opponents than them but they now take on tournament favourites Brazil, who match or outmatch them in star power, big-game experience, history and tactical nous.
Trying to shut out this Belgium juggernaut may be an exercise in futility, but outscoring them is not. Right wing-back Thomas Meunier has already spoken of how difficult it will be to stop his PSG teammate Neymar and all Belgian players will have to do their bit while defending if they are to reach only their second-ever World Cup semi-final.
The Swedes are arguably the weakest remaining team at this World Cup, at least on paper, but they seem to be thriving on their underdogs tag.
The decision to not take Zlatan Ibrahimovic to the World Cup has been more than justified as Sweden’s sum continues to make a mockery of the total of its parts.
This is a team that topped a group that contained defending champions Germany; they deserve to be here as much as any of their more illustrious rivals.
It took a special strike from Toni Kroos to condemn Sweden to their only defeat of the tournament so far and it may well require something equally dramatic or spectacular to get the better of this stubborn defence.
At the heart of defence, skipper Andreas Granqvist seems to be a man possessed and the entire Sweden team seems to grow in stature every time he makes a defensive intervention. Emil Forsberg’s sweet right foot is their best for a goal, but pointing out individuals may well be folly; this is a team in every sense of the word.
The biggest issue that plagued England’s golden generation was the unrealistic expectations placed upon them by their own media.
Perhaps that is why Gareth Southgate’s men have impressed so far. By writing them off, the English media have released them from their shackles. And in the freedom they have flourished.
The catch 22 though remains that the further they go in the tournament, the louder the chants of ‘It’s coming home’ will get. The fear is that they will become so deafening that the players will forget to express themselves in the din.
This is England’s best chance to reach a World Cup final in decades. Realistically, only Croatia can stop them. But this World Cup has laughed in the face of realism and there is no reason to suggest that the trend cannot continue.
They go into the game against Sweden as overwhelming favourites and that may well be the cause of their demise.
Still, there is no reason for the Three Lions to not quietly believe in what had till now seemed the impossible.
Russia, not Spain, are in the quarter-finals. Who would have thought that was possible when the two sides clashed in the round of 16. But here they are, much to the unbelieving joy of 145 million Russians.
They entered the tournament as its lowest ranked team, and many of their own had condemned this group as the worst Russian side in ages. But here they are, much to the unbelieving joy of 145 million Russians.
Uruguay exposed Russia’s weaknesses in brutal fashion in their final group game, claiming as one-sided a 3-0 win as 3-0 wins can get, and Croatia will be looking to exploit the same issues.
However, the hosts have shown an ability to dig deep and produce performances that defy all logic and predictions. They may be underdogs but do not expect Russia to lie down and let the Croatians have it all their own way.
The scare they received against Denmark will ensure Croatia do not take the Russians lightly, especially a Russian side egged on by a vociferous crowd in Sochi’s Fisht Stadium.
Zlatko Dalic may well have the best central midfield remaining at the tournament at his disposal but he will know his team cannot afford to be as profligate as they were against the Danes.
Skipper Luka Modric will be pulling the strings alongside his central midfield partner in crime Ivan Rakitic as the Croatians are almost certain to boss possession and the game’s tempo. However, for all their control in the middle of the park, problems appear to be just below the surface at either end of the pitch.
A lack of pace up front can come back to haunt them, while the defence doesn’t always inspire confidence; as proven by their first-minute concession against Denmark.
This is Croatia’s golden generation though and they will be quite fancying their chances of reaching the semi-finals, if not the finals.
Story: Taha Anis