World Cup 2018 Quarterfinals on Tap
The saying a picture is worth a thousand words may be a bit of a cliche but you know what. Its true! Who would have thought on June 14th, at the start of the first match for World Cup 2018 that we would be seeing Russia in the Quarterfinals? Nobody, that’s who. Not even the most ardent Russian supporter would have given them a realistic shot at making it this far. Sure they had the easiest group in the tournament and perhaps one of the weakest groups ever. But they were still going to have to win a knockout stage match to make the quarterfinals. And a team ranked #70 in the world just doesn’t do that. Well except that they did. Beating Spain, one of the pre tournament favorites. In doing so they set a WC record for winning a match with the largest FIFA rankings differential. That difference? 60 spots!!
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So before we get into the actual quarterfinal matchups lets look back over the last several weeks at what has been a very entertaining tournament. Lets start with another old cliche. “They don’t play the games on paper.” And this tournament has certainly proved that. Only three of the top ten ranked teams are in the final eight. Making it even more difficult is that all three of those teams are on the same side of the bracket guaranteeing that the final will have at least one team not in the FIFA top 10. Look who is gone. Powerhouses Italy, the Netherlands, and Chile didn’t even qualify. Germany, Spain, Argentina, and Portugal knocked out. The gap between the big time soccer countries and the smaller ones is closing fast. I believe that is a good thing for soccer especially in the United States. Soccer federations realize this and know that to be competitive requires improved training methods, facilities, coaches, and most importantly investment in youth programs. To be clear, a country like Germany has many hundreds of quality soccer players while a country like Iceland has more like dozens. But when you are talking national teams and 23 man rosters. Well you only need 23 top level players. Iceland is trying to compete with those many hundreds of quality German players. They are trying to compete with 23.
To expand on this point here are the statistics of the match by match goal differentials. There have been 56 matches to date. Two matches had a team win by five goals, six matches had teams win by three goals, eight matches had teams win by two goals, 28 matches were decided by one goal, there were nine matches that were draws, and three more draws that had to go to penalty kicks to determine a winner. That is a lot of very close matches and in close matches anything can happen including monumental upsets like Russia over Spain.
WC 2018 Records to Date:
– 36 matches played before a scoreless draw ocurred
– Nine own goals breaking the record of six set in 1988 (with seven matches left to play)
– First time since 1982 that no African team advanced out of the Group Stage
WC 2018 Factoids:
– Harry Kane (England) leads all goal scores with six. Romalu Lukaku (Belgium) has four.
– Belgium has scored a tournament leading 12 goals
– Russia has the top defense with 196 clearances, tackles, and saves
– Chrisitan Eriksen (Denmark) has covered the most distance with 51KM
– Neymar (Brazil) has taken the most shots with 24
– Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico) has had the most saves with 25. As an aside that’s sort of the good news bad news. The good news is Ochoa had a very nice tournament and made a lot of saves. The bad news is that often times means your team is allowing too many opportunities and indeed that is why Mexico is on their way home.
Okay enough of that lets take a look at the upcoming quarterfinals. There are some killer matches on tap!
Uruguay – France
Uruguay was the best defensive team in the Group Stage not allowing a single goal. Then they followed that up with another stout defense against Portugal winning 2-1. They will have to have continue with that defense to have a chance against France. Although France has never beaten Uruguay.
Uruguay will have to find a way to stop Kylian Mbappe who simply shredded the Argentina defense in the Round of 16 scoring twice. He is fast, young, and fearless. It will be up to Uruguayan captain and center back Diego Godin to keep Mbappe in check. Both sides will likely play a standard 4-4-2 alignment although France plays it more like a 4-3-3. The difference is that Uruguay is built from the back forward and the French just about the opposite. Uruguay makes it as hard as it can for opponents to score then rely on Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani to find a goal or two. The big question mark for them is whether Cavani (who scored both goals against Portugal) can go. He picked up an injury in the last match and has been training separately from the rest of the squad. If he can’t go that is a big blow for them. No matter who plays up top with Suarez French keeper Hugo Lloris will have to be sharp.
France on the other hand pushes forward, pushes forward, then pushes forward some more. And it works. Until it doesn’t. They scored four times in their Round of 16 match. But they gave up three to Argentina who also had several chances close to the final whistle to try and tie it up. Their defense needs to be better. But hey if you can score four times at this point in the tournament you are probably going to win. Antoine Greizmann (who has not played at the top of his game thus far), Olivier Giroud, Paul Pogba, and Ngoloo Kante are likley just too much for even the Uruguayan defense, especially when their center back is going to spend most of his time marking Mbappe.
France should win this one but its going to be a close match.
Brazil – Belgium
Marouane Fellaini is tall, strong, and is good with his head. Literally. As in very good. Belgium manager Roberto Martinez used his substitutions as well as a manager can do against Japan. Down 2-0 he realized that their strength was in their potential height advantage and so on came Fellaini to pair up with Romalu Lukaku and Eden Hazard. And it worked in spades. Defender Jan Vertonghen and Fellaini both scored headers to tie the match 2-2. Late in extra time Japan had a corner kick, one of their few in the match. They committed to it. Perhaps over committed. Belgium keeper Thibaut Courtois came out and caught the cross and started a text book perfect counter and Belguim scored to win 3-2. Belgium is one of the few teams playing a three man back line in a 3-4-2-1 formation which will help them keep pressure on the ball in the midfield.
Belgium will need more of that magic to beat Brazil who seem to be peaking at the right time. Brazil has played 25 matches since Tite took over as their manager. In that span they have only allowed six goals. That’s some seriously stingy defense led by center backs Thiago Silva and Miranda. They have been very very strong. The only question seems to be whether or not their age (both are 33) becomes a factor? But the tough thing about playing Brazil is that they have more than just a strong defense. They are simply loaded everywhere. The midfield is as good as most any team can have with Casemiro, Coutinho, and Willian. And if you manage to slow them down then you are facing a front duo of Neymar and Firmino. Brazil has been playing the “beautiful game” that has led them to five World Cups. This year could very well be their sixth. Likely playing a standard 4-3-3 they will try and abate Belgium’s attack and counter trying to get numbers behind the midfield leaving Belgiums back line of three in peril.
As much as I will be pulling for Belgium I think Brazil is too deep, too strong, and playing too well. For Belgium to stay in this one they will have to rely on their physical skills, especially their height.
Russia – Croatia
Russian fans have embraced their team like never before. Sure it helps to be playing at home. But playing well beyond expectations and upsetting Spain will bring out even the most casual fan. You can expect there to be sheer delirium in Fisht Stadium on Saturday. Sure, Russia was in the easiest group so they didn’t have much difficulty advancing. But they had to play Spain. And they figured there was one way and one way only to survive that match. They knew Spain would control the ball, pass it all over the pitch, and get more shots off. Well Spain had 79% of the possession, made an insane 1115 passes, and had nine shots on target to the Russians one. But Spain forgot one thing. All that good stuff doesn’t mean squat if you don’t put the ball into the back of the net. They only netted one, same as Russia (on their only shot on goal). So it goes to penalties and Russia prevails. Stunningly upsetting the Spaniards. Croatia will be less of a test but still stiff and how much more emotion does Russia have in the tank? Will Russia again sit back in their 5-4-1 formation and defend picking their spots or will they go back on attack like they did in most of the Group Stage play? They will need keeper Igor Akinfeev to play lights out like he did in the Spain match coming up big several times during the match and stopping two PKs.
Of interest is that this is the first time Russia has reached the quarterfinals as Russia. All previous runs this far were as the old USSR. Plus the last five host nations that made the quarterfinals ALL won their quarterfinal match. So lots of history plus the fans will be on the side of Russia on Saturday.
Croatia will be an entirely different matchup for Russia than Spain was. Russia used their fitness against Spain to keep Spain moving the ball but not letting them get close to goal. That may not work against Croatia who are also a very fit and dynamic team. Croatia showed against Denmark that they are prepared to play patiently and work tirelessly to break a team down and finding gaps in the defense to create opportunities. Denmark played a very similar style to Russia so the Croatians should be prepared to deal with that. And they have a world class midfield which is the key to breaking down bunkering defenses. Croatia will employ a 4-2-3-1 or 4-5-1 and use midfielders Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic to move the ball around the perimeter and try to find lone striker Mario Mandzukic with some space. Shots will be tough to come by and he will need to produce with limited chances.
Croatia is the better team but Russia is believing in themselves and on a mission. Can their fans carry them again? I think this is the end of the line for Russia but then I said that before the Spain game too.
Sweden – England
Sweden comes in on a roll having trounced Mexico 3-0 in their last Group Stage match and Switzerland 1-0 in their Round of 16 match. They have been playing very well defensively having allowed only 2 goals in four matches and scoring often enough to keep in the W column. They will come out in a standard 4-4-2 and their train evolves around midfielder Emil Forsberg. The Leipzig attacking midfielder plays wherever he sees opportunity. Midfielder Sebastian Larsson will return from suspension but key defender Mikael Lustig will miss this match with a suspension. Two other players, both midfielders Albin Ekdal and Jimmy Durmaz are both doubtful with injuries. Sweden may be playing a weaker midfield this time around.
England is also one of the few teams to play with a three man backline. Manager Gareth Southgate has instilled a different approach and it seem to be working. Playing a 3-5-2 formation which includes several attacking midfielders in the middle who love to run wide, Jesse Lingard and Kieren Trippier. England has two issues facing this match. First, they have several players who are doubtful with injuries including midfielder Deli Alli and defender Ashley Young. If they are unable to go then expect to see Marcus Rashford and Danny Rose start? England has advanced thus far on the goals of Harry Kane. With six goals he leads all scorers to date and is now second all time for English players in a single world cup. And they have thrived on earning free kicks and penalties. And when presented with those opportunities they are making them count. The bad news is that that have been woeful in scoring goals during the run of play. That likely needs to improve if England is to move much further along.
England has advanced to the Quarterfinals for the first time since 2006 and the only time they ever made it to the Semifinals was in 1966 the year they won it all. Interesting to note is that in the 1966 World Cup England, as host, played all of their matches at Wembley stadium. That was the last time FIFA allowed the host nation to play all their matches at one venue.
This is the one match of the four that may boil down to how their legs hold out and how any substitutes rise to the occasion. These two sides are both nursing a fair number of injuries and may end up going with different lineups which could dictate their formations and tactics. This should be a very close match and could go either way. Since they invented the game I am hoping the English prevail and keep up their set piece magic. This is England’s best shot at another Cup. Lets see if they can at least get to the finals.