The Salivating 8

I’m quite serious now, is everyone still breathing???

What a World Cup we have on our hands. Nerves have been shredded. Tears have been shed. Voices have vanished. Jubilation has rung.

And only 8 remain!

The aspect of this tournament that is truly magical is that for the first time in presumably history, every team remaining will (and should) believe they can win it all. And why not? It has been one of those World Cups where every single match has been on edge and every result struggled for.

It’s not that there’s parity throughout the world for the first time because there’s not. There are clearly countries in the quarterfinals better than some. Like, France are better than Russia. By a significant margin. And we shouldn’t forget that. But, what we are encountering is more that each team is playing to the occasion. Upping the ante and holding their own. No one has wowed for four straight matches. Each side has shown a naïveté at times; an underachieving; a lapse significant enough to be crucially taken advantage of. It’s all to play for! Although what I can say is that the knockouts are indeed beginning to take shape and certain squads are looking the likeliest.

France made a statement against Argentina. They were far superior on the day. I wasn’t necessarily blown away by Les Bleus, but they tactically manhandled the Argentinians. Kylian Mbappé toyed with an aging Javier Mascherano in the midfield, a not so nimble back two of Nicolás “scores a few vital goals a season but is also always a prime candidate for a career threatening calamity” Otamendi, Marcos “ditto” Rojo and a third choice goalkeeper in River Plate’s Giorgio Franco Armani. Kylian used his pace as well as his technique on the ball, especially in the box, to terrorize La Albiceleste. They could not cope. There are though red flags for France as they go on. One will definitely be the fact that they conceded three goals to Argentina whilst also falling behind after scoring first. That is a worry (I have to be honest, I would key in on Samuel Umtiti if I was opposing France as he has seemed shaky to me for the last few months; a top defender but has an error in him). Also, as previously mentioned by this writer, the French still seem to lack that play making guile a proper #10 gives you behind the striker (as I continue to be honest: Blaise Matuidi has shown me nothing this summer and he isn’t quite bringing the stability or wing play necessary for this midfield to balance itself). They field three players at all times who would answer the question of  “are you a striker first and foremost?” with a resounding “oui!” Which isn’t ideal. I think they have the talent to overcome this formational gap, but it is surely something to watch out for as a supremely sturdy and well oiled Uruguay come up next. Uruguay have professionally dispatched of everyone they have faced. They look the business. I definitely back France to beat them, especially with superstar Edinson Cavani missing for the Uruguayans, but this will be tight and nervy.

Belgium, a possible semi final opponent for France, look to be the most dangerous team left in the competition. They can defend with ease, they can boss the midfield and they can score in bunches. They have it all. Except a manager. And listen, I’m not having a go or trying to be unfair, but Roberto Martinez is en route to violently bottling this for the Belgians. And he doesn’t look to be changing things! Belgium had a scare against a vividly weaker Japan side, but escaped. And to their credit they never panicked. They knew their chances would come and the players took them (an unplanned but phenomenal header from Jan Vertonghen for the first, a beautiful swerve and effortless cross from Eden Hazard to a Marouane Fellaini who should have started against the physically inferior Japanese for the equalizer and, of course, the deadly counter attack at the death leading to Nacer Chadli’s winner). Martinez made some substitutes (historic in that they both went on to score), but it is who trots onto the pitch at the first whistle that is perturbing. Yannick Carrasco is a liability. He doesn’t (can’t?) track back, which is suicide as a wing back supporting a back 3 and he offers very little in attack. Forget the bench, Carrasco should be at a Bruxelles pub watching the rest of this tournament with his friends. A cadaver-like contribution thus far, Martinez continues to stick with his man. I mean, it was fittingly Carrasco’s replacement, Chadli, who scored the goal which sent Japan home. Belgium have not played anyone capable of exploiting this opening (Panama, Tunisia, a second string England and Japan do not have that class), but Brazil loom now and they will be licking their lips. In particular, Willian, who has impressed in spurts in Russia, has the potential to annihilate this flank. Paulinho sits behind him and the two could just pick apart this exposed left side for Belgium. I worry for the Red Devils. And to exacerbate the issue is that Axel Witsel is still a thing in the center of midfield for Belgium. His presence is confounding on a team with such voluminous depth as this Belgian side has. The move, in my humble opinion again as I have already stated this, is to have Mousa Dembélé start to hold the middle. This introduction will then free Kevin de Bruyne to roam further forward and impact the match behind the forwards in his usual world class ways. Witsel’s inclusion tempers this element and has led to a more disjointed Belgian attack. The fortunate and somewhat mitigating news for Belgium and their supporters is that Casemiro is suspended for Brazil for this match. He will prove to be a huge miss for the Brazilians as Casemiro continues to be their rock as one of the finest midfielders breathing. The reason I was so high on Brazil to begin with was based on the fact that the attackers could attack (and writhe around like clowns, apparently) and play their game utilizing the signature flair (read: clowning) Brazil have invented (#JOGABONITO) knowing that the shape and organization of the midfield was in the safest of hands. Now that is gone. Fernandinho will slot in nicely and expertly but there is a definitive discrepancy in ability there. A discrepancy I would describe as “smallish”, but large enough for a team with Belgium’s talents to wholly expose. Brazil is also deep in the throes of full back fitness issues (Danilo and Marcelo both have knocks although Marcelo will be back for the quarterfinal), which will only encourage Hazard, Dries Mertens and Romelu Lukaku even more. This here is for the taking and Belgium have a massive chance to finally make their run at a trophy. Martinez will have to play a blinder here to get his troops into the semis, so all eyes on him and his lineup come Friday.

Croatia hit a monumental road bump on their quest for a surprise winners medal against Denmark. It was a strange sight as no real chances were carved out. The Croatians looked as if they had started to believe in the newly formed hype and stopped believing in themselves. They genuinely survived Denmark and almost crashed out thanks to an iconic goalkeeping performance from Kasper Schmeichel and his penalty saving heroics. Ivan Rakitić’s adept spot kick proved to be one too many for Schmeichel; however, and Hrvatska lived another day. Luckily for Croatia they play a weak, but confident, Russia. The hosts have surprised us all but they are not afraid of anyone. They are playing for their country and that has added to their resilience. The Croatian midfield is too good and too dominant to let this one slip, but it will be interesting to see how both sets of players react to the slog of extra time and a shootout in their Round of 16 ties. I know for sure that Luka Modrić will want to bounce back with a more commanding performance and that alone should be enough to send Croatia one step closer.

And then we come to England. After a first ever World Cup penalty shootout victory, the Three Lions are beginning to dream. And rightly so. They have played with an exuberant spirit and look a menace when in full flow. The English outplayed Colombia, who seemed to not want to play but just fall over and commit fouls when not falling over, and kept their nerve. The major worry for England is that they seem to peter out, or run out of ideas, after about thirty minutes. And they also are not taking their chances which is leading to a rather troublesome profligacy in front of goal. Since the glut against Panama, England have not scored a goal from open play (and have only scored once since in total, which was the Harry Kane penalty against Colombia). That’s not good enough for a side yearning for glory. They need to focus in the box (I’m looking at Eric Dier here) and create more from deeper (Dele Alli has been rather anonymous this tournament). Kane has six goals and leads the Golden Boot race but he hasn’t really scored a goal that didn’t include a set piece or a fluke deflection. With Sweden next, this attacking task only becomes exponentially more difficult. One of the toughest teams to break down on the planet, the staunch Swedes can play a bit as well. They have the talent to deliver the damage up front, but, too have been wasteful. Sweden will not back down from anyone and only a genius Toni Kroos goal for Germany has denied them points at this Cup. They are real and a monster threat. And one who has succeeded throughout history against England. This will be a chess match with whoever scores first the logician’s pick to progress. I like England to have what it takes as their players will be familiar with the Swedish style of play (many Premier League clubs play a similarly defensive and then counter approach when up against the top six teams), but they will need to rely upon the likes of Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard to slice open the defence. Marcus Rashford would make an ideal addition here as well as he has the skill and speed to run this Swedish back line ragged (not to mention he goes up against Sweden’s vital defender Victor Lindelöf everyday in Manchester United training). John Stones is quietly having an absolute screamer of a tournament at the back for England, and will need to be at the height of his game as he leads this defence against a wily Swedish attack consisting of tricky and bang in form winger Emil Forsberg. Man, the nerves are jangling. If football is indeed coming home, it will need to overcome a beast of a Swedish XI first.

The stage is set for the home stretch of the World Cup. We are guaranteed a somewhat of a surprise in the final on the bottom half of the bracket. But on top, we have some usual heavy hitters who are trying to find their peak form and ruthlessness just in time to secure what they perceive to be theirs. I don’t know, but the way this tournament is going, certainly nothing will turn out predictably. So, sit back and enjoy the chaos.

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