FIFA World Cup 2022: Semifinals

Argentina 3 – 0 Croatia

In the quarterfinals, Croatia knocked off one South American powerhouse. Can they do it again? Argentina is looking to nail the elusive world championship that is the one thing missing from Leo Messi’s stellar career and they’ve never lost a World Cup semi-final game. Will history repeat for them?

Argentina opens with a 4-4-2 formation. They’ve been playing in a number of different formations throughout the Cup, but have come back to the 4-4-2 with Messi and Alvarez up top. Croatia is still in their 4-3-3 that they’ve started with in every game of the tournament. The Perisic-Modric combo on the left side has played very well so far.

Argentina had an early opportunity for Tagliafico making a run into the left side of the box to catch up to long pass, but it was just a little too far beyond him and Livakovic got there first. Messi complained about a no-call after he got tripped up just outside of the box. However, he would not have caught up to the pass anyway, so no harm done. Minutes later, Messi seemed to be massaging his leg, causing speculation of an injury, but followed with some fancy dribbling and passing, so all the worry was for naught. However, Croatia controlled the midfield fairly well early on.

Midway through the first half, Fernandez fired a curling shot from distance that Livakovic had to save, the first good shot of the game. About 30 minutes in, a great pass through, led to an Alvarez breakaway at the goal. He flicked the ball over the onrushing Livakovic, just before they collided. Alvarez got no oomph on the ball and a defender cleared it. However, a foul was called on Livakovic for the collision, though he was just reacting to ball and not trying to take out Alvarez. Messi took the penalty kick and made sure there was no doubt, blasting it into the upper right corner. Croatia was behind, but this was a familiar position for them.

Several minutes later, a quick counterattack by Argentina after a poor Croatian corner got nudged up to Alvarez in the middle of the field. Despite two converging defenders, he maintained control into the box and then got a lucky bounce off a defender and was able to flick it by Livakovic for a second goal. All Croatia’s good possession work early on had gone out the window.

Argentina nearly had a 3rd goal several minutes later with ball deflecting of Croatian arm in the box. No handball was called though it looked like it should have been. A great header on the ensuing corner forced Livakovic to make a great save and led to yet another corner. This time Livakovic was forced to punch out Messi’s great corner into the middle of box. Croatia’s defense was really on its heels before the half mercifully came to an end.

Croatia started the 2nd half with a couple of subs, Vlasic in the midfield and Orsic at striker, designed to add some offense. They had an almost impossible job ahead of them.
10 minutes into the 2nd half, Argentina had several really good opportunities, but one was broken up by the Croatia defense and the other had Livakovic stopping a Messi shot that he couldn’t fully connect with. Argentina was making good use of long passes out of pressure in their own end.

In the 61st minute, Modric’s in-swinging corner gets to Lovren’s head in the box. He actually had two opportunities, but Olomendi finally cleared it. Argentina was dropping one of the midfielders as a fifth fullback at this point.

Despite the more defensive formation, Argentina continued to make runs. In the 69th minute, Messi made a run down the right side into the box and then dribbled circles around Gvardiol before dropping a deft pass to Alvarez who had a point-blank easy shot for goal. With 20 minutes left and a three-goal lead, the game is effectively finished.

Croatia got a free kick 73 minutes in from about 15 yards outside of box. Perisic put a low screamer through a poorly formed wall, but Martinez was there to make his first save of the night. A couple of minutes later, Perisic attempts another shot from 30 yards out, but sailed way high. Then it was Orsic’s turn. After some nifty dribbling inside the Argentine box, he also shot high (and wide). Croatia simply wasn’t taking good shots all day long.

In what amounted to a concession, Croatia subbed out star Luka Modric in the 81st minute. Argentina did a much better job controlling possession in the second half.

Argentina had yet another opportunity in the 82nd minute, but MacAllister pushed it just wide right. A couple of minutes later, Perisic had a really great back flick header off of Majer’s corner into the middle of box. Two of his teammates just barely missed being able to run onto it for potential easy goal. Another lost Croatian opportunity. With time running out, Croatia created a few more opportunities, but it was nothing that Martinez couldn’t handle.

Argentina’s win meant Messi will set the record for most World Cup games played in Sunday’s final. It has been 36 years since Argentina’s last championship and eight years since they lost the 2014 final to Germany. Can Argentina win one for the great Messi? – AW

France 2 – 0 Morocco

This is exactly where France was supposed to be—trying to repeat as champion—and is not where anyone expected Morocco to be. Morocco is carrying the weight and support of both Africa and the Middle East into this game. France seeks to join fellow two-time winner Argentina in the final and become the first nation to repeat since Brazil in 1962.

France comes out in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Giroud up top being supported by Mbappe, Griezmann, and Dembele, a formidable front line. Morocco was taking no chances with its heavily defensive 5-4-1. En-Nesyri was the sole man up top.

After the tip-off, it took just a few minutes for France to get on the board. On the first real attack of the game, the Griezmann played through to a cutting Mbappe into the box. Centering attempts went poorly, but the ball rebounded out to the left side where Theo Hernandez sat alone. As the ball bounced high, Hernandez did a leaping high left kick to get over the ball and direct it down past the goalie into the net. Morocco was behind for the first time in the tournament.

In the 10th minute, Morocco almost struck back as Ouahi fired a long curling shot at the right side of the net. Lloris had to dive to keep it out. Then, Morocco sprung a good counterattack in the 16th minute, but the left-footed Ziyech had the ball on the right side and couldn’t get a good shot off. Almost immediately, France pushed the ball ahead to Giroud running down the left side unimpeded. He turned toward the goal and struck a blazing left-footer off the left post.

Morocco captain and defender Saiss left the quarterfinal match with a hamstring injury. He only made it through the first 20 minutes of this semi before he had to ask out of the game. With Morocco already behind, they replaced him with a midfielder, Amallah.

Hernandez was making a lot of runs out of the defensive backfield for France, but was getting beat up in the process and taken down several times midway through the first half. The first time results in a yellow card for Boufal and Hernandez had to stay down for a while. The second time should have resulted in a yellow card for Dari, who basically stepped on Hernandez’s shin, but the ref apparently didn’t see it.

In the 35th minute, France got two good opportunities. First Griezmann centered through past Giroud to Fofana, but he hit it high. Then a great playthrough to Mbappe on the left, but his shot was blocked and bounced out to midfield, where Hernandez immediately played it right back into the box to Giroud, whose one-timer sailed wide and high left. Morocco was actually controlling possession early on in the game, but as the half went on, France began to dominate and placed a lot of pressure on the Moroccan defense.

A Moroccan corner kick in the 44th minute was headed out, but El Yamiq at the edge of box bicycle kicked a shot at left corner of net. Lloris barely got a hand on it, though it might have hit post anyway. A minute later, another Moroccan corner by Ziyech came down in the middle of box where a Moroccan player sailed high to head it. Once again, Lloris was again able to get a hand on it and push it out, before falling on it. A minute later, a Boufal foul gave Morocco a free kick. Ziyech’s kick came down in the box and forced Lloris to punch out. One final Ziyech free kick before the half ended was put over the defense, but just beyond the on-rushing Amallah. Morocco really ended the half with momentum. Only down one goal, they had to feel pretty good going into the 2nd half.

A couple of minutes into the 2nd half, Mbappe did his magic down the left side to the end line. However, his centering pass was behind the attackers. A minute later, a through pass to Mbappe was just beyond his reach. He tried to draw a foul, but the ref wasn’t having it. A few minutes later, Mbappe was taken down by Amrabat just outside the box by the end line. Again, no foul was called and Mbappe seemed to have hurt his ankle and had to go to the sideline.

While Mbappe was off the pitch, Morocco pushed the attack down the right side and got a good center from Hakimi that Varane just barely beat En-Nesyri to. Morocco immediately pushed another attack, where Boufal also can’t get his center to a striker. A few minutes later, another Moroccan attack found Hakimi in the middle but he was unable to turn to make the shot in time. Morocco was overloading the left side, where they pushed a couple more attacks. Time and again though, their centering passes could not find a Moroccan foot. Nevertheless, Morocco seemed to have taken control of this game and the French defense was a bit on its heels. The French defense was fortunate that Moroccan passes were not finding targets.

France finally was able to push an attack in the 68th minute off a free kick from left sideline. Griezemann’s kick was wide right, but was pushed back into Mbappe, who made some moves, but has his shot was blocked. Thuram was taken down a minute later by while on another run. Griezman’s kick from 10 yards outside the box was a little wide to the right and Thuram couldn’t quite direct the header on goal. France seemed to have turned the tide, with yet another Thuram run down the left. He pushed a through ball, but the shot was wide left.

In the 79th minute, another attack by France down the left featured a Mbappe-Thuram give and go. Mbappe dribbled through several defenders in the box and fired a shot that was deflected. However, it worked as a crossing pass to Muani who literally had just subbed into the game. Muani who beat the defender to the ball and buried the point-blank shot. Mbappe basically drew so much of the Moroccan defense that Muani was lost in the shuffle.
The match was basically over at this point. Morocco tried to press, but couldn’t string passes, while France was playing keep away. Mbappe had a nice nutmeg in the midfield and tried to go solo, but a defender was able to tackle the ball away.

Morocco’s last gasp came three minutes into stoppage time as Attiyat-Allah’s strong run toward the left post and good center resulted in shot that couldn’t get through defense, but the defense couldn’t clear either. Ounahi struck a half-volley that was blocked by Hernandez. The ball got kicked around a bit in front of net before Kounde’s clear finally comes. The final whistle sounded shortly thereafter. – AW

France is returning to defend its World Cup title. This final is really no surprise. France and Argentina were two of the three pre-Cup favorites. Messi and Mbappe are neck-and-neck for both the Golden Boot and Golden Ball. Whoever’s team wins the final is likely to net the Golden Ball MVP award. They are currently tied in the Golden Boot race for top scorer with five goals apiece. Sunday’s final should be a doozy.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Quarterfinals

We’re down to 8 teams left.  These quarterfinals would turn out to be some of the best futbol of this World Cup so far.

Croatia 1 (4-2 pen) 1 Brazil: Five-time winner Brazil is looking to get back to the finals for the first time since facing Germany on their home soil eight years ago. Other than that disastrous appearance, they’ve been bounced out of the World Cup at the quarterfinal level in 3 of the last 4 tourneys. Can A Seleção avoid the quarterfinal curse this time? Croatia was a surprise finalist four years ago in Russia and this is likely superstar Luka Modric’s last go-round on the World Cup stage. Can the Vatreni shock the world against the heavily-favored Brazilians? Croatia plays a 4-1-2-3 formation with a dangerous left side that has Perisic at wing and Modric at left mid. Brazil runs 4-2-3-1 with Richarlison up top and Neymar in the prime distribution area behind him.

Brazil had the better first half shots, but was putting everything right at Livakovic in goal. Croatia clogs the goal box whenever Brazil threatens. Croatia’s best first half opportunity came on a cross into the box for Perisic about the 12-minute mark, but he couldn’t quite get a good foot on it. Still Croatia had to feel good about keeping Brazil goalless in the first half.

Brazil came out in the 2nd half putting tremendous pressure on the Croatian defense with better shots, but a great save by Livakovic keeps his sheet clean. Another build-up results in great opportunity for Neymar but he couldn’t get a good foot on it. Croatia is fortunate that an inadvertent handball in the box was negated by an offsides call. Croatia’s defense time and again prevents good angles on shots by Brazil.

Brazil subbed out Richarlison for Pedro at the 83-minute mark. Richarlison had two fantastic goals in this tournament, one of which is the goal of the Cup so far, and is Brazil’s most dangerous finisher. Don’t understand why they would take him out. The game was scoreless at the end of 90, but you had the feeling that Croatia was comfortable in this position as they have been tied at the end of regulation quite a lot in this tournament. With the way that Livakovic shut down Japan in PKs, they would be justifiably confident if they could get the game to penalty kicks.

In first extra period, Brazil maintained the pressure, but Croatia remained stout. Croatia’s best opportunity of game came toward end of the period when Petkovic split two defenders and laid one across for Brozovic, but he sailed his shot high. Toward the end of stoppage time in the period, Brazil finally executed some of their beautiful game. Neymar made a run up the middle and was rewarded with a deft give and go that had him breaking in free on the goalie. Rather than take the quick shot, he pushed the ball beyond the advancing Livakovic and hammered it home.

With only 15 minutes remaining in their tournament life, Croatia had to start taking some risks. About 11 minutes into the second extra period, a quick counterattack down the left side to Orsic is completed with a perfect delivery to the top of the box where Petkovic slammed a left-footer home. Penalty kicks here we come.

Livakovic stoned the first PK by Brazil. Croatia makes its first four shots, while Brazil made the next two. Marquinhos needed to make fourth Brazil kick to keep hope alive, but slammed it off the left post. Brazil overwhelmingly had the shot, shot on goal, and corner kick advantage, but were unable to make the most of those opportunities because of the suffocating defense and great goal-keeping by Livakovic. The Croatian goalie was the star of this match and Croatia is returning to the semi-finals for the second straight time and are looking for a repeat return to the finals. Meanwhile, Brazil, the number one team in the world is sent home in the quarters again. – AW

Netherlands 2 (3-4 pen) 2 Argentina: The Netherlands and Argentina have a long history at the World Cup, facing off in the 1978 finals and prior semis and quarters. The Oranje play the 3-4-1-2 and have 6’8”, but inexperienced Andries Noppert in goal. His only international experience has been in this World Cup. La Albiceleste run a 3-5-2 with Messi and Alvarez up front. Messi is likely playing in his last World Cup. Can he extend his time in the tournament?

Noppert nearly made a brutal mistake in the 7th minute, passing the ball out of the goal box just barely by an oncoming Argentine striker. Messi got his first shot at the 21st minute, but curled it up just a little high and wide. Argentina was really putting some early pressure on the Netherlands defense, but the Dutch settled in and are very quick to the ball, taking away angles and packing the middle to try to attempt to prevent Messi magic. Whenever Messi touched the ball near the box, he usually had 3-5 defenders surrounding him.
Although this game had similarities to the Brazil-Croatia game, it would not remain scoreless in regulation. In the 34th minute, Messi threaded a no-look pass to a cutting Molina up the middle past the defense. Molina struck his shot past Noppert into the left side of the net.

On set pieces, Netherlands kept running two players toward the ball, with the first one running by ball and the second one kicking it. They were not faking anyone out and needed to vary their approach.

The referee seemed to lose control a bit of the match. A lot of yellow cards were issued, including several against the benches. Netherlands had no shots on goal in the first half. The Argentine defense spread itself wider than the Dutch defense, but still didn’t allow runs or passes through. Netherlands was not using their height advantage by putting any crosses high into the box for much of the game.

Early in the second half, Messi committed a very bad handball foul, but the referee didn’t book him. Did he get the superstar treatment? One of his teammates got a yellow for a similarly deliberate handball in the first half. This would become important later.
In the 60th minute, Messi got pulled down outside the box, but his resulting free kick was just barely high. Ten minutes later, Acuna tried cutting back in left side of box and got pulled down. The contact was pretty minimal, but a PK was declared. Messi did a little stutter step which appeared to freeze Noppert and he buried the penalty kick in the right side of the net. Argentina had to feel pretty good about a two-goal lead with about 20 minutes left.

The desperate Dutch immediately brought a forceful attack, but Argentine goalie Emiliano Martinez picked a long ball into the box out of the air and then stood over a fallen de Jong, much like LeBron James over Draymond Green in the NBA Finals some years ago. Tempers flared and players on both teams get booked. With the number of yellow cards, both coaches had to worry about players getting a 2nd yellow and ejected from game.
With the Dutch increasing their pressure, they finally remembered to use their height. In the 83rd minute, Berghuis curled a long cross from right side onto the head of 6’6” Weghorst in the middle of box and he banged it into left corner of net. The Dutch followed up with even more desperate pressure and Berghuis just barely missed with another shot minutes later that went into the side of net.

In the 88th minute, a near riot ensued after Paredes took down Van Dijk in front of the Dutch bench and then fired the ball into their bench. Numerous Dutch players came off bench and Paredes got knocked down. Paredes got one yellow card for the takedown, but probably should have been ejected for firing ball at the bench.

As game went into stoppage time, 10 extra minutes were announced because of frequent time-wasting and yellow-card knockdowns. The Dutch got an early free kick outside the box, but Berghuis couldn’t get his shot through the Argentine wall. With time running out, the Dutch got another free kick just outside the box. Messi gets a yellow for arguing the call. Had he gotten a yellow for the deliberate handball earlier, this would have resulted in his ejection. As the wall jumped, Koopmeiners instead rolled a slow ball to the side of the wall to Weghorst, who controlled with the first touch and turned to put a left footer into the left side of the net to tie it up. Finally, something different from one of their set pieces and it worked perfectly and just in time. The benches cleared again at end of regulation. The last second goal by the Dutch absolutely stunned the Argentines.

Each team has one good opportunity in first extra period, but couldn’t convert. There was also more fouling, but the ref kept the card in his pocket. However, the card came out early in the second extra period when Montiel said something that he shouldn’t have after a takedown. A few minutes later, Pezzella knocks Gakpo down on a breakaway and got booked. The free kick got through, but the Dutch can’t get a good foot on the ball.
Argentina threatened with a nice sequence where DiMaria set up Fernandez, who in turn delivered a perfectly placed ball to Martinez, but his shot was deflected. As time was running out, Argentina ramped up the pressure. They clearly did not want to go to penalty kicks. However, the Dutch defense would not wilt. Noppert shut down one good shot and punched out DiMaria’s attempt to curl in a corner kick. Argentina put another one off the left post. The rally was averted and for the second time today, we were going to penalty kicks. Noppert had never faced a penalty shootout in his professional career. Would that lack of experience cost the Dutch?

Martinez guessed right and blocked the first two Dutch penalty kicks. He made no saves during the game, but came up strong here. Messi, Paredes, and Montiel deliver on the first three Argentine kicks. Koopmeiners, Weghorst, and de Jong make the next three kicks for the Dutch, while Fernandez was wide left in the 4th position for Argentina. So, it came down to Lautaro Martinez with the 5th penalty kick for Argentina. He put a perfectly placed ball into the left side of net. Noppert’s inexperience likely was deadly. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dutch arguing during the shootout resulted in two yellows for Dumfries and a yellow for Lang. None of it mattered as Argentina was through to the semis. – AW

Morocco 1 – 0 Portugal:  Morocco are the only non-European or South American team left in the tournament. Portugal has been a constant World Cup disappointment throughout the storied career of Cristiano Ronaldo. Both come into this game with something to prove. The Atlas Lions play a pretty standard 4-3-3 formation as does Os Navegadores. Portugal again starts with Cristiano Ronaldo on the bench.

Portugal controlled things early on, but Morocco brought everyone back on defense. However, Morocco would make quick counterattacks down the sides and was finding space to operate. In the 42nd minute, on a high cross into the box, En-Nesyri soared over a defender and the goalie and directed his header down and bounced it into the net.
In first half stoppage time, the referee did call a foul in the box against a Moroccan defender. Portugal rightly upset that they didn’t get a PK. However, they responded with an excellent opportunity that went off the top post. Morocco in turn had a great shot that was just barely wide left. Morocco went into the half with their one goal lead.

Minutes into the second half, a brilliant free kick from outside the box on the right by El Yamiq, into the goal box flooded with Moroccans. Costa was just able to make the save and a rebound went off a defender. Five minutes into the second half, Ronaldo subbed in. Portugal looked better without him in the first knockout game. Can Ronaldo now be the hero leading a comeback in this one?

A Ramos header goes just wide in the 58th minute, but both teams were finding some success on high crosses into the box. Morocco had a speed advantage that they were using to quickly counterattack, but were otherwise staying home to frustrate Portugal. In the 83rd minute, Ronaldo set us Felix for a left-footer just inside the goal box, but Bounou made a great save by just getting a hand on the ball to direct it out. As stoppage time began, Ronaldo got an opportunity, but fired it right at Bounou for another save.
A couple of minutes into stoppage time, Cheddira got a 2nd yellow and was ejected. If it was going to win the game, Morocco would have to do so with 10 players on pitch. Foul was not yellow-worthy in my opinion.

Portugal was getting really desperate and throwing numbers into the final 3rd. Five minutes into stoppage time, Morocco played a long pass into the Portugal side with a striker running onto it, but he couldn’t quite get a good foot on shot and hits it weakly at Costa. In their final chance, Pepe’s header on a cross from the left is wide. History is made as Morocco becomes the first African squad to make it to the semi-finals. Ronaldo was crying in the tunnels as he left realizing that his likely final World Cup was another disappointment. – AW

England 1 – 2 France:  It’s the English Channel game with England trying to erase over 50 years of World Cup frustration facing off against the defending champs. The Three Lions operate out of a 4-3-3 formation with captain and star Harry Kane as the center striker. Les Bleus create through a 4-3-2-1 formation with Oliver Giroud up top and player of the tournament so far, Killian Mbappe, on the left wing.

France pressed hard on the English defense early. In the 16th minute, France started a counterattack from deep in their own end and the ensuing run moved the ball all over the field stretching the defense. The ball found Mbappe who sent the it wide right to Griezmann, who pus it back to Tchouameni in the middle. From outside the box, the midfielder ripped a shot deep into the left side of the goal through traffic and under a defender’s legs.

Immediately after, England got a free kick outside, but close to the box. On the kick, the Englishmen next to the French wall duck and the shot goes through the hole, but Lloris played it perfectly for the easy save. Minutes later though he was forced to make a great save on a Kane shot. In the 25th minute, Kane got tripped up while dribbling into the box on right side. No foul was called, but there was a VAR review. Turned out that contact was just outside the box, so play was continued. It looked like Kane pushed off before trip in any event.

Lloris made another great save in 28th minute. On the resulting corner, ball is driven into middle of the box where it just sat for several seconds as players on both teams tried to kick it in or out. Finally, Rabiot pulled the ball out to the right and cleared it. Whenever Mbappe got the ball, he received a lot of attention. Clearly England did not want to give him room to create. The half ended with France holding onto the slim 1-nil lead.

Early in the 2nd half, Henderson set up Bellingham to rip a shot, but Lloris just got a hand on it to tip it over for another huge save. There was some confusion in the box on the resulting corner kick before the ball found Lloris. Five minutes in, the hero becomes the heavy as goal scorer Tchouameni tripped up Saka in box. Kane took the penalty kick and blasted it into the top left corner to even things up. No goalie could have stopped that even if they guessed the right direction. Perfectly placed.

On the ensuing kick-off, France dropped a deep pass to Ravio up the middle. He one-timed it, but couldn’t get quite enough on it. A minute later, Mbappe outraced the defense down the left side and played a good cross to the middle of the box, but it didn’t find any of the French strikers. On the other end, England was doing what no French opponent had done in the tourney. Put shots on goal. Lloris had 6 saves already in the 60th minute.

On a set piece in 69th minute, McGuire flicked a header toward the left post, but it was just barely wide, skidding off the post. England really changed the game in the 2nd half, controlling the midfield and finding space for shots. Pickford had his first big save in 76th minute. Giroud one-timed a header, but Pickford dove to his right to punch it out. On the ensuing corner, the ball was cleared out to the French midfield and they pushed it right back to Griezmann on the right side. He delivered what was essentially a second corner kick to the middle of the box. This time, Giroud used his noggin to find the left side of the net. France back on top.

Just minutes later, Hernandez ran through Mount on a cross into box. No foul was called initially, but the VAR review confirmed it. Hernandez got a yellow and England got a PK. Really stupid foul by Hernandez. Kane again took the kick, but it sailed high over the goal and France breathed a sigh of relief. Kane appeared to have let the goalie’s dive alter his plan and he will regret that mistake.

Lot of time lost in the second half with the VAR review and subs. 8 minutes of stoppage time was added. It was desperation time for England. Play was getting really rough, but ref was letting a lot go. In the 99th minute, McGuire was taken down just outside box. On potentially the last chance of the game for England, Rashford’s free kick was just barely high and the final whistle sounded. Lloris was the man of this match, time and time again with the saves and interceptions of crosses into the box. – AW

So the quarterfinals are now set with two former champions, the two finalists from the last World Cup, the first African country to make it this far, perhaps the final go-rounds for superstars Lionel Messi and Luka Modric, and the emergence of the next great star, Killian Mbappe. The semi-finals should be good.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Round of Sixteen

Play Time is over. This is where the bat meets the ball…

Netherlands 3-1 USA: Your first playoff game is not the best time to start somebody, especially a striker, that has not played all tournament. That’s what US coach Gregg Berhalter did when he brought in his third striker, Jesus Ferreira, to start up top. This basically screamed to everybody, especially their Dutch opponents, that the US still hadn’t found reliable finishing. The Netherlands played with numbers behind the ball, then got out quickly in transition by moving the ball around, moving players into angles and space through diagonal runs, and not playing a straight east-west attack.

In the first nine minutes the US took the game to the Dutch, moving the ball specifically to the left to get their best player, Christian Pulisic, to get the ball into the box. This kept the Dutch from building up an organized attack going forward. But it took only one coordinated buildup, their first one, for the Netherlands to temper the US enthusiasm. In the 10th minute, the Netherlands used good movement to spread the field in attack when right flanker Denzel Dumfries sent a pinpoint cross into the center for front man Memphis Depay, left alone and trailing in late, one-timed it from the center of the box past keeper Matt Turner to the bottom left corner.

A score this early meant the game changed for both sides. A more organized Dutch team out of possession practically dared the US to get in a track meet with them, practically telling them, “You wanna run with us? Bring it!” More possession for the US, but the Dutch didn’t give them the space to get forward. Even though the Dutch weren’t pressing high, when the US did have the space to get into the opposition half, their passing lanes were cut off and they were quickly dispossessed. In the first minute of stoppage time, the Dutch goal was practically a carbon copy of the first: Dumfries with a pinpoint cross just behind the US backline, this time with left wingback Daley Blind trailing in to one-time it out of the reach of Turner.

Dumfries was the player of the game, constantly beating the US defense on the right to provide accurate service into the box. The last half of the game Pulisic was making most of the shots on goal from long range, indicating he had no faith in his “finishers”. The US was quickly getting into the final third from the left side, but they were met with a wall of Dutch defenders that had just as quickly gotten back into the box. Sending players in waves late – and leaving the back woefully open — Haji Wright found himself with a touch just in front of the right corner of the goal that cheekily found its way into the goal in the 76th minute (I really don’t think he meant to do that, that’s just how the ball incidentally bounced).

The Dutch quickly put the kibosh on what had temporarily been US hope. Overcommitting on the right, the US backline left Dumfries totally alone on the left when he snuck into the box and finished a long cross from Daley Blind only five minutes later. The Dutch are hitting on all cylinders now, especially with a backline that is tough to break and clinical attacking and finishing. The USA won the possession battle almost 3-2 and even took more shots 17(8) – 11(6), but they are gone from this tournament because of what has plagued them throughout, their inability to find a consistent finisher up front. – DK

Argentina 2-1 Australia: Too many questions coming into this one for Australia as they are dealing with significant injury issues to some of their starters, so it remains to be seen if they can counter in transition (they will also play for set pieces). Argentina do what they do: exert positional dominance, bring the wingers in and use both ball skills and deft passing to build a rhythm and get the ball up front. It’s a mistake for the Socceroos to stay compact and give up possession to the Albiceleste; their ball skills and attack are way too structured and coordinated to let them have the ball too long.

As is expected, Lionel Messi sits in the space between the midfield and back, runs into a sliver of space, and finishes a zinger through bodies in front in the 35th minute. The Australians had to chase the game and up the tempo going forward thereafter. In response, the Albiceleste pressed higher. A Argentinian press up high in the 57th minute caused a fatal Australian mistake in their own box that Julian Alvarez converted into a goal.

A triple substitution for Australia on 72 minutes signified a desperate last roll of the dice by manager Arnold and they were handed a lifeline when an own goal by Enzo Fernandez halved their deficit 13 minutes from time. Craig Goodwin latched onto a loose ball outside the box and struck a fierce effort first-time, which took a huge deflection off Fernandez, ending up in the goal. In their 2-1 opening group match against Saudi Arabia, when Argentina allowed an early goal, they panicked and came undone. But this time they withstood the predictable Socceroos onslaught. Despite their desire, a comeback didn’t materialize for Australia. – DK

France 3-1 Poland: Les Bleus rolled out their starters this time. Poland made their intentions known by rolling out five advanced midfielders, so they were going to try and keep France back as much as possible. While everybody expects France to dominate this one, Poland still has the best finisher in the world the last two years, poacher Robert Lewandowski, so they are always going to have a chance. Poland was very aggressive high, even pressuring French keeper Hugo Lloris, and challenged France everywhere in their own end. The Poles were always going to surround Kilian Mbappe’ with two or more players on the left, who is so good a gaining separation.

The Polish wingers were putting in low crosses with power, meaning that any redirection by anybody up front was going to leave Lloris unprepared. Poland was better at combination play in the box, keeping France’s backline busy having to clear balls out. France needed to find space inside to get some effective attacking buildup, and they finally found it in the 44th minute when Mbappe’ came inside with the ball and put in a through-ball to a running Olivier Giroud beating the off-side trap for the tap-in. Poland then went to advancing quickly down the wings and pounding it inside. Midway through the second half, France started getting better possession in the middle and center through turnovers and cutting off passing lanes as Poland, having run up and down most of the game, were beginning to show weariness out of possession.

I’m going to make a declarative statement here: KILIAN MBAPPE’ IS THE BEST FUTBOL PLAYER IN THE WORLD! He doubled France’s advantage on 75 minutes with a powerful strike before adding another with a sensational curled finish into the far top right corner — his fifth of the tournament. Poland deciding to play a fast counterattacking game against the fastest player in the world was always going to be risky. Outside of a garbage time penalty by Lewandowski, France’s center back Rafael Varane constantly put a body on him when Lewandowski came inside, never giving his the space to make real contact on service. The ending we all figured would happen. – DK

England 3-0 Senegal: Marcus Rashford went back to the bench (?!) in favor of Bukayo Saka. Senegal was going to do what they always do: Interrupt the England attack in the middle third and pump the ball up into the final third to their two forwards. Similarly, England pressed in the middle third to keep Senegal from making those long passes early. For most of the tournament so far, front man Harry Kane has been pushed outside to keep him from getting on the end of a chance in the box, so he became more of a provider than a finisher.

Senegal looked more dangerous in the final third because they were forcing cheap turnovers deep in England’s end. But all their defensive efforts went for naught in the 38th minute when an anchor man Jordan Henderson unexpectedly came late through the middle on a righteous buildup by Kane and Jude Bellingham on the left to get on the end of Bellingham service to one-time a goal. Getting quickly behind the Senegal defense on the wings and sending a cross with some cheese on it into the middle for a one-time shot seemed to be working for the 3 Lions.

But it was a deadly counter through the middle that doubled England’s lead with an odd-man rush resulting in a Kane goal just before halftime. The wheels came off for Senegal in the 57th minute when England started finding large amounts of space in the opposition half and Saka ran onto service from Phil Foden on the left to score a one-timer just in front of goal. The England win now sets up a delicious quarterfinal between the 3 Lions and the defending champions next Saturday. – DK

Japan 1-1 Croatia (1-3 pen): Japan has had only 34% possession throughout this tournament so far. Their tactical approach is spend the first half staying tactically compact and disciplined, then change to a more direct running approach after that. Croatia got the ball into spaces and made coordinated thrusts into the opposition end. Japan was usually there to cut it off and make runs down the flank (usually the right), then cross it in for somebody to get onto (usually unsuccessfully). That’s because Japan’s early attacks usually involved one or two players quickly getting into the final third but without help trailing in keeping up, allowing Croatia to get numbers behind the ball. But in the 43rd minute, Japan defender Maya Yoshida getting forward in the box on a corner, nodded the ball down for Daizen Maeda to tap in.

It usually takes Croatia time to figure out their opponents, where the space and open lanes are, but once they figure it out, they then start to dominate possession and spend a lot of time in the final third. In the 55th minute, a slow buildup in the Japanese half finished with a Dejan Lovren cross with cheese on it from the right into inverted winger Ivan Peresic, who just had to redirect the ball into the far right end. Wow, those have to be the worst penalty kicks – by Japan – in the history of penalty kicks.

Brazil 4-1 South Korea: Neymar is back from injury, and so is their standard lineup that has him creating just behind the poacher up front. Korea had to get the ball onto the feet of left inverted forward Heong-Min Son, having a so-so tournament so far; their attack goes through him. What has gone practically unnoticed is that Brazil thus far has one of the best defenses in this tournament, with their second team only giving up a scrub time goal in their last group fixture. In less than 13 minutes, however, The Seleção were already taking the steam out of Korea. By the 29th minute, the competitive part of this match was over.
It just became a repetitious dance: press, disposess, transition fast, spread it out to the front wingers, send it in, finish, rinse, repeat! It was as clinical a dismantling as it gets. As commentator Stuart Holden puts it, this was filth at the highest level. In the second half, Brazil just mailed it in, still making those counter runs but with less urgency. Sure, Korea put in a goal in the 78th minute, but by then even they knew this was just saving face. -DK

Morocco 0-0 (3-0 pen) Spain: Alvaro Morata scored in every group fixture but did not start in this one. Morocco were going to let the Spanish defenders have the ball, but their goal is to not give them the center, and as soon as Spain got possession, Morocco surround them. Morocco played it very safe, not sending numbers forward in attack. If Spain was going to get forward, they had to send one or two players forward even if it was just as decoys, designed to open up space in the opposition half and find room for attacking buildup through the center.

The longer the game went without Spain scoring, the more uncharacteristically impatient they became, and the more confident Morocco became in the back and going forward. For all their possession Spain created precious few chances, but still more than Morocco, and they were able to find targets in the box that could get onto it and would have been goals but for Morocco cleaning them up. Morocco’s best and most creative player was Hakim Ziyech, who they needed on the pitch but in a match that went into extra time was clearly getting tired with Spain putting constant pressure on him. The match clearly evolved into who would score first because that was probably going to be the winning score (it never came for either side).

Spain has as much futbol talent as any country on the planet, but the heart and refuse-to-lose quality that defined the Golden Generation from 2007-2012 is no longer there, and they have reverted back to what defined them most in the 50 years leading up to their most rewarding years in the early part of this century. – DK

Portugal 6-1 Switzerland: Forward Ronaldo went to the sub’s bench (I’m sure he pouted about it), while one of the best players in the tournament so far, Bruno Fernandes, is back on as the advanced playmaker on the right wing. On paper this looks like a Portugal win, but the Swiss have a nasty habit of grinding out results. Embola up front is having a great tournament, while the creative buildup is always going to come from Granit Xhaka through the middle and Xherdan Shaqiri on the right. (Side Note: I guess the Qataris have lost interest in this tournament, I saw a lot of empty seats).

A lot of familiarity on the field; both times they played this year they were very physical events. For this game the Swiss looked like they were playing with 3 center backs, playing very narrow. I love that both teams are playing with a sense of urgency from the start. Sharpshooter Gonzalo Ramos, in only his fourth start for Portugal and playing in the spot Ronaldo usually occupies, just needed a half yard of space in the box and rockets it and roofs it 17th minute. In the 33rd minute, 39-year-old Pepe timed his run on a corner perfectly and used that bald head to slam home their second goal.

The Swiss opened up the game in the second half, get in behind the backline and make direct quick switches of play. Portugal needed to be patient in their defensive pressure and kill off the game (they are not immune to blowing leads; it’s why they had to go through a playoff in order to get here). Ramos’ second one-timer in the right corner in the 51st minute put the nail in the Swiss coffin. After that, the pounding just became bloody. A deflated and dispirited Switzerland just let Portugal in at will. Portugal go into their quarterfinal match against Morocco hitting on all cylinders right now. -DK

Earlier matches