The Round of 16 found 6 group winners moving forward. The two second-place finishers that won, Russia and England, did not look particularly impressive in doing so, each squeaking through on penalty kicks. The two sides of the quarterfinals bracket have some slight differences in the quality of the competition. One side of the bracket has no team ranked lower than 14th in the world rankings. The highest ranked team on the other side of the bracket is 12th ranked England and all the other teams in that bracket are ranked 20th or lower, in one case, much lower. So what do we have to look forward to in the quarterfinals?
Uruguay vs. France
Uruguay got past Portugal in the round of 16 despite the Portuguese dominating possession and shots because they played a deep and disciplined backline and bet on their attackers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani to get the job done up front, which they did. France has a new star in the making, Kylian Mbappe, and topped Argentina in the round of 16 by making good use of his explosiveness. However, the French gave up more goals to Argentina than they did in three group games because Messi and the Argentines were the first offensively proficient team they faced.
Unlike Portugal who had difficulty breaking through Uruguay’s defense, France has the speed and one-on-one ability in Mbappe up front and Paul Pogba in the midfield to find the seams even though Uruguay does not concede many shots. Unlike most players, Mbappe can make his runs to either side of the field, so Uruguay can’t overplay him to one side or the other. On the other end, Suarez and Cavani have the ability and experience to give the French backline a rough time. However, Cavani’s left calf is ailing, which could put them at a disadvantage. France has the more complete squad and should prevail anyway, but if Cavani doesn’t play or is playing hurt, it will be that much easier for France.
Brazil vs. Belgium
Brazil topped Mexico 2-0 in the round of 16 by sending waves of attackers and trusting their defense. Brazil has some of the best one-on-one players in the world and are patient on the attack till the find the cracks to exploit. Belgium was expected to run Japan off the field in their game, but the Japanese played them evenly through the first half and when Belgium pressed the attack in the second half, Japan used their quickness, particularly on the wings to run up two quick goals. Belgium kept up their attack though and quickly got the two goals back. Both teams attacked back and forth looking for the winning goal. Belgium prevailed on a quick counterattack late in extra time.
Brazil and Belgium are the 2nd and 3rd ranked teams in the world, respectively. However, Belgium’s defense has shown cracks against teams with creative offenses and Brazil will be the most creative offense they have faced yet. Brazil has been getting better each game in this Cup and their veteran defense has given up only one goal so far. Brazil ends Belgium’s World Cup run here.
Sweden vs. England
Sweden managed to get by Switzerland last round by playing stout defense and patiently waiting for Emil Forsberg to make some magic on the offensive end. The Swiss also looked to defend heavily and find their spots on offense. It made for a boring game. Despite the Swiss controlling the ball more of the game, Forsberg made the difference late. England survived its bout with Colombia on penalty kicks. Colombia played without their star James Rodriguez, but still played England tough. England has not shown much creativity in their offense in this tournament, but has done well on penalty and free kicks.
Sweden and England figures to be a boring game with little scoring. Neither team creates well enough against stiff defenses. Sweden will have to watch its fouls in the defensive third lest they give the English the edge they need with a set piece. The English defense will have to keep a close eye on Forsberg. This game could go either way and figures to be won by the team that makes the least mistakes. I give England the slight edge to be that team.
Russia vs. Croatia
Russia managed to get by Spain in the round of 16 by way of Spain’s inability to create in the offensive third and some questionable referee calls and non-calls. The Russians spent the entire second half and the extra periods surviving by pulling everyone back on defense. Their goalie then bailed them out in the penalty kicks phase. Croatia also got to the quarterfinals via penalty kicks against Denmark. Croatia gave up a first minute goal to Denmark, but struck back minutes later and then settled down on both ends of the field. They created a number of scoring opportunities, but couldn’t finish. They showed some backbone though winning the shootout after star Luka Modric couldn’t convert a penalty kick late in the game.
Croatia and Russia appears to be a mismatch in the Croats favor, but then, so did Spain and Russia. As with every other game against superior teams, Russia will play a patient defense-heavy game and hope for a breakdown by Croatia or penalty kicks. Croatia will control the midfield and count on the attacking front of Mandzukic, Pericic, Rebic, and Modric to do a better job of creating opportunities than Spain did. Modric creates a lot of scoring opportunities and he will need to ramp it up a notch against Russia’s 11-man defense. Croatia should end Russia’s surprising World Cup run barring another run of fortunate refereeing.