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FIFA World Cup 2018: Quarterfinals Day One

Quarter-finals Day One

Uruguay 0-2 France

This was not going to be as potent a squad in attack for Uruguay without Edinson Cavani partnering up front with Luis Suarez in the box due to injury, so less reliable Christian Stuani came in to play just behind Suarez in a 4-1-2-1-2 diamond formation that played like a 4-4-2. But they did still have the best defense in the tournament with Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez at the heart of the four-man backline, Lucas Torreira providing them cover, and the thrust of their attack is to get the ball to Suarez as quickly as they can, getting help from flankers Matías Vecino and Nahitan Nández and trailing help from attacking midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur up the middle. France started out with a standard 4-2-3-1 formation that could morph into a 4-5-1, N’Golo Kanté the hard man in front of the four-man backline, with box-to-box center midfielder Paul Pogba winning the ball and introducing the attack, center midfielder Antoine Griezmann making attacking runs through the center, Olivier Girould the target man up top and speedy scorer Kilian Mbappé coming in from the right.

The key match-up was how Uruguayan left back Diego Laxalt handled Kilian Mbappé, and if Laxalt was going to make overlapping runs given the responsibilities he had in the back. Uruguay were going to challenge France high, not giving them a chance to build up that quick transition attack; they surrounded Pogba and made him work for every possession. Pressure from both sides defensively but choppy going forward; neither side was going to allow the other to build up a head of steam in attack, breaking up each other’s offensive rhythm and tempo. Godin is a dying breed, an old-fashioned defender, thinks nothing but defense, always organizing the backline, never comes up to attack.

The pace of the game favored Uruguay; France just couldn’t get into their fast buildup. Even when the ball made it into the box for France, there just wasn’t any panic in Uruguay’s game. On a 40th minute set piece, Griezmann stutter-stepped a free kick, freezing Uruguay and opening up Raphaël Varane to head one in, the only time Uruguay were 6’s and 7’s at any time in this tournament. Then Griezmann with a shot with some cheese on it that goalkeeper Fernando Muslera can’t handle and puts in his own goal in the 61st minute.

It changed everything for Uruguay, who up until then had controlled pace and tempo, but now they had to chase the game and put numbers forward, opening up all kinds of lanes for France to pass and run into in counter. But France started dropping players back into their own end in defense and maintain possession. Good effort by Uruguay, but they didn’t looked even close to getting on the scoreboard. I thought the best organized team in this tournament was Uruguay, but two fatal errors in the back did them in, plus without Cavani they weren’t able to play the way they wanted to play. Not the best from France, but they did enough to get through.

Brazil 1-2 Belgium

Quite a few changes for the Selacao in this one, going with a spread 3-4-3 formation, Marcelo on the left wing assisting talisman flanker Neymar, with Willian flanking in the box on the right. Cultured striker Gabriel Jesus in the box, but the important player trailing in through the center is Philippe Coutinho. A number of significant changes for the Belgians as well in a risky yet attacking 4-3-3 formation. Box-to-box midfielder Marouane Fallaini comes in to introduce the attack from the center as well as provide cover when Axel Witsel abandons the center. Talisman Eden Hazard providing service into the box, Kevin De Bruyne providing crosses from the right with Romelu Lukaku the sole target man up front looking to get on the end of service to either score or bring in trailing help.

A three-man backline and emphasis on service through the center meant that Nacer Chadli and Thomas Meunier had a lot of responsibilities on the sides. Belgium was most likely to sit back and counter, hoping that Lukaku would occupy center backs Mirando and Thiago Silva enough to bring in De Bruyne and Hazard. Both teams pressed high from the outset, looking to build from the back, although Belgium would have loved to have turned it into a track meet. Whether through a patient buildup or a quick strike, not much of this game was spent in the middle third.

Belgium looked to use their size advantage, and it paid off in the 13th minute on a set piece corner from Chadli to Vincent Kompany. A track meet is what Belgium were able to turn this into; a clinical attack by Lukaku through the middle brings in De Bruyne to hit a laser to the back post in the 31st minute. Same attack for Belgium coming out of halftime; interception by their defense deep, getting the ball to De Bruyne to find Lukaku cutting on the inside with an outlet pass on the break. Surprisingly Belgium did all of this without much help from Hazard.

Good combination play from Brazil the last 45 minutes, but they were getting interrupted in the final third and having to transition back quickly to thwart the Belgium counterattack. Roberto Firmino came in after the half and provided much better attacking on the right side, as well as switching play much more effectively. Renato Augusto was subbed into the game to make deep runs through the center of the defense into the box and get on the end of crosses; that’s exactly what happened in his goal in the 76th minute on an assist by Coutinho.

Long switches by Brazil from side to side were causing all kinds of problems for Belgium. In an attempt to hold on, Belgium brought on Youri Tielemans to clog up the middle and interrupt the Selacao attack. Belgiun head coach Roberto Martinez got his tactics right on the day, his big time players showed up big time and got it done.

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FIFA World Cup 2018: Quarterfinals Preview

World Cup Trophy

The Quarterfinals

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.

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FIFA World Cup 2018: Knockout Round Day One

One and done time…

France 4-3 Argentina

France played a 4-2-3-1 that played like an advanced 4-1-4-1, with N’Golo Kanté protecting the backline, Paul Pogba the sideline-to-sideline midfielder expected to get forward into channels in the center to help the attack, the explosive Kylian Mbappé making runs in from the right, the target man Olivier Giroud up front waiting to get the ball on a trailing Antoine Greizmann. Argentina played its customary 4-3-3, with Lionel Messi playing a false-9 up front, so they were going to expect a lot from the wide playes, Nicolás Tagliafico and Angel di Maria on the left, and Gabriel Mercado and Cristian Pavón, although Éver Banega was expected to get into attacking channels in the center. France played a considerably high line considering it was Messi they had to defend.

Mbappé’s early explosiveness caused a penalty in the box in the 13th minute; Greizmann converted. Kanté was so good at covering the center that France could afford to take some chances forward. Argentina couldn’t handle Mbappé’s speed; France taking one long ball after another over the top to him through the center. Argentina wanted Messi to play near the box in a false-9, but he spent more time playing deep bringing the ball forward. You can have all the defending you want, if you close down the box and let someone have a long shot outside of it, bad things can happen. It finally happened in the 41st minute, when France failed to close down di Maria outside the box and he sent one sailing into the right side of the net. Argentina were going to be patient, maintaining a patient possession until they could get the ball to Messi. Gabriel Mercado deflected a Messi shot on a set piece to take the lead in the 48th minute.

France got taken out of their game, playing a lot more cautiously instead of playing long balls to their speedy players up front. On Benjamin Pavard’s goal in the 57th minute, they played like they were supposed to; a long ball over the top down the left flank to Lucas Hernandez, who sent a long cross into the center to Pavard. When Pogba got on the ball, France played over-the-top; he sent another long pass to the left flank to Hernandez, who sent it in to the box to Mbappé with the finish in the 64rd minute. Argentina just couldn’t handle Les Bleus’ speed, as evidenced by Mbappé’s toe poke in the 68th minute; Pogba again with the patient buildup in the center, gets the ball quickly to Giroud, who one-times it to Mbappé. France knew what areas of the field to attack with their speed, and took advantage of it perfectly. Kun Aguero came on in the 65th minute to get up top and receive the ball in the box and put shots on goa; that’s what he did in the 3rd minute of stoppage time on a cultured pass from Messi (why Argentina didn’t have a true striker up front is beyond me). One helluva finish in a fun match to watch; the best game of the tournament so far. Messi and Argentina have some ‘splaining to do.

Uruguay 2-1 Portugal

This game was going to come down to the center of Uruguay’s disciplined, physical, no-nonsense defense, Diego Godín and José Giménez (who haven’t given up a goal leading up to this game) versus the otherworldly talents of Cristiano Ronaldo in the box, and Uruguay’s counterattack versus Portugal’s pragmatism. Uruguay played a 4-1-2-1-2 that played like a wide 4-4-2 diamond, looking for Rodrigo Bentancur to slide in from the left to the center, but quickly getting the ball in the attacking third to Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani up top. Portugal employed a disciplined 4-4-2 that played more like a 4-2-2-2, with Ronaldo floating around freely from the left, but flank play was going to be important with João Mário and Bernardo Silva bringing the ball forward with Ronaldo trailing in.

A lot of body checking, as I expected both teams to interrupt their opponents with very physical play. The one-two game between Suarez and Cavani got Uruguay on the board early in the 7th minute. Uruguay closed down the back by dropping defensive midfielder Lucas Torreira back into a five-man backline. Uruguay was happy to let Ronaldo get the ball on the flanks, because every time he and tried to bring it inside, there were two Uruguayan players to close him down. Uruguay looked more comfortable on the ball despite giving up a vast amount of the possession. But Portugal has size and are good in the air and on 50/50 balls, and they took advantage of that on their set-piece goal in the 55th minute by Pepe (when you give up as much possession as Uruguay gave up you have to expect bad things will eventually happen).

A much more confident offensive buildup by Portugal in the second half, moving the ball from side to side. The one-two by Suarez and Cavani rose to the occasion in the 62nd minute. I expected to see a lot of reckless challenges throughout this game, and I was not wrong. In the 65th minute Portugal brought on flanker Ricardo Quaresma to get more attacking quality down the right flank. We tend to forget that Ronaldo started off life as a flanker, so when he gets closed down in the box, he goes outside looking to draw defenders to him and put the ball in the box. Uruguay played a very deep backline; there was just no panic in their game when Portugal got the ball in the box. Suarez was gassed, and Cavani got beat up but Uruguay survive the Portuguese onslaught to advance to the quarters against France.

The two best players in the world, Messi and Ronaldo, are sent home on the first day of the knockout stage.

Knockout Round Preview

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