And then there were eight. As Qatar’s World Cup finally gives us all a day off, there’s a moment to pause and ponder. We’re 56 games down with just eight games and eight teams remaining. It still looks a wide-open tournament. But what gives each team cause for optimism and concern?
Louis van Gaal’s Oranje summer has been a highlight of this desert winter. In a tournament where so many of the contenders seem so evenly matched, the difference can come on the sideline. That’s where the Dutch have an advantage over probably all of the rest. Memphis Depay getting back among the goals is key. Virgil van Dijk finding renewed solidity alongside the excellent Nathan Ake bodes well too.
Do they have enough quality? They have pieces for sure but enough to make it all the way to that piece of gold? We’re still not sure. Frenkie De Jong hasn’t found a perfect partner yet. Andries Noppert can surely not maintain such a nerveless transition to international football
To paraphrase the entire 90-minute commentary of BeIn Sport’s Arabic announcer last Saturday night: ‘Messi, Messi, Messi, Messi.” The little man is on a mission here and has thus far accomplished every step, even getting some help along the way, Julian Alvarez stepping forward as a worthy sidekick. Argentina have momentum and have harnessed the huge emotional heaviness of their nights here to connect the fans and team as one.
They’re undercooked. In hindsight, Group B was likely the World Cup’s weakest and Australia the least talented of all knockout teams. While Enzo Fernandez has dazzled, the midfield remains a concern and a class team will likely find holes there.
They’ve managed to slow teams down to their pace, which is slower than ever. Against Canada, Japan and even Morocco the old masters in midfield brought the tempo down just enough for them to pull more of the strings. Luka Modric’s class still shines, if a little less consistently and Ivan Perisic remains one of international football’s biggest game players.
How will they cope if they cannot successfully keep things at a walking pace? Should Brazil show the injection of pace that scrambled Korean minds, you reckon a defence with Dejan Lovren at its core could feel the heat.
Did you see that 29 minutes on Monday night? Need we say more? Alright, just a little then. As irresistibly good as their attacking was, there were other highlights that matter just as much: Alisson was imperious in goal, Eder Militao again excelled in unfamiliar right-back terrain, Casemiro looks like the best defensive midfielder here or anywhere. Neymar is purring. It all feels…right.
We’re scraping a little but that’s the point. The full backs, Militao a central defender on the right and Danilo a right back on the left, are outperforming expectations but a regression could really hurt them. Can Casemiro keep covering so much territory with such authority? Will all the dancing hurt them? A definite no on that last, nonsensical one.
Gareth Southgate’s team have found new ways to rouse themselves from slumber. They do sleep on the job — often — but they are the top scorers here with 12 goals shared around eight scorers. Jude Bellingham’s tour de force against Senegal was the kind of performance which suggests more of the same to come. They’ll need him. The French midfield has been weakened and he could potentially dominate again.
Jacob Harry Maguire. The defence has held firm since a couple of Iranian consolations in their opener but Maguire and John Stones have offered flickering glimpses of the cracks which remain. Kyle Walker getting burnt by Ismaila Sarr last time hardly built confidence for what’s to come. Should Southgate go back to a five-man defence, they may suffer further upfield.
Didier Deschamps lost a Ballon D’Or winner and found the most complete attacking unit in the tournament. France’s frontline have helped make light of the raft of injuries that threatened to completely derail the defence of their crown. Kylian Mbappé has been Qatar’s most consistently brilliant player. The English defence, around which doubts have already swirled, will have to find a performance above any in their recent history.
The strength in depth that we’ve all wondered at has been tested so severely that it’s struggled to find a passing grade. Minus Benzema, Pogba, Kante and Nkunku, there aren’t a lot of game-changing options off the bench. Theo Hernandez must stay fit at left back and Jules Koundé’s switch to right back needs to stay seamless.
No team, yes even Argentina, have such a feeling of destiny about them here. Walid Regragui has built a camp who are adamant that the quarter-finals is not the height of their ambitions. They have now knocked off Belgium and Spain and have the Arab world and Africa under their wings. In Achraf Hakimi and Sofyan Amrabat they have two of the tournaments best performers.
The physical toll of their efforts against Spain looked to be huge. Defensive rock Nayef Aguerd came off injured and while the starting XI is packed with talent, things drop off significantly on the bench.
Bruno Fernandes has clearly decided to just ignore the Ronaldo-shaped shadow and run rings around it instead. That’s paid huge dividends. Ditto for Joao Felix and AC Milan’s Rafael Leão has shown flashes of brilliance.
Ronaldo’s presence dominates everything and so a first quarter-final place in 16 years is also turned into a debate on his future and place in the team. Pepe’s raging against the dying of the light (and everything else in the world) has been impressive but we’re not so sure it can last.