Giant-killing in Russia

  • The bigger they are…

There would obviously be biased in play, but the sentiment in Russia is that the ongoing FIFA World Cup is the most exhilarating one in recent memory.

At first, the fans maintained that the World Cup had arguable the most exciting group stage ever, with all the late goals and the enthralling finishes. And then in the first three days of the knockout stage, Argentina, Portugal and Spain have been sent packing.

With Tuesday’s final two Round of 16 matches yet to be played at the time of writing, the two major pre-tournament favourites – Germany and Spain – are already home. The two best players in the world, the centre of the perpetual GOAT debate – Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi – were knocked out on the same day.

The giant-killing spree seemed to be on the verge on finding its next target when Belgium – another one of the pre-tournament big names – trailed a gutsy Japan side 2-0 on Monday.

With yet another late winner courtesy Nacer Chadli, Belgium now have set up a blockbuster quarterfinal with Brazil, who themselves were flirting with the brink of catastrophe in the group stages, after drawing the first match against Switzerland and then being 0-0 against Costa Rica in stoppage time.

Uruguay and Belgium are the only sides to have won each of their four matches so far. But Brazil seem to be finding their groove just as the tournament approaches its final stages

The France-Argentina contest stands out as the match of the tournament in terms of the goals on display, with Belgium providing the comeback of the World Cup thus far. France, who hardly went beyond the second gear in the group stage, scored four against an Argentinian side that must’ve felt they had nothing to lose after coming back from the dead in their own pool.

While the France-Argentina match set the ball rolling in the Round of 16 with a 4-3 scoreline, there has been excitement across the board, even when there haven’t been a similar number of goals scored.

For instance, the Croatia-Denmark match was hardly an epitome of attacking displays, but the goalkeepers stole the show in the penalty shootout. In fact, it was a few minutes before the shootout that Kasper Schmeichel denied Luka Modrid – one of the players of the tournament so far – from the spot, to take the match to penalty kicks. Croatian goalkeeper Danijel Subasic saved three penalties, while Schmeichel saved another two, to make it one of the most entertaining shootouts ever at the World Cup.

Even so, the shootout that would be etched in the memory of the locals for ages to come, of course, was Russia’s win over Spain, perhaps the biggest giant-killing act of the tournament thus far.

Let’s not forget that this is a side that the locals – or indeed the experts – didn’t give a shot at qualifying from their group. Not only did they mesmerise one and all with their thumping wins over Saudi Arabia and Egypt in their pool contests, they’ve now knocked out the most decorated international side of the past decade.

Russia can now dare to dream of anything, as they take on Croatia in the second quarterfinal on Saturday.

The other two quarterfinals already set up are France-Uruguay and Brazil-Belgium. These four sides are on one side of the draw and have three of the favourites, with Uruguay not too far down the pecking order either.

Russia and Croatia will be joined by one of England-Colombia and Switzerland-Sweden as the four sides on the other side of the draw, which will meet in the quarters and semis to give one finalist. None of the four sides in this side would’ve expected to play the final before the tournament began, and that means that it’s a great opportunity for all of them to play the championship match, where anything can happen.

However, the odds – not that they’ve meant much in the tournament so far – are that the eventual winner would come from the other side of the draw.

Uruguay and Belgium are the only sides to have won each of their four matches so far. But Brazil seem to be finding their groove just as the tournament approaches its final stages. While the 4-3 win over Argentina has given France the most high-profile win among all of the remaining sides in the tournament.

But Belgium-Brazil is the big match to watch out for on Friday. The winner of that match might end up lifting the trophy on July 15.