MOSCOW: By the time the final two quarterfinals were being played out six teams remained in the tournament, all of which were from Europe. While South American sides have traditionally not done as well in Europe – and vice versa – this particular World Cup has been completely dominated by Europe.
This is despite the fact that the reigning European champions Portugal couldn’t make it past the Round of 16, and the reigning World champions – also European, of course – Germany were knocked out in the first round!
And so, after England beat Sweden in Saturday’s first quarterfinal, and Croatia won yet another penalty shootout, against yet another European opponent – this time Russia, whose valiant underdog display will be remembered for years to come – we are now left with four teams and two pulsating encounters.
FRANCE VS BELGIUM:
The two heavyweights and among the pre-tournament favourites kick off the final four on Tuesday, with the winner expected to win the whole thing on Sunday.
And when we speak of Europeans outdoing the South Americans it is actually France and Belgium who have been the vanguards in that regard, knocking Argentina and Brazil out respectively. France then followed up their win over Argentina in the round of 16 with a quarterfinal victory over Uruguay.
This absolutely is a close match to call. Belgium are the only side to have won all their matches thus far, while France only dropped two points in the group game against Denmark, which evidently they appeared to not care much about.
But France are yet to experience a hiccup like their Belgian counterparts, who were 2-0 down against Japan in the Round of 16 clash, before bringing it all together in the final third of the game.
Belgium’s performance against Brazil, however, was truly remarkable with Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Edin Hazard producing a masterclass of counter-attacking football.
France were similarly dominant against Argentina, with Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann looking strong upfront. It is the former, who at the tender age of 19, can further establish his billing as the future of football.
A strong clash in the midfield will also be in store as Manchester United mates Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini look to dominate for their sides, with the latter expected to do a close marking job on the former.
Neither team has gone to extra-time in the tournament so far. This one just might go the distance.
ENGLAND VS CROATIA:
Unlike France and Belgium, Croatia and England have played three penalty shootouts between them in the combined four knockout matches so far.
After dominating a group that featured Argentina – who they humbled 3-0 – Croatia were expected to be more dominant in their matches against Denmark and Russia, both of which they were comfortable favourites for.
What has perhaps happened is that the favourites tag seems to weigh on the Croatian players, who were exceedingly expressive in their group contests, most famously against Argentina.
England, meanwhile, are yet to beat any of the so-called bigger teams in the tournament and yet find themselves in the semifinals – such is the unpredictable nature in which the World Cup has unfolded.
England’s only encounter with a bigger billing side was the dead rubber against Belgium, which both sides evidently looked like wanting to lose. That was because losing that match – which England eventually did – would’ve resulted in a relatively easier, on paper, which Gareth Southgate’s side have definitely benefitted from.
Harry Kane’s form up front could be crucial for England’s chances, even though they did not rely on him in the 2-0 win over Sweden. Croatia meanwhile would look to Luka Modric to pull the strings in the midfield, and hence there’s a case for the English side to maybe beef up the midfield more to counter the Croatian play.
England would be relying on their defence to keep Croatia out, while the latter would hope their intricate passing and movement would be enough to outdo their opponents.
It’s going to be a cagey affair, and the match has penalties written all over it. Maybe, that’s why it mightn’t happen and one of the sides would end up nicking a 1-0 win.