One thing we can all agree on as the Qatar World Cup wheels into the quarterfinals is that these are the best eight teams at this moment. Every team has earned its place by giving everything to be here.
Walid Regragui and Morocco made history as they qualified for the last eight for the first time ever. And yes, this has been a well-earned status. The North African side has conceded just one goal (an own goal) in this competition. They have not lost, either.
Goncalo Ramos, on his first start for Portugal, scored a hat-trick, showing that he is just as ready for this stage as anyone else that has started or played.
Brazil are enjoying themselves, and coach Tite is liking every bit of the journey. The 61-year-old manager formed part of the Samba dance crew, playing his role in the “Chicken Dance” celebration.
Now, the matches are fewer, the opponents are tougher, and the stakes are higher. There is plenty of drama and excitement to come at this stage.
Croatia vs. Brazil
Without being as enterprising, Croatia forced their way through to the quarterfinals. If anything, they have been resilient and disciplined.
The Checkered Ones have won only once and lost none. Like in 2018, when they made it to the finals without looking like they could, Zlatko Dalic’s men are toeing the same line. This team has the ability to drop the intensity of a match, suck up the opponent’s oomph, and make it bland until they can find a way.
The Europeans will look to limit the smooth passing, dribbling, and running of the opposition. Dalic will rely heavily on Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic, and Matteo Kovacic in midfield to block the spaces in midfield. They will look to deny Neymar and Lucas Paqueta the ball while trying to find the wingers. Indeed, tactical fouls might be the order of the day.
Ivan Perisic will fancy his chances at running at Eder Militao on the flank and creating chances for the forwards.
Brazil, on the other hand, will likely continue what they have done throughout this tournament. The Selecao will quicken the pace of the game, exploiting the sheer energy, pace, and trickery of Vinicius and Raphinha.
Tite will require Neymar to get on the ball in midfield, draw defenders to himself, and create spaces for willing runners. Richarlison will fight for everything, snap at everything, and more importantly, be the glue of the attacking triangles. Of course, Casemiro has just one job: break up the play with intelligent marking.
If Brazil score early and find their rhythm, then this match could be a stroll in the park for the South Americans. And yet, as long as the game remains even, Croatia will be confident.
Prediction: Over 1.5 goals
Netherlands vs. Argentina
Louis Van Gaal, before anyone else, was quick to admit that the Netherlands have a score to settle with Argentina. The last time both sides met in the World Cup was in the semi-finals in 2014. There were no goals in regulation time, and the South Americans went through on penalties.
The Dutch team has been expressive at this tournament, especially the wing-backs. Cody Gakpo has also been one of the revelations of the tournament, scoring in every group-stage match.
Van Gaal will stick with his trusted formation that consists of three centre-backs and wing-backs. Against the USA, Denzel Dumfries and Daley Blind were the catalysts.
The brief will remain the same for both players: keep the pitch as wide as possible, create overloads, and cut back with precision into the box.
Frenkie de Jong has been impressive in the heart of the midfield, driving with purpose and steadying the pace of the game where necessary. Yet he will need to contend with Enzo Fernandez and Rodrigo Paul, who have similar profiles.
Gakpo will need to be ruthless, making every chance pay. And against a vulnerable trio of Lisandro Martinez, Gabriel Otamendi, and Cristian Romero, the PSV forward might yet fancy his chances.
Lionel Scaloni has built a team willing to work for Lionel Messi. Most of the attacking play will go through the PSG forward. Indeed, he has shown himself to be even more desperate for World Cup success.
Julian Alvarez appears to have displaced Lautaro Martinez in the No. 9 position. He will likely keep his place and be required to run at the Oranje’s defence led by Virgil Van Dijk.
Unlike in 2014, this encounter looks sure to produce goals.
Prediction: Over 2.5 goals
Morocco vs. Portugal
Morocco is the only African representative remaining in this competition. They are also dark horses. They will continue to ride the tag even as they face a tough Portugal team.
Extremely key to the Atlas Lions’ success has been an almost impenetrable defence. And yet, it has not just been the defenders. Regragui has tasked every player to contribute to the defence from every position.
Hakim Ziyech and Sofiane Boufal have become secondary full-backs at times. Sofyan Amrabat has sat in front of the back four, led by Romain Saiss. He has wrestled back possession and played direct passes in offence.
It will be the same pattern against Portugal. Morocco will look to limit the influence of Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva. They will also get tight on Ramos.
Fernando Santos now knows his winning team. Cristiano Ronaldo will retain his place on the bench. Set pieces will also come in handy, especially with Pepe on the team.
More importantly, the Selecao will need to be quick in passing and combinations as they try to find spaces in between a compact Morocco block.
For much of this encounter, it will be offence vs. defence. Goals will come at a premium.
Prediction: Under 3.5 goals
England vs. France
This is arguably the biggest fixture of this quarterfinal stage. There is plenty riding on this encounter. The English are desperate for a major title after more than half a century. The French are keen on retaining the title they won in Russia.
Expectedly, both coaches will be at their tactical best in an attempt to outwit each other. Gareth Southgate has impressed with the Three Lions, especially in major tournaments, since he became manager.
And as far as this tournament is concerned, this is his biggest test so far. They have enjoyed seemingly easy victories against Iran, Wales, and Senegal.
There are mini-battles to be won to ensure progress. The most talked about is the Kyle Walker vs. Kylian Mbappe duel. Most of France’s offensive play goes through this 23-year-old, who has scored five goals already. Walker struggled quite a bit against Ismaila Sarr in the previous round. He will need to keep his concentration for the entire duration. Indeed, his athleticism will face the test.
Antoine Griezmann has gone about his business rather quietly so far. Still, he is crucial to how the Blues play. Southgate will be quick to assign Declan Rice to the Atletico Madrid forward.
Jude Bellingham has a job of disruption and coordination to do. He will need to find the likes of Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden in attack. Harry Kane glues the attack together by dropping deep and finding runners. Hence, the Tottenham forward will be desperate to get on the ball as much as possible.
Everything flows through the flanks for Didier Deschamps. Ousmane Dembele will relentlessly run at Luke Shaw and deliver quick crosses for Olivier Giroud.
This encounter looks certain to be end-to-end, with an odd goal likely to decide things.