By anyone’s standards, the 2018 World Cup has already overdelivered in terms of pure footballing drama. And we haven’t even played the Quarter Finals yet.
Belgium’s incredible 94th minute comeback victory against Japan epitomised the tournament so far. Underdogs have made the bookmakers look foolish, life has rarely been less straightforward for the so-called ‘Big Guns’ and the goals have come very, very late.
In fact 31 of the 146 goals at the tournament so far, have been scored after the 80th minute of matches and an incredible 15 of the 56 games to date have been decided by strikes later than the 88th minute.
Germany being dumped out in the Group Stages for the first time ever in a World Cup, was swiftly followed by Spain’s exit in the Round of 16 against Russia. The hosts, who triumphed on penalties, now find themselves playing for a place in the Semi Finals when few, of even their own countrymen, thought they’d get past the first hurdle.
And as for England, the chance to reach the Final itself has maybe not looked so achievable since 1966. With a first ever World Cup penalty shootout success now safely tucked away in the locker, Gareth Southgate’s young side are preparing for a Quarter Final against Sweden. Even the most staunch of pessimists is letting themselves believe a little now…
The Quarter Finals
Uruguay vs. France – France to win and both teams to score – 15/4
Uruguay and France kick-off the last eight action on Friday afternoon and with Brazil and Belgium facing off later the same day, the French have become many people’s favourites for a tournament triumph.
In Kylian Mbappé they have the most coveted teenager in world footballer. And he’s letting his feet do the talking. A brace against Argentina firmly announced his arrival on the biggest stage and even Uruguay’s miserly defence may struggle to contain his attacking threat.
Uruguay have very obvious goal getters themselves, in the form of Luis Suarez and their Round of 16 hero Edinson Cavani, and they’ll be licking their lips at the prospect of facing a French backline which was breached three times against a seriously out of sorts Argentina.
Brazil vs. Belgium – Brazil to win after Extra Time – 8/1
Brazil versus Belgium is a match-up that many neutrals would have enjoyed seeing in the Final itself, such is the array of talent on show in both teams. As it is, one of these two will be exiting the tournament on Friday night.
Brazil are yet to play with the same extravagance and flair that we’ve come to expect from the men in yellow, but consecutive 2-0 victories against Costa Rica, Serbia and most recently Mexico, have seen them advance efficiently to the final eight. Belgium on the other hand are the tournaments leading scorers, having rattled in 12 goals so far, including three in that breathless final 22 minutes against the Japanese.
Brazil have only conceded once in the tournament up to now though and if they can contain the likes of Lukaku and Hazard, the five time champions have every chance to advance, even if it takes 120 minutes for them to do so.
Sweden vs. England – England to win after Extra Time – 8/1
England and Sweden need no introduction. The two sides have met seven times since 2001, including at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups. Both those matches finished all square and the possibility of extra time looms large in this one too.
Sweden have kept three clean-sheets in their four matches so far and their only defeat was that last minute sucker punch against Germany.
The Three Lions went the distance against Colombia and we can expect another cagey encounter on Saturday. For the sake of a country’s health and heart rate, the avoidance of another penalty shootout would be very welcome. But England will take a victory however it comes along.
Russia vs. Croatia – Croatia to win in 90 minutes – 6/5
Most had this one penned down as a Spain vs. Croatia QF clash, but that didn’t account for another dogged display by the tournament hosts. Russia had just 21% possession against the Spanish and we can expect them to be on the back foot for the majority of this match as well.
After dazzling in the Group Stages with three wins from three, Croatia needed penalties against Denmark to make the Quarters. They were far from their free flowing best against the Danes, but in Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitić they have the quality to unlock the Russian defence.
Croatia, like England, will see the draw as a fantastic opportunity to make their first ever World Cup Final and we’d expect them to be one step closer to that feat after this one.