Of the 32 teams that qualified for Qatar, only eight remained. The wheat had been separated from the chaff, and the margins for error had reduced to virtually nothing. Things were getting serious.
Croatia vs Brazil
Talk about a contrast. We are told that Croatia, beaten finalists four years ago, have an ageing side, yet they actually don’t, with one or two experienced exceptions. Luka Modric remains their key figure, and despite being 37, he isn’t showing signs that he’s off his game, just yet. Ivan Perisic is 33, yet is still scoring goals for his country. Modric, Perisic, and defender Domagoj Vida are all centurions for their country, and, much like four years ago, Croatia are making steady progress. The question is whether they can continue to do so, in the wake of extra-time and penalties against Japan, and in consideration of their quarter-final opposition.
Brazil laid down a marker against South Korea, in a blistering first-half showing of panache and goals. They played great football, and most importantly, had an end product. They killed the game off, and will feel fresh and prepared, ahead of their match with Croatia. With the likes of Vinícius Júnior, Neymar, and an in-form Richarlison leading their line-up, Brazil had the ability to punish any side. They also showed a desire to fight for a clean sheet against South Korea, even though a Korean goal was academic at best. It is hard to imagine Croatia overcoming them.
Still, it wasn’t like Croatia didn’t have some first-half moments. They flashed the ball across the face of Alisson’s goal on more than one nervy occasion, though the theme of what I saw was Brazil having most of the ball. What Brazil were not having were lots of clear-cut opportunities, and Croatia were frustrating the five-time champions. The game was goalless at half-time (a far cry from Brazil’s rout of South Korea), and I tuned back in with time to see Croatia keep Brazil goalless at full-time. Extra time is never desirable, but Croatia had come through it against Japan, and their defensive organisation and resilience was keeping Brazil at arm’s length. Croatia weren’t lighting up the world with intense attacking football, but they had a knack for restricting Brazil’s glittering attacking stars, and they had decent spells of possession of their own. They did threaten too. Substitute Bruno Petkovic jinked past his man on the left, having seemingly been boxed in by three Brazilians, and slid the ball to Marcelo Brozovic, but he lashed a glorious opportunity over.
It would prove to be a decisive miss. Moments later, a subpar Neymar reminded the world that he was still dangerous. The first period of extra time was almost over, when he burst forward, played a quick one-two, jinked around the ‘keeper, and slammed the ball into the net. In doing so, Neymar equalled the legendary Pele for Brazil goals, but more importantly, Brazil led, with 15 minutes to go.
Now we’d see what Croatia were made of. They’d have to go forward. Brazil might have to defend. Who was booking a semi-final berth? Well, with the minutes ticking away, Brazil looked the most likely, but a great move down the left, a fine ball into the box, and a deflected hit from Petkovic, levelled the score, with minutes remaining from a possible penalty shootout. Unless someone, for either side, could find an heroic winner…
No. Penalties would decide the first quarter-final. Croatia’s only shot on target had seen to that.
Watching penalties is nerve-racking, even if it doesn’t involve your side. What would be going through the heads of the players? Would Brazil be deflated, following Croatia’s dramatic and late equaliser? Would Croatia be cocky? Would they assume they’d already won it?
Penalties are a lottery, but with focus, and confidence, you can steer things a little, and every Croatian penalty had the hallmark of confidence. In goal, Dominik Livakovic, who had saved penalties against Japan (and made several saves against Brazil) stopped Rodrygo’s poor effort, and after a few more penalties, it came down to Marquinhos, who had to score, but he dragged his penalty too far to his left. It struck the post and bounced away, leaving Croatia in dreamland, and Brazil in despair. Both sets of fans were in tears, and both sets of players were in tears, but for very contrasting reasons. On the pitch, Croatia rejoiced, and they would celebrate a very famous victory, for a very long time.
Netherlands vs Argentina
The second of the quarter-final clashes pitted the Netherlands against Argentina. The two countries had clashed at World Cups before, most notably in the 1978 final, where Argentina won their first World Cup (in contentious circumstances, but that’s another story). Their most recent World Cup encounter had been in 2014 in Brazil, when Argentina defeated the Dutch on penalties to progress to the final. The Dutch would dread a penalty shootout almost as much as England or Spain, so it was fair to believe they’d do everything to win it in normal time.
Dutch boss Louis van Gaal had taken some criticism from Dutch press, over the apparent ‘dull’ style of football he insisted upon, yet the Netherlands were into the quarter-finals, whilst Germany had fallen at the group stages, as had Belgium, and Italy had not even qualified, whilst Spain had gone home in the previous round. Such results might serve as a rebuke to the naysayers; results matter more than anything else, after all. Plus, would anyone in the Netherlands object to a boring 1-0 win over Argentina, if it meant progress?
The likes of Denzel Dumfries, Frenkie de Jong, and in-form forward Cody Gakpo would have their chance against an Argentina led by Lionel Messi. Despite suffering arguably the tournament’s greatest shock result against Saudi Arabia, the Argentines had rallied, and Messi had, at times, produced his silky-smooth, best football. He had scored a few goals himself in Qatar, and could not be written off as a player who could turn a game on its head, all by himself. The stage was set for an intriguing encounter.
The Dutch looked organised in the early exchanges, and despite the stadium being overwhelming in favour of Argentina, filled to the brim with Argentine fans, they kept their cool. There were one or two half-chances, and Argentina had one or two of their own, but the game remained goalless, until who else but Lionel Messi?
On 35 minutes, he turned creator for his country, as he so often has. A defence-splitting pass, beautifully weighted, found the boot of Nahuel Molina, who drove a low shot beyond the reach of Andries Noppert. It was Molina’s first international goal, in 25 appearances for Argentina. Not a bad time to score it. The Netherlands needed to respond, and quickly, but the game devolved a bit in the wake of the goal, with niggly challenges, one ill-judged shove, a handball, and some additional aggro, that resulted in several yellow cards being dished out. Were tempers starting to fray a little? Who would that benefit? Well, at half-time, Argentina retained a one goal lead.
The Dutch were dominating possession of the ball, but with nearly an hour placed, had yet to muster a shot on target. Key players, like Depay, were not firing on all cylinders, and Argentina did not look harried or concerned. In fact, a poor foul from van Dijk, on the edge of the box, gave Messi a glorious chance to double Argentina’s lead. He so nearly took it, but the ball didn’t quite drop enough to settle into the net, and the Netherlands had a let off. What they needed was more penetrating power, but with 20 minutes to go, they produced another error. Dumfries clumsily caught Acuna in the box, to concede a penalty. Messi stepped up to take it…
… and he slammed it home. The Dutch ‘keeper didn’t even move. Messi equalled Gabriel Batistuta’s record of 10 World Cup goals for Argentina, and brought himself closer to cementing his legacy. Dutch tempers (and Argentine tempers too) then flared a little, following a seemingly robust challenge in the Argentina box, involving their ‘keeper. Then we had a brief pause for a pitch invader.
Then, on 83 minutes, we finally, finally, had a shot on target from the Netherlands, and as has been typical with this World Cup, it nestled in the net. The ball got whipped in from a freekick from Berghuis, and Weghorst got his head on it. He directed the ball downward, which is awkward for any ‘keeper, but my personal feeling was that Martinez should have done better. Moments later, the Dutch were blazing a shot into the side netting, that might have only not gone in, thanks to a deflection wide.
There had been an undercurrent of feisty and niggling tackles here, and it all boiled over, with minutes to go. Some dives, strong tackles, and the ball being booted at the Dutch bench by Leandro Paredes, and the Dutch bench rushed onto the pitch in a surge. There was a bit of pushing and shoving, and no one got sent off, but yet more yellow cards got dished out, and there would be 10 minutes of added time, which started with a foul on Gakpo, right on the edge of the penalty area. The freekick came to nothing, but there was still time. The Dutch had to start lobbing balls forward, and they did. The Argentines were proving equal to them. Their fans were in a loud and fine voice, as time faded away.
Would there be one final chance? Well, a recklessly-conceded freekick, with nine of 10 minutes of added time played, right on the edge of the Argentina box, would be that chance.
Incredibly, astonishingly, amazingly, and brilliantly, the Dutch scored. It was an absolutely cheeky, clever, and vital goal. Instead of a trademark freekick, the ball was delicately played by Steven Berghuis to Wout Weghorst, who gently tapped it beyond the reach of Martinez. It was 2-2, and we went to extra-time. As the whistle blew, the two benches took to the pitch to remonstrate with each other, as passions rose to the surface.
I don’t think I can do that freekick justice. To pass it, virtually through the wall, and poke it into the net, was wonderfully imaginative, and the result of it? Another 30 minutes of football, and then, maybe, just maybe, penalties.
The first period of extra time yielded no goals, and no clear opportunities. It did show an uglier side to Messi’s game, namely his willingness to dive. Sadly, it is a trait a number of players make use of, all over the world, and the world’s best are not above using it. Luckily for Dutch defender Timber, who had been booked earlier, he avoided an unjust red card.
The referring at the World Cup had, generally speaking, been quite good, but by the time the teams had played 20 of the 30 minutes of extra-time, there had been fourteen yellow cards in this match. Some were justified, some were not. The referee did not appear to enjoy control of the game, and was dishing out cards like sweets. Every infraction brought out a card. Could you blame players for thinking about trying to get an opponent sent off, given the ref’s quick-fire draw of the yellow?
Argentina nearly snatched a goal with a few minutes to go. The ball got blasted towards goal, but van Dijk blocked it with his chest, in an increasingly frantic finale. A deflection off Weghorst sent another shot sailing over the Dutch goal. Late on, Argentina appeared to have decided to avoid penalties. The Dutch did flash a dangerous ball of their own into the box, but the ‘keeper dealt with it, and directed Argentina forward. They had found a burst of energy from somewhere, but could they do anything? Quick Dutch breaks were keeping them on their toes, but Argentina were dictating the pace as we approached the final minute. Noppert made a couple of good saves, and Lautaro Martinez hit the post in the dying embers. There was no way through, and penalties would indeed decide the fate of the match.
The Netherlands have a history with penalties, and it’s almost as bad as England’s. In the lottery of the shootout, it would once again be the Dutch who ended up on the losing side, thanks to two great saves from Emiliano Martinez, and the cool, calm penalties of Argentina. Messi in particular dispatched his penalty with aplomb, and it fell to Lautaro Martinez to score, and send Argentina on to a semi-final date with Croatia. The Dutch were disconsolate and angry, carrying on their arguments with officials, but Argentina were joyful, as they should be. The night belonged to them.
Morocco vs Portugal
Well, this is unexpected. Morocco topped Group F (finishing ahead of Croatia, and a disappointing Belgium), and their reward was to face 2010 winners Spain, but they held the Spanish off, and triumphed on penalties, to book a quarter-final berth. They have a lot of players plying their trade in top European leagues, so is it really wise to dismiss them? Achraf Hakimi defends for PSG. Hakim Ziyech plays up-front for Chelsea. They are an organised side, with the ability to strike on the counter, and it would extremely foolish for Portugal to underestimate them.
It would also be extremely unwise to underestimate Portugal. Manager Fernando Santos took the drastic step of dropping Cristiano Ronaldo to the bench for their game with Switzerland, and replaced Portugal’s legendary star with 21 year-old Goncalo Ramos. Ramos scored a hat-trick in a 6-1 victory, and Portugal have not looked more dangerous in this tournament. Their performance, as a team, was as good as any performance from any side at this World Cup. It does not bode well for Morocco, but then, this World Cup has given us plenty of surprises already.
The atmosphere at the stadium greatly favoured Morocco, but Portugal nearly drew first blood. A Felix header forced a save from ‘keeper Bono, and Morocco comfortably dealt with the resulting early corner. They then broke quickly, and won a corner of their own. En-Nesyri had a more or less free header, but fired it over. It was a little warning for Portugal, that they would not have things all their own way. The European side were keeping the ball quite well, but would they show an incisiveness that could cut through Morocco? Searching, hopeful long balls forward were not enough, at least in the early stages.
One key difference between Spain’s failure and Portugal’s approach, was a willingness of Portugal to press Morocco high up the pitch. The Portuguese understood the threat of a quick break, so they were working to nullify it. There were a few half-chances early on, though nothing concrete. After 15 minutes, Portugal had enjoyed 79% possession, and looked technically superior to Morocco, but when would they create a clear opportunity?
Portugal were reminded not to take Morocco lightly. The African side began to see a little more of the ball, and they weren’t afraid to go forward. They forced two quick corners, though they came to nothing. Still, Portugal dared not get complacent. There was a little bit of aggro following a collision between Morocco ‘keeper Bono and Portugal player Fernandes, but they made up pretty quickly.
After 25 minutes, the score remained level. Morocco had improved their possession stats, to 30%. They looked solid defensively. Their confidence was growing. However, on half-an-hour, Joao Felix smashed the ball goalward, and was denied only by virtue of a deflection. Nothing came of the resulting corner. A few minutes later, Morocco worked the ball into the box, but the chance was blazed over the bar.
As we drew near the break, the game remained goalless. Whilst Portugal had seen two-thirds of the possession, the game was quite even in terms of chances, and then, one mistake turned the game on its head. A cross floated into Portugal’s box by Attiat-Allah was met by the head of En-Nesyri, and he directed into the back of Diogo Costa’s goal. Costa should probably have come out to take the ball, but he hesitated, and that one moment was enough for Morocco to pounce.
Portugal nearly hit back immediately, with a great shot from Fernandes on the right, but his dipping effort pinged the bar. Portugal began to ramp up the pressure, and there were half-hearted appeals for a penalty, but Morocco were still having moments at the other end. A 3-v-3 counter brought a shot sent wildly wide, letting Portugal off, and the ref blew for half-time. Morocco held the advantage. Portugal protested that they should have that penalty, but the officials were unmoved.
The second-half got underway, and Morocco nearly had a second from an early freekick, but Costa did enough to stop them. From there, what did Portugal have in their locker? They certainly wanted the ball, and fought hard to win it back, as soon as they lost it, whilst they prepared some early substitutions, including bringing on Cristiano Ronaldo, for his 196th international cap (equalling the world record for international men’s caps). His first act was a cross into the box, that Bono plucked from the sky.
Another fierce cross, this time from Dalot, was also caught, and then Morocco got forward again, but a ranged effort went into orbit, in a shot more suited to a rugby match.
With half an hour to go, a pattern was emerging. Portugal would get forward, and were ramping up the pressure in an effort to draw level. Morocco were soaking up the pressure, and seeking to counter with not inconsiderable pace. Their defending was proving quite effective, and you had to wonder what Portugal could do to find a way through. Ronaldo was a natural danger, but hat-trick hero Goncalo Ramos had been pretty quiet. Bruno Fernandes had a cracking shot from the edge of the box, but it flew just over the bar.
Fernandes would also play a fizzing, curling ball into the box for Ronaldo, but yet again, Bono was up to it, snatching the ball from the air. We had reached 20 minutes of normal time remaining, with Morocco still a goal ahead. With 10 minutes to go, it remained Morocco in the ascendency, and they kept threatening on the break.
Bono was the saviour of Morocco with around eight minutes to go. A rare defensive mistake allowed Felix to fire off a ferocious shot from his left boot, but Bono was equal to it, tipping the ball over the bar. Was it a sign of Portugal ramping up the pressure? or was this destiny for Morocco? Fernandes stood over a freekick… and his short effort failed to clear the first defender.
Every Portuguese touch was greeted with loud and relentless whistles. Every clearance, every half-chance, every tackle, with cheers and delight. With five minutes left, could Morocco hold on? Or was the stage set for Ronaldo to deliver? Would there be any sort of late twist? Portugal once again felt they should have had a penalty, this time for handball, but the referee said no. Portugal were starting to get panicky in their passing, putting the ball out of play through sloppy, rushed play.
There would be eight minutes of added time. Ronaldo had a great chance through on goal, but Bono was yet again equal to it, and clutched the ball to his chest.
There was indeed a late twist, for Cheddira of Morocco. He got booked, twice, in a matter of minutes, and the substitute received his marching orders. For the remaining six or so minutes, Morocco would have to play with ten men. Not ideal, when Portugal were coming forward, over and over again. Incidentally, this was only the second red card of the tournament so far.
Somehow, it remained 1-0, but it should have been 2-0. Zakaria Aboukhlal got clean through, but his tame effort was easily saved by Costa. Moments later, Portugal’s Pepe had a free header at the back post… and missed! That would prove to be Portugal’s last chance. The ref blew his whistle, and Morocco were the first African side to reach a World Cup semi-final.
England vs France
A lot has been made of the seemingly conservative choices Gareth Southgate has made with team selection and style of play, yet coming into the quarter-finals, England had scored 12 goals in four games, and conceded only two. Granted, England had not played any of the world’s truly top sides, but there’s an old saying, ‘you can only beat who’s in front of you’. With the exception of the USA game, England had played – mostly – attacking, pacey football, and it had yielded goals from various places. Bellingham, Henderson, Saka (3), Rashford (3), Foden, and Kane had all found the back of the net, as had Sterling (sent home for personal reasons) and Grealish. This didn’t mean England were certain to keep scoring, but with potential threats from anywhere, it was enough to may preoccupy opposing defences.
Still, when your opponents are reigning world champions France, it’s important to respect their attacking potential too. Star strike Mbappe was top of the goal-scorer’s leader-board, on five goals, after four games. Giroud had three himself. Whilst the French were missing some key names, their remaining players were more than good enough to carry them through. England had to be on-guard, and it would be down to Southgate to figure out how to shield his defence from France’s glittering attacking talent.
England’s line-up was unchanged from the Senegal game, and it fell to Kyle Walker to somehow nullify Mbappe’s talented feet. In the opening exchanges, Giroud landed a header into the arms of Pickford, and the French had a few half-chances, where they came forward with incredible pace. England saw a reasonable amount of the ball, and had shown a willingness to go forward, but there was a caution to their play, a respect to the world champions, maybe a little too much respect?
So it proved. On 16 minutes, a great hit from Tchouaméni curved away from Pickford, and nestled in the bottom corner of the net. My heart sank, for I could conceive of no way back. Was I pessimistic? Perhaps, but France are world champions for a reason. A freekick came England’s way a few moments later, but Shaw directed it into the arms of Lloris. England did trigger a brief goalmouth scramble when Kane wriggled into the box, forcing a good save from Lloris, but it all came to nothing for England.
Then, on 25 minutes, would England get a penalty? Kane was brought down, right on the line, and a check via VAR… did not yield a penalty, despite what looked like a fairly clear foul upon the replay. A deflected shot from Kane forced a save from Lloris, and more goalmouth scrambles from the resulting corner, and again, nothing. England had been a little unlucky, but there was no denying the quality of France. England nearly played themselves into trouble with a weak pass that found, of all people, Mbappe, but thankfully, he was blocked off.
England lucky, as the first-half began to wind down. Somehow, Mbappe, in the middle of England’s box, fired skyward. Was that to be an omen? I didn’t feel confident.
Half-time came, and the French continued to lead by a goal to nil. Did England have anything in their locker for the second half? England had an early corner…
Bellingham nearly provided a brilliant goal, on the volley, but Lloris pulled off a vital save. Another corner, and a failure from England to capitalise on a fumble from Lloris.
Then, with 54 minutes on the clock, Harry Kane brought England right back into the game. A poor challenge from Tchouameni brought down Saka in the box, and after what must have been an eternity of a wait, Kane fired to his left, whilst Lloris went the other day, to bring parity back to the game. It was England’s reward for a bright start to the half, though France went and immediately threatened, with Rabiot stinging Pickford’s gloves, then Mbappe displaying his incredible pace, to run around Walker, and play the ball into the area. No one could meet his cross, but the game was well and truly alive, from England’s point of view.
Saka wriggled into the box, and fired a tame shot for Lloris to easily save. France came forward again, then England came forward again, and the contest was starting to become very open. With half an hour of normal time to go, who would go on to find a winner? Saka was causing all kinds of problems, and it seem the French were noticing. He got squashed and kicked off the ball, yet the ref didn’t seem to think the aggressive treatment was freekick-worthy.
England nearly, nearly went ahead with 20 minutes to go. Maguire flashed a good header just beyond the post from a freekick. How many more good chances would come the Lions’ way? When would the managers start mixing things up? England had another great opportunity from a ball driven across goal, but Saka put the ball agonisingly wide. There was another questionable penalty decision, that wasn’t given to England.
France were far from out of it. They had a couple of half-chances of their own, with Giroud in particular looking dangerous. Their talent could not be underestimated, they were world champions for a reason. For a moment, the French carved England open, and Pickford saved brilliantly from a close-range Giroud volley. A few moments later, Giroud got his head on the end of another cross, and this time he powered it home.
England trailed yet again, despite arguably having the best of the second half. Once again England went forward, and Mount (on for Henderson) got bumped off the ball in the box. Would England get a second penalty? The answer was yes. Hernandez’s shoulder barge also netted the Frenchman a yellow card. Once again, Kane stepped up. This time, he failed. He booted it over the bar. England were now minutes from going home. Would eight minutes of added time provide a chance?
No. Poor crosses, a lack of any sort of sharpness, and a general lack of teeth, saw the Lions go home at the quarter-final stage, yet again. They hadn’t always played badly, in fact at times they’d matched the French, but France had that little bit of extra quality in front of goal, especially with the likes of Giroud, and like I have said, time and again, the cream rises to the top.
So, we had our semi-finalists. Croatia against Argentina, and France against Morocco. Who would prevail? We shall find out.