If you want to check out my rundown of the Group Stages, see here.
We had arrived at the knockout stages. Here, there would be no second chances, no opportunity for a reprieve, no ‘one more game to save themselves’. Defeat would mean going home, and the games would have to be settled on the day. No replays, only extra-time, and possibly, penalties.
So, who was playing whom?
First up, on Saturday the 3rd, the Netherlands would play the USA, and later, Argentina would face Australia. On Sunday the 4th, France would square off against Poland, and England would play Senegal.
On Monday the 5th, Japan would battle Croatia, and Brazil would face South Korea. Finally, on the 6th, Morocco would face Spain, and Portugal would play Switzerland.
Conventional wisdom suggested that the Dutch would beat the USA, and Argentina would triumph over Australia. Then again, some of the results in Qatar had completely defied convention. Anything was possible, and the so-called top teams could take nothing for granted.
Netherlands vs USA
I was on a train when this match began (and owing to delays, I wondered if I’d be on it when it finished). I did however see some highlights via the BBC site. They reminded me, once again, of the adage about cream rising, and all that. Despite some early pressure from the USA, the Dutch led after 10 minutes. A good sequence of one-touch passes brought the ball to Denzel Dumfries down the right, and he slid the ball into the box, for Memphis Depay to power past the ‘keeper. Daley Blind doubled Netherlands’ lead on the stroke of half-time, and they were stroking the ball about nicely.
Then, with 14 minutes remaining, a cross from the right bounced awkwardly off the boot of Haji Wright, and looped into the Dutch net. It was game on, but only briefly. A few minutes later, Dumfries had the ball in the net, getting his boot to a lovely cross from Blind. 3-1, with 10 minutes of normal time to go, surely that was game over.
So it proved. The Netherlands saw out the remaining time, and moved on to the quarter-finals. From their perspective, job done. For the USA, the dream was over, and it now be a question of how they built upon the experience for 2026 (which they will co-host).
Argentina vs Australia
Another game, another match I didn’t really get to watch, as I was at a family party. However, what I caught revealed, yet again, the magic of Lionel Messi. In his 1,000th game, Messi scored a lovely goal (the 789th of his career), and created chance after chance for his colleagues, with silky dribbling and his trademark deft passing. Argentina were the better side, and if not for their profligacy, might have had more than a two-goal lead after 57 minutes, when Julian Alvarez seized upon a woeful mistake from Aussie ‘keeper Mat Ryan. His heavy touch from a backpass left Australia staring at a World Cup exit, but they granted themselves a lifeline with 13 minutes to go. Enzo Fernandez accidentally diverted Craig Goodwin’s shot into his own net, and set up a slightly frantic finish. Could Australia provide a major upset? After all, Argentina had already suffered an upset…
They came close, shortly after pulling one back. Aziz Behich went on a Messi-esque mazy run into the Argentine box, but Lisandro Martinez pulled off a timely tackle to deny him. Another opportunity presented itself, right at the very end, to take the game to extra-time. Garang Kuol brought the ball down in the box, and had time and space. It was him versus Argentine ‘keeper Emiliano Martinez… and Martinez won. Kuol’s shot was not great, and Martinez was more than equal to it. He held onto the ball, and that was more or less the final act of the match. Argentina were into the quarter-finals, where they would face the Netherlands.
Poland vs France
It was the turn of defending champions France next, to face Poland. France had superstar striker Mbappe, Poland had legendary forward Lewandowski. On paper, France were the stronger side, but this World Cup has already shown that nothing can be taken for granted. The first half was quite even, but quality finds a way, and Olivier Giroud scored his 52nd goal for France (becoming France’s all-time top goal scorer) on the brink of half-time, despite France not playing especially well.
Despite an even game, France proved their quality once again, with 74 minutes on the clock. Ousmane Dembele played the ball to Mbappe, who nonchalantly buried the ball in the net. France had one foot in the last 8, and the second goal clearly knocked the confidence out of Poland. As added-time got underway, Mbappe found the net again, leaving absolutely no doubt whatsoever about who was going through. It was another finish, demonstrating Mbappe’s composure and confidence, and he had fired a warning to every other nation still in the tournament. Lewandowski did score from a late (and retaken) penalty, and Poland probably deserved a goal, but it would be scant consolation.
England vs Senegal
Lions versus Lions. Senegal, winners of the 2021 African Cup of Nations, against Euro 2020 finalists England. Senegal might be underdogs, but with that, came the potential freedom to play without pressure.
Southgate made one change from the side that eased past Wales. Despite scoring twice in that game, Rashford was removed, substituted for Saka. Would England be adventurous or cagey in the early stages? Well, to me, they were somewhat cautious, and Senegal were pressing quite high. They had an early half-chance, and then England won a free-kick, that provoked a brief bit of early chaos in the Senegal box, that ultimately came to nothing. A few moments later, Bellingham was bursting into the channels on the left, firing a cross over everyone, and then the ball suffered a puncture. So, a fairly eventful opening 10 minutes.
There were flashes of danger at either end. England were looking to move forward more than they had against the USA, but Senegal had pace, and carried a threat on the break. That threat nearly manifested itself on 21 minutes, when Maguire gave the ball away, Senegal were in, and Boulaye Dia was defied only by virtue of John Stones’ knee. On the half-hour mark, Pickford came to England’s rescue with a fine save, from Dia, after Saka had lost the ball down England’s right-side.
I’ve said before, in football you need to score when you’re on top. Senegal didn’t. England then broke with pace and danger, with Kane playing Bellingham through. Bellingham took the ball down the left, screwed the ball back to the incoming Henderson, and Henderson passed the ball into the back of the net. It wasn’t especially deserved, yet moments later, Saka was crossing in from the right, finding Kane, only Kane couldn’t quite put it away. Suddenly England’s tails were up, and the Three Lions were hunting for a second goal. Players were getting into space down the flanks, but the quality of the final ball wasn’t quite good enough. Well, until the final moments of the first-half’s added time. Great link-up play between Bellingham and Foden let Kane in on goal, and England’s skipper netted his first goal of the 2022 World Cup. Despite being underwhelming for much of the game, England led 2-0 at half-time, thanks to those late goals.
Senegal responded by making three half-time changes, bolstering their attacking line-up. Such a move was risky, because England already demonstrated pace on the break, but Senegal’s point of view, they had to go for it. It was England who started the second half quite brightly, though neither side created anything definitive in the early exchanges. It took a while, but England kept exploiting the flanks, and Foden did so to devastating effect on 56 minutes. It was a lovely ball in from Foden, and Saka got in front the defence to poke it home from close range. 3-0, and surely job done?
Sourthgate seemed to think so, as after 65 minutes, he hauled off Saka and Foden, for Grealish and Rashford. The subs were actually quite positive, for they granted attacking players the opportunity to have a go. The game sort of petered out a little, which would suit England, and give them the opportunity to conserve energy. Dier and Mount would get chances too, with 14 minutes left, replacing Stones and Bellingham. A few minutes later, Henderson made way for Phillips.
Credit had to go to the Senegal supporters. Despite the score-line, they continued to sing, and dance, and party. They were clearly determined to enjoy every last moment they spent in Qatar, and why not? As the game headed to its conclusion, Senegal were playing for pride, but why not? They had every right to. Meanwhile England wanted to keep a clean sheet. They had seen patiently seen out the game, and with the final whistle, booked a quarter-final date with France.
Japan vs Croatia
Japan had done remarkably well to top a group featuring Spain and Germany, how would they fare against the experience of 2018 finalists Croatia? The answer was, initially at least, quite well. Japan had demonstrated a certain fearlessness so far, and in a fairly even first-half, the Japanese drew first blood towards the end, when Daizen Maeda headed the ball beyond the ‘keeper’s reach. In the second half, Croatia responded in kind, with a brilliant, thumping header from Ivan Perisic. He met a sumptuous cross from Dejan Lovren, which was about right in an even game. In fact, the game was so even, that after extra time, nothing separated them. For the first time in the 2022 World Cup, we had the peril of penalties!
Here, enthusiasm yielded to experience. Japan’s penalties were, in a word, dire. They did not step up with any form of confidence, and Croatia’s ‘keeper was about to pull off some simple saves, to put Croatia’s experienced side into the quarter-finals. They had been pushed all the way to penalties by a passionate Japanese side, but they had prevailed. What would be their reward in the next round?
Brazil vs South Korea
This was, quite simply, a statement from Brazil. Each finish married trademark Brazilian swagger with a ruthless desire to kill the game off as soon as possible, from Vinícius Junior’s 7th minute slot-in from a lovely team move, to Neymar’s cool as ice penalty, to Richarlison’s display of cheeky ball control, prior to a neat one-two and calm finish, to Lucas Paquetá’s volley, Brazil destroyed South Korea. It was 4-0 at half-time, and it meant the second half could be entirely about game management, but we also saw another side to Brazil. South Korea pressed for a consolation, but Alisson made several saves, as though fighting for Brazil’s survival, and it marked Brazil’s determined side. They do not want to concede. They want to produce perfect wins, and they nearly did here.
However, for all the beauty of Brazil’s first-half goals, the best goal of the night belonged to South Korea’s Paik Seung-ho. He received the ball some 30 yards out, and put his laces through it. The strike was sweet and true, and Alisson’s net bulged with the ferocity of the shot. It was the end of South Korea’s journey, for Brazil had been silky-smooth, but few teams would have lived with Brazil in that first half. There was no dishonour in the defeat, but Brazil would move on to face Croatia in the quarter-finals.
Spain vs Morocco
I have mentioned, many times, that the cream usually rises to the top. Usually. I have also mentioned that in football, you have to score when you’re on top. There are no sweets handed out for possession, or chances created. The only way to win is to put the ball into the net. Oh how that lesson went unheeded here.
Spain dominated possession. They have some technically gifted players, who can keep the ball very neatly and tidily. What they lack is a natural incisive striker. Over the course of 120 minutes, they passed the ball about a lot, but they failed to carve open an organised Moroccan team, who threatened on the counter. The net result? The World Cup’s second penalty shootout. The end result? Spain can’t score, even from the spot. They took three penalties, and failed to score with any of them. Morocco did not have that problem, and incredibly, they went on the last 8, at the expense of the 2010 World Cup winners. Spanish players and fans could only wonder at how they had failed, and Moroccan players and fans cried with unrestrained joy at their unlikely triumph.
Portugal vs Switzerland
RonalWHO? The initial story of this game was Cristiano Ronaldo’s absence. Portuguese boss Fernando Santos dropped Portugal’s talisman to the bench, following rumours of a spate, and the decision made one thing abundantly clear, Portugal do not need Ronaldo, not when they have Goncalo Ramos. The youngster hadn’t featured much in the group stages, but he scored three good goals, and created another for Guerreiro, in a 6-1 thrashing of potency and teamwork. Portugal’s young players moved with purpose and menace, and capped off a great night with a wonderful hit from Rafael Leão, whose strike looped over the Swiss ‘keeper and settled in the net, as the game drew to a close.
Portugal will face Morocco in the quarter-finals, and on the strength of this performance, will Ronaldo be called upon? Is he needed? There’s no denying how historically brilliant Ronaldo has been for his nation, but they looked so much better without him that evening. It is the harsh-yet-inescapable reality that time catches up to us all, and Ronaldo is having to face that reality. Whether Portugal have the quality to win the World Cup is one thing, but they have more of a chance without Ronaldo.
So, the Round of 16 was over. Next, the last eight teams would do battle, in the quarter-finals.