LONDON: After more twists and turns than a Lionel Messi dribble we now know who the eight quarterfinalists in Russia are. Starting tomorrow the last-eight has thrown up some potential classics, with France vs. Uruguay getting the round underway and followed later by Brazil vs. Belgium, before Saturday’s match-ups see England face Sweden and Croatia clash against the hosts.
Ahead of the action here’s what we learned from the second round.
BRAZIL HAVE BACKBONE
Utter the words “Brazil” and “football” in the same sentence and you might go all misty eyed thinking of great Brazilian teams of old, teams which had style and bare-faced cheek etched into their DNA. Those sides are long gone, and the Brazil of the past two decades, and the one we see in Russia, is an altogether different animal. The Samba stars are the favorites not because they are stylish, but because they are solid. During their 2-0 victory over Mexico they barely got out of third gear and never looked like losing. They are defensively dominant and that will be the foundation of any march to the final and possible title.
FRANCE FINALLY FIND THEIR ATTACKING MOJO
If there is one thing we hate it is when a coach has a host of brilliant, pacy talents at his disposal and he decides to let defense dominate and in doing so not only nullify the opposition but also his side’s own attacking threat. Step forward Didier Deschamps, a man who made a side that can afford to leave Karim Benzema out of the squad look deadly dull. It was only when 2-1 behind to Argentina that the shackles came off and Les Bleus started to play, and what a sight it was. The South Americans could not handle the pace and power of the Kylian Mbappe-inspired forward line, who looked like they could score with every attack. If the shackles stay off they are genuine contenders.
IS THE WORLD CUP GOING TO HAVE ITS GREECE 2004 MOMENT?
Whisper it softly, but while this has been a tournament full of drama and brilliant matches, it has also been one not exactly brimming with quality. Just one look at the second half of the draw will tell you that. As a result there is a real possibility that an average side will not only reach the final but also possibly win it. One of Croatia, England, Russia and Sweden will play in the final and we are not being unkind to them to suggest that right now, for all their success in getting this far, they are not exactly world-beaters … yet.
PPOWER DOES NOT COME FROM POSSESSION
Of the four teams to have the highest average possession this tournament, only Brazil remain. The second round once again proved that it is what you do with the ball that counts, rather than for how long you have it. Spain had 75 percent possession against Russia, bored everyone, most probably themselves included, and were knocked out. A look at Uruguay, a side easily good enough to get to the final, illustrates that it is the counterattacking teams with robust defenses that are doing well in Russia. That should serve up a word of warning to any England fan thinking Sweden on Saturday should be a pushover.