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17th of July 2018

Travel



LARSON: Breaking down each World Cup quarterfinal

The Last Eight features four sides that haven’t won a World Cup, plus England,  which hasn’t won a major tournament since 1966, the year it hosted. Here’s what we know: At least one of Russia, Croatia, Sweden or England will play in the final at Luzhniki Stadium on July 15. That alone adds intrigue. The question now, though, is which of these eight sides have the best chance of reaching the semifinal stage of what has been a wildly entertaining tournament: 

URUGUAY VS. FRANCE 

TALKING POINT: Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani has been the most dynamic No. 9 at this tournament. But a calf injury suffered in a 2-1 win over Portugal leaves his inclusion in doubt. The PSG striker’s exclusion could tip the scales for France.

WHY URUGUAY  WINS: I don’t think they can if Cavani doesn’t play. If he does, however, it provides Luis Suarez far more space to operate. The South Americans are obviously good enough up front, but it’s the defensive pairing of Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez that has been as good as any centreback tandem at this World Cup. While Uruguay might not possess the big names in midfield, it has big players in important positions. I wouldn’t pick Uruguay to win this fixture. But I’d also find it difficult to bet against a side that shows up at every major tournament.

WHY FRANCE WINS: We’ve yet to see the best of a French side that has everything trending in its favour. Les Bleus are healthy, they have a complete roster and have been in so many big moments since 2016 it just feels like they’ll be more prepared for this occasion. The French are winning games despite their strikers — Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann — hardly combining at this tournament. You get the feeling this France team hasn’t come close to peaking. When you factor in Kylian Mbappe’s form, you have to think France should get to the Final Four.

ADVANTAGE: France

BRAZIL VS. BELGIUM 

TALKING POINT: Brazil’s Neymar continues to be mocked for his incessant play-acting. Yet he’s also been Brazil’s top player in back-to-back games. Makes you wonder what we’ll be talking about after this one.

WHY BRAZIL WINS: It’s difficult — maybe impossible — to spot a weakness in a Brazilian team that probably has the most dynamic front-four attackers in the tournament. Aside from Neymar, Willian has been one of the best wide players in Russian, while Philippe Coutinho is the best remaining attacking midfielder at this World Cup. We’ve yet to see the best from Gabriel Jesus in what was supposed to be his breakout tournament. But what I like most about this Brazilian team is its ability to defend. Centrebacks Miranda and Thiago Silva have been excellent, while Brazil’s set defending has given almost nothing away at this tournament.

WHY BELGIUM WINS: Brazil has yet to meet a side at this tournament with the number of difference-makers Belgium brings into this match. Romelu Lukaku presents something different and Belgium’s two wide players — Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens — offer more than Mexico’s Hirving Lozano and Carlos Vela. The question for head coach Roberto Martinez is whether he’ll move to a more defensive posture. If he does, the Belgians have enough to stymie Brazil’s attack and hit back on the counter.

ADVANTAGE: Brazil

RUSSIA VS. CROATIA 

TALKING POINT: The hosts have captured the hearts of a nation. Nobody thought they’d make it this far. Is it possible they’ll make the Last Four?

WHY RUSSIA WINS: After watching Russia take down a naive and arrogant Spanish team, who’s to say Russia can’t beat anyone on this side of the bracket? What we know is this Russian side is more than willing to sit back in two blocks of five and grind for 90 minutes or more. Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev is playing well enough to keep the hosts in games. And man-mountain striker Artem Dzyuba seems to be on the end of everything played into the box. The key for Russian coach  Stanislav Cherchesov will be convincing his side it needs to play the same way it did against Spain. They’re just not good enough to go toe-to-toe with Croatia.

WHY CROATIA WINS: The Croatians are just as balanced as Brazil or England — and might have the best box-to-box midfield tandem in Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. When you have two world-class players connecting things all over the park, you have a chance to go far. While I’d argue this Croatia team isn’t on Brazil’s or England’s level right now, the structure coach Zlatko Dalic has implemented should see them reach a semifinal.

ADVANTAGE: CROATIA

SWEDEN VS. ENGLAND 

TALKING POINT: Is football “coming home?”

WHY SWEDEN WINS: This Swedish team takes pride in its defending. It drops behind the ball better than anyone at this tournament and doesn’t take chances in its own third. What’s most notable about the Scandinavians is their insistence that mentality and mindset ultimately are what give them a chance in every game. Their mindset is that “our structure, our collective mentality, our belief” can see us through any occasion. There’s no reason not to believe them after watching them outlast the Netherlands, Italy, Germany and Mexico just to reach this point. The Swedes have a decent record against England. They’re going to fancy themselves to stymie an England side that might not have the ingenuity to break them down.

WHY ENGLAND WINS: You get the feeling this is an England team that’s not going to be as naive as Sweden’s previous opponents. Coach Gareth Southgate isn’t about to let that happen. Having watched England’s momentous win over Colombia on Tuesday night in Moscow, it just seems like The Three Lions are completely engaged and peaking at the right time. England’s back line has been impressive and Jordan Henderson’s leadership, energy and engagement in midfield were noticeable from where I was sitting. This is the most well-prepared England team I’ve seen. And The Three Lions are battle-tested after an extremely hard-fought Round of 16 fixture. Football might not be “coming home,” but it’s going one more game after this.

ADVANTAGE: England

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