After the numeruous upsets in the group stages, normal service has resumed (mostly) at the Fifa World Cup 2022 with the quarterfinals littered with big names. Morocco are the lone exception, but no less deserving of a place in the last eight.
The North African team ensured Spain will have to wait for the 2026 edition in North America for a first knockout stage win since their 2010 triumph.
While France’s Kylian Mbappe continues to accentuate his claim to be the best player right now on the planet, Cristiano Ronaldo’s career is on the verge of an underwhelming end. (It will probably be made sweeter by his rumoured €200m a season deal with Saudi Arabian club Al Nassr.)
Should England upset high-flying France in their quarterfinal, not only will it make the Three Lions genuine title contenders, it will also, lead to an upsurge of out-of-tune renditions of “It’s coming home”.
Here’s a look at how the teams line-up for the quarterfinals.
Netherlands vs Argentina
With the likes of France, Brazil and Argentina grabbing all the attention, the Netherlands have flown under the radar in Qatar with their efficient displays. Though not boasting of an all-star team, Louis Van Gaal’s side has been clinical without putting up eye-catching displays all the time.
Cody Gakpo has been a revelation and can rake in the big bucks for club PSV Eindhoven when the big European guns come calling. Frenkie de Jong has been ticking along seamlessly in midfield while Denzel Dumfries and Daley Blind are augmenting the Dutch attack.
Argentina, however, are peaking nicely. One of the pre-tournament favourites, La Albiceleste have recovered well from a shock loss to Saudi Arabia. Lionel Messi is having his best tournament and for once, has a supporting act that is not prone to fluffing their lines.
The match will likely depend on which teams’ defence copes better. Considering how much Argentina depend on Messi to initiate attacks, stifling the PSG man could give the Netherlands an opening to attack themselves, something Van Gaal spoke about. That will be easier said than done against one of the greatest players in the world.
Croatia vs Brazil
If any footballer ends up riling Graeme Souness up, it is likely that they are doing something right. And Brazil are doing a lot of things right. The spotlight will always be on Neymar but Tite’s side have shown they can turn on the style even without their talisman playing.
In a star-studded attack, Richarlison has made himself the focal point, relieving a lot of pressure off Neymar. Brazil’s bench strength in attack also boasts the likes of Rodrygo, Antony and Gabriel Martinelli, all potential match-winners. Thiago Silva continues to defy age in the heart of defence and pings delightful first-time passes at will. In a tournament which has seen many a big giants crash and burn, Brazil, along with France, have been on another level.
Should Argentina and Brazil prevail, as they are perhaps expected to on paper, we will be set for an almighty South American showdown in the semifinals.
In Croatia, Brazil will be against a team that does not know when to give up. And unlike Belgium, Croatia are more than willing to trust their younger players over members of their golden generation. While they have not found the back of the net on a regular basis, their structure can prove to be difficult for Brazil to break down.
England vs France
Just like Brazil, France have proven themselves to strong favourites. Unlike Brazil, their talisman Kylian Mbappe has justified his status as the team’s alpha. The PSG star has been the player of the tournament, picking up from where he left off four years ago.
Olivier Giroud has also not made France miss Karim Benzema, scoring thrice already while continuing to facilitate the attacking talents of messers Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele. While many thought France could falter in the absence of N’golo Kante and Paul Pogba, Aurelien Tchouameni and Adrien Rabiot have played just as well if not better.
If France has one of the world’s best players in their midst, England has a couple who can claim the title in a year or two. While Gareth Southgate put Jude Bellingham in the line-up from the first match itself, Phil Foden had to bide his time on the bench before making himself indispensable after his displays against Wales and Poland.
Even as the attack has been scintillating, England’s defence has been relatively untested. Mbappe and Co will prove to be a sterner test than Christian Pulisic, Gareth Bale and the likes. Southgate has backed Harry Maguire even as he is the fourth choice defender at Manchester United. Will Southgate stick with Maguire against a rampant French attack? If he does, England may have to revert to five at the back to handle Mbappe and Co. This promises to be a fascinating tactical battle.
Morocco vs Portugal
It is ironic that Cristiano Ronaldo’s best chance of winning a World Cup will only come if he continues to stay on the bench in Qatar. Fernando Santos finally followed Erik ten Hag to have the courage to bench one of the greatest players ever to see his side play better. As evidenced from their 6-1 hammering of Switzerland, Santos has perhaps even justified Ten Hag’s stance at Manchester United.
Morocco is probably the most disciplined team in Qatar right now, adhering to Walid Regragui’s tactical set up to the T. That they have only conceded once in the tournament, shows just how solid they have been. If their defence is unbreakable, their attack led by the mercurial Hakim Ziyech is unpredictable and capable of anything on their day.
This, incidentally, is the only quarterfinal without a previous finalist, guaranteeing that at least one semifinalist will have a shot at reaching the title clash for the first time.
Friday, December 9
Game 57: 0030 (Next AM): Netherlands v Argentina, Lusail Stadium (Lusail)
Game 58: 2030: Croatia vs Brazil, Education City Stadium (Doha)
Saturday, December 10
Game 59: 0030 (Next AM): England v France, Al-Bayt Stadium (Al-Khor)
Game 60: 2030: Morocco v Portugal, Al-Thumama Stadium (Doha)