England are in the quarter-finals, the promised land, for the first time since 2006. 2006, when Charles Kennedy resigned as leader of the Lib Dems; John Prescott had an affair; a bird-flu infested swan was found in Scotland; Swedish TV showed porn on the news; and the world’s tallest man used his wingspan to reach into the mouths of dolphins and retrieve plastic where vets had failed. Truly a simpler time.
But this isn’t all about England. This is the World’s Tournament, even if it is rapidly becoming Kylian’s Kindergarten. France will face Uruguay in a match also played in 1966 (steady.) Brazil play Belgium in what is already being described as, ‘a good fixture.’ And finally Croatia will play Russia in a match where one of those teams (Croatia) will make a World Cup semi-final.
Uruguay v France
This one feels like it could go either way. Not just whether France or Uruguay will win, but whether it will descend into stodgy shithousery or we’ll see Suárez, Cavani, Mbappé, Griezmann and Pogba truly going toe-to-toe. Uruguay will surely attempt to keep things tight and frustrate early on, having seen what France can do. This French team look like they have it in them to become agitated and panic.
Can Uruguay inflame Gallic tempers and then provide a Suárez-Cavani inspired sucker-punch? Can Kante and Matuidi win the ball high enough up the field to make this obsolete? Can Pogba move it quickly enough to make sure any Uruguayan hacks result in cards? Will Mbappé’s glorious brand of ecstatic, care-free football triumph? Or, perhaps most worryingly of all, will France look fairly toothless again as against Peru and Denmark in the group?
Brazil v Belgium
Belgium Episode IV: Return of the principles? Brazil don’t concede goals. That’s just a fact. It’s the world we live in now. I’m not sure it’s a world I’m entirely comfortable with, but there we are. And so what will this Belgium team who have scored the most goals in the tournament, but who had to resort to more ‘direct’ tactics against Japan do? Surely those direct tactics would be less effective against Thiago Silva and Miranda anyway, but it does feel like Belgium will need to try something. Casemeiro will miss out for Brazil through suspension and it remains to be seen whether this could puncture their ironclad hull.
Then… Neymar? The spark that ignites or the fire that burns all before it to sate its own appetite. After seeing his flick tapped in by Roberto Firmino against Mexico he didn’t immediately congratulate him, almost as if he felt his (second) moment had been taken from him – even though the keeper’s deflection meant his shot was heading wide. And then to Firmino himself. Will Tite opt to start him over Gabriel Jesus who’s looked ineffective at bringing others in to play when Brazil go forward?
England v Sweden
It’s a quarter-final that will feel like a group stage match. We’ve been there before. Welbeck’s last-minute flick, Owen’s knee, Cole’s hit, Seaman stranded as Alexandersson’s shot flew over his head. And yet. These are the only two sides on this half of the draw ever to have played in a final.
Mentally, England will be confident, riding the wave of a last sixteen match which they effectively won twice. Physically though, Southgate described the dressing room as a scene from M*A*S*H* and England will have had the shortest recovery time, along with Belgium, by the time they take the field. England are the better side, but Sweden have forged a footballing identity out of beating better sides. They’ll be defensively organised and have shown real threat on the counter, particularly against Germany. The last three major tournament meetings between these sides? One England win and two draws. More penalties, anyone?
Russia v Croatia
Surely Croatia will be better, and Russia unluckier, than in their last 16 matches. Still though, if Russia park the bus again, in theory Croatia will have fewer options to get past it. Their talent is all in the midfield – with Rakitic, Modric, Rebic etc. While Mitrovic has looked better since his loan move to Fulham and has one goal at the tournament, Denmark largely managed to keep Croatia out with similar tactics. Yet more penalties?