FIFA World Cup 2022: The final eight and how they got there
The tournament started with surprises but as the quarterfinalists line-up, we have five European teams, two South African team and one African team in the mix.
And so here we are with the eight teams remaining and the World Cup pausing to catch its breath after 56 games in 17 days.
The round of 16 began with Argentina being given a late scare by Australia and ended with Portugal sweeping aside Switzerland without Cristiano Ronaldo. In between Morocco made history, Brazil, England and France showed their class, Netherlands and Croatia their poise. They are the last eight standing.
These games showed that Lionel Mess and Kylian Mbappe are in form and that a clutch of young players such as Josko Gvardiol, Jude Bellingham, Goncalo Ramos, Copady Gyakpo to Garang Kuol are ready for the big stage. It also showed that the end of the Cristiano Ronaldo era is near.
Like in 2014, two matches were decided by penalties. That number was three in Russia. Never in this century did the World Cup not need tie-breakers to decide games in the second round. Croatia’s Dominik Livacovic and Morocco’s Yassine Bounou emerged shootout heroes pulling off saves that kept their teams in the mix and sent home Japan and Spain respectively.
“When you are in the thick of it, you often don’t realise what you have achieved. Of course, we are happy but maybe as time goes on, we will realise what we have achieved,” said Bounou, adjudged Player of the Match in the game against Spain. “Don’t abandon us, we now want to go all the way,” said coach Walid Regragui.
That the game went that far was because of how the players in front of Bounou performed. As it their wont, Spain had the ball but Moroccco set up defensive lines in a way that the 2010 world champions had only two attempts on target. There were desperate blocks and excellent tackles by Morocco who were egged on by a raucous crowd at the Education City Stadium here. They were the last team from the region in a competition also known as the Arab World Cup so support for the Atlas Lions was not restricted to Moroccans.
As Regragui had said before the game, the crowd would have filled up two stadiums. Based on the number of people celebrating Tuesday’s win here, you could say he was being conservative in his estimate.
So out went Spain and questions will be asked of their style of playing and whether a reboot is needed after defeats to Japan first and then Morocco. Had Pablo Sarabia’s shot not kissed the upright on Bounou’s far side, the conversation could have been different but on such fine margins are World Cup games decided.
Not if the teams in question are Brazil and Portugal. Brazil produced an attacking masterclass that ripped apart South Korea. They scored four goals within 36 minutes of kick-off and could have had more. After struggling for goals in the group stage – the round-of-16 game was the first time in Doha that Brazil scored in the first half – which also saw a reshuffled team lose to Cameroon, the first time the five-time champions went down to an African side, this was a dazzling display. One where Richarlison possibly bested his acrobatic side-volley effort in the opening game against Serbia. Few World Cups have seen goals like that: a player juggling the ball on his forehead before being set up by two centre-backs and producing a fine finish.
Portugal swept aside Switzerland in a manner that was unexpected and they did with Ronaldo starting on the bench. The last time that happened in a game that was not inconsequential was during the 2004 European championships. But Ramos’ hattrick, this tournament’s first, showed that Portugal have a lot more to offer than their superstar.
They also look better, like Juventus and Manchester United did, when Ronaldo is not on the pitch. That is because teams tend to play to him, build their attacks around him when Ronaldo is available and that restricts variety in build-up. Which is a pity for Portugal given the wealth of attacking talent available. This was the first time since 1966 when Eusebio rescued the game against North Korea that Portugal have scored more than two goals in a knockout game. It was also one where at 39, Pepe became the oldest player to have scored in a knockout game.
Portugal’s victory does keep things on course for a final showdown between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo but Morocco, England, France, Brazil and Netherlands --- the teams could be in the way of that happening --- may have a thing or two to say about that.
Messi has been Argentina’s driving force – that defeat to Saudi Arabia seems a long time ago now --- finding crucial goals against Mexico and Australia but this is also a team that has a solid midfield and defence and in Emiliano Martinez a goalkeeper whose getting a strong hand to a Kuol’s drive ensured that the game against Australia ended in regulation time. Up against Argentina will be the Netherlands who gave USA a tactical lesson in how to suffocate a team keen on pressing. They have the right blend of youth and experience and Gyakpo has been in prodigious form. He had a role in Netherlands’ first goal in the 3-1 win against USA. In the quarter-final, the pressure will be all on Argentina.
The team that has shown to be least under pressure is France. They have lived with a string of injury problems but, barring a spell against Denmark, not looked to be in trouble if the last group game where an overhauled team went down to Tunisia is discounted. And they have Mbappe. He has more World Cup goals than Messi, Ronaldo and not even Pele had scored nine of them before turning 24. Defending champions have a tendency to go out in the first round but France have cruised through two.
Up against them will be England who, barring the dull draw against USA, have looked in good form. Harry Kane is among goals, Bellingham has been the competition’s breakout star, Bukayo Saka has brought his Arsenal form to Doha and even Jordan Henderson has scored. Senegal did test England early but goalkeeper Jordan Pickford was equal to the task. How England stop Mbappe, something no team has been able to so far, will decide that quarter-final.
How Croatia’s experienced warriors deal with Brazil’s attacking flair will decide their game. Croatia have stuck to the same pool of players and though many of them are not exactly young, they have got the job done. Ivan Perisic got the equaliser against Japan before the Asian giants, who finished ninth in this competition ahead of Spain, USA, Switzerland and Poland, bottled the penalties. Luka Modric is making sure he can stretch his last days as an international and helping him do that is centre-back Josko Gvardiol. At 20, his reading of the game is excellent as is his ability to carry the ball and make raking passes that go over the midfield and defence. A lot would hinge on how Gavrdiol marshals the backline against Brazil.