And then there were four…
The World Cup is now a mini European Championship, with favourites Brazil and Uruguay bowing out at the quarter-final stage.
Brazil paid for a lacklustre first half in going down 2-1 to Belgium who, it seems, are now living up to their ‘golden generation’ tag. Former Everton manager Roberto Martinez has been the man gaining the plaudits, his use of Romelu Lukaku off the right flank and with second goalscorer Kevin De Bruyne down the middle unsettled the Brazilian backline – a tactic adopted on occasion when he was managing the forward at Goodison.
Of course, skipper Eden Hazard was also hugely influential although it took a fine rearguard action in the second half, with another ex-Toffee, Marouane Fellaini, a key man shielding his backline. Should VAR have awarded Brazil a penalty minutes after pulling it back to 2-1 having been two-behind at the break? Perhaps – but on such moments are world champions made.
Uruguay’s defeat came at the hands of France, the 2-0 scoreline a fair reflection despite a match of few clear-cut chances. Much hinged on the key second goal scored just after the hour by Antoine Griezmann, a calamity for goalkeeper Fernando Muslera. Without the injured Edinson Cavani, the challenge proved too much as Didier Deschamps side eased into their first World Cup semi-final since 2006.
England’s bandwagon continues to roll, a 2-0 victory over Sweden proving more routine than many would have imagined as they reached a first semi-final since 1990. Despite that goalkeeper Jordan Pickford picked up the man of the match plaudits, making three key saves in the second half, but in the shape of first goalscorer, defender Harry Maguire, they have a previously unheralded leader at the top of his game, with a special mention too for Jordan Henderson in midfield.
They will meet Croatia in the second semi-final, who defeated the hosts after a dramatic penalty shootout. Mario Fernandes went from hero to villain, his 115th minute header ensuring a 2-2 draw after extra-time before he missed the target from the penalty spot in the shootout, although in truth the first kick, an attempted Panenka-style chip by Fedor Smolov which went horribly wrong, deflated much of the momentum built up from the euphoria created by Fernandes’ leveller.
So what of the finalists? Belgium v France is a tough call, but the winners will rightly be the World Cup favourites. England’s best hope against Croatia will be that their opponents are still fatigued after a second successive 120 minutes – and that they keep Luka Madrid quiet…