As we reach the business end of Russia 2018, the stakes were only going to get higher and the matches even tighter.
Day Twenty continued the trend of exciting matches enthralling drama, and even saw a costly error or two thrown in for good measure.
When a World Cup is hosted in Europe, more often than not (with the exception of Brazil in 1958) it’s a European team that wins it, and after today’s results that continues to be the case as we say goodbye to two former champions – both of a South American nature.
With six Europeans left, Day Twenty saw this summer’s World Cup blown wide open, with those who now remain sharing a mere two previous titles between them.
Muslera mistake gives helping hand to France who reach final four
France’s hunt for a second World Cup title continued as they reached the semis with a comfortable victory against Uruguay.
Goals from Raphael Varane and Antoine Griezmann did the business for Les Bleus, on an afternoon when the top gear they displayed against Argentina was not needed as they took on a Uruguay side lacking inspiration with Edinson Cavani sidelined through injury.
The PSG striker scored both goals in the win against Portugal, but despite still having the option of Luis Suarez, the Uruguayans failed to create any clear-cut chances in a game that wasn’t particularly easy on the eye as France took the win with their only two shots on target.
Uruguay’s familiar trait of remaining solid at the back continued during a largely uninspiring first half, but that didn’t stop the French from creating a big opening for last Saturday’s star, Kylian Mbappe.
Benjamin Pavard, who also played a key role in the last round with a stunning goal, delivered a ball to the back post which Olivier Giroud headed back across goal. The target man found Mbappe entirely unmarked six yards out as Uruguay were caught ball-watching, but the teenager made the wrong decision in attempting to head the ball despite having time to control it, and his effort looped harmlessly over the bar.
That was a warning sign for Oscar Tabarez’ side, but they responded well. The South Americans registered the game’s first two efforts on target, with the second falling at the feet of Matias Vecino in the area, but his low shot was straight at Hugo Lloris.
Despite being marginally the better side however, disaster struck for Uruguay with just over five minutes remaining of the half.
21-year-old Rodrigo Bentancur, who had been one of the nation’s more impressive players throughout the tournament, brought down Corentin Tolisso from behind and conceded a dangerous free-kick. Not only that, the Juventus midfielder was booked for his troubles, meaning should his side make it through, he would miss their semi-final contest.
But moments later, any such date with Brazil or Belgium was cast in serious doubt, as France took control.
Through the resulting free-kick, the French talisman Griezmann, who had been anonymous for the most part, curled a ball into the box.
Striker Christian Stuani, in for Cavani, was back to defend and seemed destined to head the Atletico Madrid forward’s delivery away, but from nowhere came Griezmann’s city rival Raphael Varane, up from the back, to get there first and glance a header low into the corner leaving goalkeeper Fernando Muslera with no chance.
Les Bleus fans celebrated wildly with berets and baguettes visible in the stands, whilst Uruguay were left stunned having conceded for only the second time at Russia 2018. Advantage La France.
Tabarez’ man went in search of an immediate response to the setback, and four minutes later very nearly got it.
They won a free kick themselves up the other end of the pitch, and this time it was whipped in by Arsenal-bound Lucas Torreira.
As with the France set-piece, it was an attacking defender who got on the end of it – Martin Caceres sent a powerful header towards goal, but Lloris somehow clawed it out when the ball seemed nailed-on to nestle into the bottom corner, and despite Diego Godin getting to the rebound, Lloris bounced back to his feet quickly to put pressure on his opposing captain, and the veteran defender fired well over.
France had their brilliant goalkeeper to thank as they went into half-time with their lead intact, whilst Uruguay were left with it all to do after seeing their best chance superbly kept out.
But whilst it was world-class goalkeeping that kept France ahead, the same could not be said for Lloris’ opposite number on the hour as he attempted to keep the Uruguayans in the game.
Not for the first time this tournament, Paul Pogba showed great strength in midfield to win the ball back for France, and the Manchester United man led the charge forward.
Playing the ball to his left, Pogba found Tolisso, who then shifted it further towards Griezmann, and from 25 yards, the forward hammered a shot towards goal which swerved at the last second and spun out of Muslera’s hands before bouncing into the net.
It was an uncharacteristic mistake from the usually reliant goalkeeper, and Uruguay seemed down and out having been left with a mountain to climb.
Griezmann awkwardly celebrated in a muted fashion, but France were well on their way.
Tolisso had impressed on his return to the side and could have added a third with less than 20 minutes to go after being afforded space on the edge of the area, but his strike failed to trouble Muslera this time and curled over the bar.
Both sides struggled to create anything after that with the game up, and as the clock ticked towards 90, it got too much for some. 23-year-old defender Jose Gimenez was left in tears whilst lining up in the wall to defend a late France free-kick.
ITV’s Gary Neville labelled the Atletico man as ‘embarrassing’, but it was an emotion reciprocated among the Uruguayans in the Nizhny Novgorod stands and back home, as their dreams of adding a third star to the Sky Blues crest were left shattered in what will more than likely be Oscar Tabarez’ final World Cup game as coach.
All in all it was a comfortable win for France. It may not have been the free-flowing, electric attacking performance that we witnessed in their round of sixteen success against Argentina, but Didier Deschamps’ men did enough and will be full of confidence having coasted through the tournament thus far.
Brilliant Belgium have reason to believe as they topple the mighty Brazil
The bookies favourites before a ball were kicked, Brazil, were dumped out of the World Cup by a Belgium side who answered many of the questions that were asked of them heading into the tournament with a memorable team performance.
Fernandinho deflected the ball into his own goal before a thunderous strike from Kevin De Bruyne saw The Red Devils to a two goal cushion at half time.
A late strike from Renato Augusto was not enough for Brazil, who become the third previous World Cup winner to be knocked out at The Kazan Arena, following Argentina and Germany.
Although Belgium were by far the better team over the course of the game, Brazil enjoyed decent control throughout many phases, especially the beginning.
In the sixth minute, Thiago Silva failed to connect well with a cross at the front post and fluffed a massive chance for the Brazilians. When the ball was played in, it looked certain the PSG man would score from a similar position to his goal against Serbia.
From not taking their chances from their own corner, to being incredibly unlucky defending one – at the other end, Belgium were helped into the lead.
The corner was drifted in to the front post which Vincent Kompany attacked. The Manchester City defender failed to get enough on the ball but did enough to put off his club colleagues Gabriel Jesus and Fernandinho. The latter ultimately inadvertently turned the ball into his own goal to give Belgium a precious lead in a game they entered as the underdog.
The Red Devils added to their joys on the half hour mark, when De Bruyne hit a bullet of an effort past Roma goalkeeper Alisson Becker.
Romelu Lukaku, who was excellent all night on and off the ball, started the move. He sprinted down the middle of the pitch following a neat turn, before slipping in De Bruyne. Thomas Meunier made a decoy run off the ball which distracted the defender, but in reality there was only one thing on De Bruyne’s mind – shoot.
If you are a fan of the Premier League, you will be well aware that Kevin De Bruyne is more than competent of striking a ball from this area. That is exactly what the Belgian man did. He took a touch, before striking the ball into the back of the net. The ball hardly moved due to the shear power, neither did Alisson.
Roberto Martinez made a tactical switch heading into this one to move De Bruyne into a more advanced role, relieving him of his defensive duties by bringing Marouane Fellaini into the lineup on the back of a good substitute showing against Japan. The decision proved to be a masterstroke, as De Bruyne ran the show from start to finish, as he did so often in Manchester City’s 17/18 title win.
From the second goal, Belgium saw out the first half in style, with Brazil looking bereft of ideas, unable to lay a punch on their opponents.
Heading into the World Cup, questions were being asked of Belgium. Yes, they have some of the best attacking talents in the world in De Bruyne, Hazard and Lukaku. Yes, they have some brilliant defenders. But, can they play together as a unit?
These questions were answered in style in the second half.
Belgium have always possessed attacking quality in abundance, but now they have shown they have the ability to defend and see out matches too – a frightening feat for other World Cup challengers.
Brazil did pull one back late in the day via a great Renato Augusto goal assisted by a deft Coutinho dink, but Belgium looked a steely side that would not give up.
Much of that was thanks to the experienced trio of Kompany, Alderweireld and Vertonghen.
With minutes remaining, Courtois denied Neymar with a stretching save to deny the worlds most expensive player from the edge of the box.
Brazil certainly threw questions at the Belgian defence, but Martinez’s side answered all of them.
As the final whistle blew, Brazil players fell to the ground. The squad that was meant to be the favourites looked mentally defeated, evidently still psychologically scarred from that 7-1 defeat in Belo Horizonte four years ago. Marcelo, Thiago Silva and Neymar, three of the core group of this side, closed their eyes as if they could not believe it has happened again.
Make no mistake about it, Brazil were not poor, Belgium were just too good. Vincent Kompany gathered his players into a tightly knit circle and issued his battle cry. It felt like a coming of age for Belgium, who celebrated like they won the whole thing.
Next up for Belgium is France on Tuesday in St Petersburg. After that performance, they will believe. Rightly so, this little country believe they can go all the way.
Player of the Day – Kevin De Bruyne (Belgium)
Before a ball was kicked, the headlines were about one man: Neymar Jr. The PSG attacker was supposed to turn up on the biggest stage and perform. He didn’t. De Bruyne, and his brilliant Belgian teammates did.
De Bruyne, Hazard, Lukaku – a terrifying trident, tested for the first time this evening by Roberto Martinez, who relieved De Bruyne of his defensive duties by handing a start to Marouane Fellaini, giving De Bruyne the freedom to roam and dominate.
Whether it be in defensive midfield, the ‘el pivote’ role he plays at City, the second striker position he occupied at Wolfsburg, or now in the front three, De Bruyne is proving to be one of the most all-rounded players in world football.
Kevin De Bruyne was the best player in an era defining victory for Belgium. His goal was exceptional, a strike from the edge of the box that left Alisson Becker with no chance, whilst his overall play was just as good.
He helped to link up attacks with tidy little touches, whilst dictating the tempo of the play with his forward passes. The City man was on the half turn ready to launch counter attacks at every opportunity, which were ultimately Belgium’s best weapon to beat Brazil.
Entering the peak of his career, De Bruyne has the world at his feet as one of the worlds best ‘big game players’.
Should Belgium win the World Cup, De Bruyne will be as crucial as anyone else, with his eyes firmly on not just the World Cup trophy, but individual awards such as the Golden Ball and a spot on the podium of the Balon d’Or.