2018 FIFA World Cup Semi-Final Preview – France vs Belgium

After 60 matches, 157 goals and plenty of excitement, only four teams remain in the battle for global football’s most coveted trophy. Many of the World Cup’s pre-tournament favourites have bowed out, and the final four consists of Belgium and Croatia (both of whom have never won the trophy) and England, who won in 1966 but haven’t looked like doing so again in the intervening years. Rounding out the quartet are the French, who are the only main pre-tournament favourite to make it this far but are no certainty to lift the trophy against some very dangerous opposition. The two semi-finals are very open, and there are certainly no guarantees as to who will be victorious when all is said and done. With two thrilling semi-finals contests to look forward to, and some brilliant players on display, the rest of this tournament won’t be short on excitement. It will be fascinating to see how it pans out, starting with the high-stakes clash between France and Belgium.

France vs Belgium

Form Guide

France
Group Stage
France 2 (Griezmann 58 pen, Behich 81 og), Australia 1 (Jedinak 62 pen)
France 1 (Mbappé 34), Peru 0
Denmark 0, France 0
Round of 16
France 4 (Griezmann 13 pen, Pavard 57, Mbappé 64, 68), Argentina 3 (Di María 41, Mercado 48, Agüero 90+3)
Quarter-Finals
Uruguay 0, France 2 (Varane 40, Griezmann 61)

Belgium
Group Stage
Belgium 3 (Mertens 47, Lukaku 69, 75), Panama 0
Belgium 5 (E Hazard 6 pen, 51, Lukaku 16, 45+3, Batshuayi 90), Tunisia 2 (Bronn 18, Khazri 90+3)
England 0, Belgium 1 (Januzaj 51)
Round of 16
Belgium 3 (Vertonghen 69, Fellaini 74, Chadli 90+4), Japan 2 (Haraguchi 48, Inui 52)
Quarter-Finals
Brazil 1 (Renato Augusto 76), Belgium 2 (Fernandinho 13 og, de Bruyne 31)

Game Plan

France have built into the tournament well, improving with every game and looking very well-drilled in a comfortable 2-0 win over Uruguay. Belgium are sure to present a sterner test, and it will be interesting to see how Didier Deschamps approaches the game. Under their former captain, France have displayed a tendency to sit back and hit their opposition on the break, a strategy which gives Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé the space to catch defenders out with their speed, smarts and skill. Holding it all together is main striker Olivier Giroud, who is yet to score a goal at this tournament but allows others to thrive by holding the ball up in attack and allowing his teammates to drift into dangerous positions. France’s key strength lies in midfield, where N’Golo Kanté provides a tireless screen for the defence and Paul Pogba combines an imposing physique with incredible skills. They are starting to work together well, and they will be hard to beat.

With Romelu Lukaku leading the line, and receiving brilliant service from Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne, it’s not surprising that Belgium like to attack. In their first few matches they played a three-man defence and largely controlled the game, relying on their talent to break their opponents down. Then they came up against Brazil, after an unconvincing come-from-behind win over Japan. They weren’t expected to go through, but a switch to a more conventional four man defence paid dividends and the impact of de Bruyne, Hazard and Lukaku on the break was enough to put two goals past Brazil. A suspension to Thomas Meunier, the only genuine right-back in the squad, means that changes will have to be made, and it will be interesting to see if Roberto Martínez reverts to his earlier approach against a French team that could be more potent than the Brazilians. The bare bones of the side are likely to remain the same, but the identity of Meunier’s replacement will dictate Martínez’s approach to the match.

Key Questions

1. Who will replace Thomas Meunier?
Belgium don’t have another proper right-back in their squad, so whoever comes in for the in-form Meunier will be a makeshift solution. Nacer Chadli’s versatility means he can deputise, but that will create a hole in the midfield trio (which Chadli was a part of). Either way, Chadli is not a natural right-back, and playing him in an unfamiliar position could cause big problems. Thomas Vermaelen could come into the side, and his selection would likely mean a reversion to a back three (this time with centre-back Jan Vertonghen in a more attacking and not necessarily natural role). The suspension of the only player in Belgium’s side without a natural replacement is sure to cause plenty of headaches for Martínez, and Meunier’s form means his absence will have ramifications.
2. Will either side take the game on?
Pre-tournament, the answer to this question would be a definite yes. France tend to invite their opponents to come at them, and Belgium’s strategy was defined by their attacking prowess and ability to exert pressure on their opponents. Then Belgium completely flipped their strategy to beat the Brazilians, and it worked wonders. As a result, Martínez will be very tempted to take a similar approach against France, based on a solid defence, a more powerful midfield (de Bruyne was moved forward against Brazil, allowing the more defensive-minded Marouane Fellaini to take his place) and a potent counter-attacking threat. If France decide to sit back as well, this game could become a defensive battle despite the attacking talent on display. It will be interesting to see which team looks to take control of possession and territory, or if neither is prepared to open themselves up to the other’s counter-attack.
3. Can France keep the Belgians out?
They may have beaten South American powerhouses Argentina and Uruguay on the way here, but France’s defence hasn’t yet come up against a top-quality attack. Argentina were off colour all tournament, and their three goals against the French belied their inability to really trouble Hugo Lloris’ goalHiHu, with said goals coming from a brilliant strike, a fortuitous deflection and an injury time header. Uruguay were missing Edinson Cavani, and without their star striker their attacking play fell apart. In Belgium, France will face an in-form attack with plenty of goals in them, and their largely untroubled defence will be in for a tough examination. If they can’t hold up, their hopes of lifting the World Cup will almost certainly fall by the wayside.

Key Players

N’Golo Kanté’s job description isn’t particularly spectacular: he runs around in midfield, attempts to win the ball, and passes it to an open player, then repeats the cycle for 90 minutes. It may sound simple, but it’s this hard work in midfield that holds the French together. Kanté can run all day while performing his key role, and his anticipation means that he keeps appearing wherever the ball is. His ability to continually pick off passes means that most of France’s opponents struggle to get past him, with their most dangerous attacks cut off before they can even reach the final third, and he also allows Pogba to thrive. France will be relying on him to perform at his best against Belgium, and such is his consistency that he probably will.

Kevin de Bruyne’s start to the tournament was underwhelming. Placed in the centre of midfield to accommodate the undeniable quality of Hazard, Lukaku and Dries Mertens, he was unable to have his usual impact on games and he struggled to show his unique attacking gifts. Then he got a chance in a more advanced role against Brazil, and he was brilliant. He brings other players into the action, and he caused massive issues for Brazil’s previously solid defence when he found space. He can play incredible passes, and his combination with Hazard will be a major concern for Deschamps.

Teams

Blaise Matuidi has returned from suspension, and he is likely to come back into the side with Corentin Tolisso making way. Otherwise, the French aren’t likely to make any changes to the team that beat Uruguay, sticking with the line-up that has served them so well throughout the tournament.
Possible Team (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Pogba, Kanté; Mbappé, Griezmann, Matuidi; Giroud.

Meunier won’t play, and his enforced absence is likely to be Belgium’s only change. The main options to replace him are Youri Tielemans, who can play in the middle, or Vermaelen, whose inclusion may herald a return to a back three. Centre-back Toby Alderweireld could also move to right-back, but such a move would leave Belgium’s two defensive mainstays, Alderweireld and Vertonghen, playing out of position. The 4-3-3 was so effective against Brazil that Martínez may keep it going despite Meunier’s absence.
Possible Team (4-3-3): Courtois – Chadli, Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Witsel, Fellaini, Tielemans; Lukaku, de Bruyne, E Hazard.

Prediction

This game is very hard to call, but the pace and dynamism of both attacks means that the team who scores first is likely to come away with the win, and could easily win by a big margin. Both teams have plenty of goals in them, and a free-flowing classic is a definite possibility. The French look like the favourites thanks to slightly more consistent performances and the massive loss of Meunier, but Belgium’s quality should not be underestimated and they will come ready to fight. This one could be a classic. France 3-1.

Advertisements

One-legged Subašić breaks Russian hearts

It all came down to one kick. Ivan Rakitić was attempting to put his penalty into the back of the net to send Croatia into the World Cup’s last four. Igor Akinfeev was the man tasked with barring his way and keeping Russia’s World Cup dreams alive. On the halfway line, Croatia’s players were waiting, preparing to burst into celebration but not willing to move in case Rakitić failed to convert. Next to them, Russia’s players watched helplessly, knowing that their World Cup could be over any second. On the sideline, Croatian coach Zlatko Dalić sat alone, not even daring to watch Rakitić’s kick. In the stands, the parochial Russian crowd watched and prayed. Rakitić slotted the penalty, and the host nation’s luck finally ran out. Croatia were ecstatic, Russia heartbroken.

In the end, it was Danijel Subašić who made the difference with a heroic performance. Subašić had been the hero in Croatia’s round of 16 penalty shootout win, saving three penalties and ensuring a talented Croatian team’s progress to the last eight. Like the round of 16 clash with Denmark, his night started pretty uneventfully, with Russia generally sitting back and not giving him too much work to do.

Russia settled into the match quicker than their opponents, but they didn’t create any real chances and Croatia quickly retook the ascendency after overcoming their early nerves. Once they had control, they found it easy enough to keep it. On the right wing, Ante Rebić was causing problems with his size and pace, and right-back Šime Vrsaljko was also looking threatening when he forayed into the attacking third. Mario Mandžukić was looking threatening as crosses came to him inside the box, and Luka Modrić was pulling the strings from deep in midfield. Russia half-threatened on a couple of counter-attacks, but Croatia were dictating the tempo of the game. Then the hosts scored.

Embed from Getty Images

Denis Cheryshev (centre) scores Russia’s opening goal from outside the box. Cheryshev’s strike was unstoppable, and it put Croatia under pressure.

It came from one moment of breathtaking individual brilliance. There hadn’t been too many chances in the preceding minutes, with the action slowing and the game settling into something of a lull. Then Denis Cheryshev received the ball just inside his attacking half. Through congestion, he controlled the ball and laid it off to giant striker Artem Dzyuba. Dzyuba managed to lay off a return pass, but Cheryshev was still a long way away. Modrić slid, but he couldn’t stop Cheryshev’s first touch from sending the dynamic winger into space. Domagoj Vida attempted to block Cheryshev’s path, but he couldn’t stop Russia’s in-form attacker from lashing a shot towards goal. Subašić was on the scene, but the Croatian goalkeeper was unable to intervene as the ball curved into the back of the net. The spectacular strike sent the home crowd into raptures, and it gave Russia’s confidence a massive boost. Suddenly, Croatia needed to respond. A few minutes later, respond they did.

Croatia found some space, and they scored. It was that simple. Mario Mandžukić found himself in behind the Russian defence thanks to a clever pass from Ivan Perišić, and he charged into the box facing little resistance. Eventually Ilya Kutepov came to meet him, but the damage was already done as Mandžukić’s cross found Andrej Kramarić in the centre. The Russian defence was too stretched to stop him as he headed the ball into the bottom corner. It was a simple, well-executed goal, and it put Croatia back on level terms.

Croatia continued to attack as the second half began, and they put Russia under pressure with a few attempts. Kramarić was particularly lively as he aimed to add to his earlier goal, finding the ball inside the box and at one point he unleashed a bicycle kick. There was chaos in the box when Kramarić athletically pulled a wayward ball into the box back into a dangerous spot, and Perišić received the ball in space. He wasn’t far out, and his shot looked destined for the back of the net even when it hit the inside of the post. It bounced out and rolled across goal, and Russia breathed a big sigh of relief.

After Perišić’s very near miss, the chances dried up. Croatia were still the better side, but they couldn’t breach the Russian defence and didn’t really threaten. Occasionally the ball pinballed around the Russian penalty area, but Croatia never got a clear chance out of it. Then, with only a few minutes of normal time remaining, Subašić became the centre of attention.

Embed from Getty Images

Domagoj Vida (right) is tackled by Dejan Lovren after putting Croatia ahead in the 101st minute. Vida was booked for removing his shirt, but he didn’t seem too concerned by the caution.

His night hadn’t been particularly busy, with Russia never really forcing him into too much action. Then he raced to prevent a deflected cross from running out for a corner, and the game changed dramatically. Subašić got there, prevented the ball from going out, and then slapped the ground in pain. He seemed to have injured his hamstring, and as he lay on the ground receiving treatment it seemed as if his night was over. Unfortunately for Croatia, all their substitutions were used. Subašić couldn’t come off, and they needed to carry him through until extra time, when the option of a fourth change would materialise.

Croatia protected him well during injury time. They mostly kept the ball, with the only nervous moment coming when Fyodor Smolov decided to test the goalkeeper out from an acute angle. He was in position, and he made the save. When extra time came around, Subašić received extra attention, but it seemed likely that he would be substituted. Dominik Livaković had been warming up, and he seemed likely to fill the void in the final 30 minutes of the match.

Livaković never appeared. Instead, Subašić battled on, going out for extra time with the rest of his team. The last substitution was made shortly after extra time began, when Vrsaljko pulled up awkwardly and required a replacement. Subašić was on his own. Russia looked the more dangerous team, especially when Dejan Lovren inadvertently played Smolov through. Lovren recovered well, but the warning was clear. Then Croatia scored, and seemingly sealed the deal.

The goal originated from a well-delivered corner. Modrić’s delivery eluded Mandžukić and Sergei Ignashevich as they launched themselves at the ball, and Vida was waiting unmarked behind them. The Croatian centre-back (who became a makeshift right-back after Vrsaljko’s injury) headed it goalward. It wasn’t a brilliant header, or unstoppable by any means. Somehow, it evaded the defenders who were standing in its path, and Akinfeev stood rooted to the spot as it slowly trickled into the back of the net. Vida celebrated with understandable excitement, as a pile of Croatian players formed near the corner flag. Meanwhile, referee Sandro Ricci waited awkwardly on the edge of the celebratory scrum, waiting for the pack to dissipate so that Vida could be booked for removing his shirt. He didn’t care too much about the yellow.

Russia didn’t give up, and they kept fighting for the equaliser. At that point Subašić came into his own. He was still operating on one leg, and he was severely compromised, but he continued to throw himself around to deny the Russians. As the first period of extra time came to a close, he was brought to ground after jumping into a pack to catch a free-kick. He looked to have done further damage, but he had to continue anyway. In the second period, the intensity ramped up. Subašić punched a corner away, but Daler Kuzyayev found the rebound and somehow found himself thwarted by the Croatian goalkeeper’s follow-up save. Subašić threw himself at Smolov’s cross to bat it away. Then, after pushing for some time, Russia beat the wounded goalkeeper.

Embed from Getty Images

Croatian players celebrate after their victory in the penalty shootout. It was their second win on penalties in two games, making them the second team to win consecutive World Cup shootouts and booking their first semi-final since 1998.

It started with Josip Pivarić, whose bone-headed handball on the edge of the box gave Russia a free-kick in a very dangerous position. The kick was well delivered by Alan Dzagoev, who was making his first appearance since his injury in the opening game of the tournament, and Mário Fernandes was in a perfect position to get his head on it. He diverted the header into the bottom corner, leaving Subašić with no chance of making the stop. The Croatian keeper was forced into one more save late in extra time, keeping the scores level with a diving stop despite his injury, but Russia couldn’t get the goal to go ahead. After 120 gripping, drama-filled minutes, the two teams would have to be split on penalties.

Russia seemed to hold all the cards. Kicking first, Smolov stepped up to the spot to face Subašić. Seemingly compensating for his injury, the goalkeeper bounced around on the goal line energetically as Smolov approached the ball. It’s hard to say how much of an impact the hopping on the spot had, but Subašić made the save, throwing himself the right way and contemptuously batting away Smolov’s ill-advised attempt to chip him. Marcelo Brozović scored, and Croatia were ahead. Then, after Dzagoev put his penalty away, Akinfeev levelled it up for Russia. He dived the right way, and Mateo Kovačić’s penalty was denied. The teams were back on level terms, and it wasn’t clear which goalkeeper could repeat the feat.

Subašić didn’t have to. Fernandes stepped up with the scores level, and missed the target altogether. Suddenly, Croatia had the advantage once more, even though Subašić didn’t move a muscle. Then, Akinfeev saved Modrić’s penalty. Or so all involved thought. Akinfeev guessed right, and got a solid enough hand on the ball to divert it into the post. It should have bounced out. To all intents and purposes, it seemed to have bounced out. Then it appeared in the back of the net, on the other side of the goal. Modrić had scored – just. Ignashevich scored, but it didn’t really matter. Russia needed a save for any of their goals to mean a thing. Akinfeev couldn’t save Vida’s penalty. Subašić couldn’t stop Kuzyayev’s either, leaving Rakitić with the unenviable task of taking the high-pressure kick. It was the second such penalty he had taken at this tournament, and he did it with aplomb. They did it tough, but Croatia went through. That’s all they can ask for.

Sochi – Fisht Olympic Stadium
Russia 2 (Cheryshev 31, Mário Fernandes 115)
Croatia 2 (Kramarić 39, Vida 101) (a.e.t, Croatia won 4-3 on penalties)
Referee: Sandro Ricci (Bra)
Russia (4-2-3-1): Akinfeev – Mário Fernandes, Kutepov, Ignashevich, Kudryashov; Zobnin, Kuzyayev; Samedov (Yerokhin 54), Golovin (Dzagoev 102), Cheryshev (Smolov 67); Dzyuba (Gazinsky 79).
Croatia (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinić (Pivarić 74); Rakitić, Modrić; Rebić, Kramarić (Kovačić 88), Perišić (Brozović 63); Mandžukić.

Embed from Getty Images

Danijel Subašić and Ivan Rakitić celebrate after Rakitić’s winning penalty. Subašić battled through a painful injury to play out the match and save a penalty in the shootout.

Top 5
1. Danijel Subašić (Croatia)
Subašić’s game looked over when he started slapping the ground and clutching his hamstring. Instead, his best moments were only just beginning. He battled through extra time, making a number of good saves in the process, and his heroics in the shootout once again saw Croatia claim victory. He will be a big loss if he’s unavailable for the semi-final.
2. Luka Modrić (Croatia)
Modrić wasn’t at his best against Denmark, but he proved that he doesn’t play consecutive bad games (or bad games at all, all things considered) with a brilliant performance. He worked hard and played plenty of incisive passes, and his set piece delivery was what gave Croatia a late lead.
3. Mário Fernandes (Russia)
It’s hard to imagine how Mário Fernandes is feeling right about now. He scored his first goal in Russian colours to give the hosts a lifeline, and then watched in horror as his missed penalty extinguished that hope. His elation and subsequent despair aside, Fernandes played a brilliant game at right-back. He got forward well, and he acquitted himself well defensively too.
4. Andrej Kramarić (Croatia)
Kramarić put Croatia back on track with his goal shortly before half time, and he justified his inclusion in the starting line-up with a strong performance. He created plenty of chances with his excellent positioning and ability to find the ball in the final third, and he could have easily added to his goal-scoring tally.
5. Denis Cheryshev (Russia)
Cheryshev has been in brilliant form since coming on as an early substitute in the opening match of the tournament, and he netted one of the best goals of this World Cup to put Russia ahead. He looked ominous when he found space on the break, and a fourth goal in five matches was a fitting reward for his efforts.

England outclass Sweden to sail into the semis

Before this tournament, the British press was strangely subdued. For 50 years, they had proclaimed England champions-in-waiting at every major tournament. For some reason, this young and inexperienced team didn’t receive such lofty pre-tournament support. Now, for the first time since 1990, and for only the second time since lifting the trophy in 1966, the Three Lions are in the semi-finals of the World Cup. They did it without breaking a sweat, comfortably outclassing Sweden and announcing themselves as a genuine contender as they cruised into the tournament’s final four.

Perhaps the greatest sign of England’s progress came from the inherent Englishness of the opponents they were playing. Sweden’s footballing development has been influenced heavily by England, and their mostly lifeless and uninspired performance was the kind of effort plenty of talented English sides had served up in the past. Their system was introduced by the English, the kind of simple tactical plan England had gone for in years gone by. Now, England’s young stars dismantled their opponents’ disciplined but ultimately toothless structure with their exciting new brand of play.

The game started slowly, with neither side able to offer any real threat and neither defence looking tested. England, unsurprisingly, began to take the ascendency against Sweden’s previously solid defence, but the Swedish knew their roles and didn’t seem to be too troubled. Then England scored, from one of their main sources: the humble corner kick. Ashley Young delivered the corner in question to where a mass of players awaited the ball’s arrival. There seemed to be plenty of defenders there, and Sweden looked to have set up well. Then Harry Maguire’s header shot into the bottom corner, and it was clear that something hadn’t quite worked. English centre-back Maguire, the second heaviest player at the tournament, was marked by diminutive Swedish playmaker Emil Forsberg. Forsberg never stood a chance.

Embed from Getty Images

Harry Maguire (right) scores England’s first goal from Ashley Young’s well-directed corner. The goal came from a defensive breakdown, and it left Sweden chasing the game.

Sweden offered little attacking threat for the rest of the half, and England kept pushing. Raheem Sterling had a series of chances to double the lead in the minutes before the break as he found the ball in behind and began to terrorise the Swedish defence with his pace. A long ball picked him out over the top of the Swedish defence, but Victor Lindelöf was just able to bundle the ball away. Robin Olsen was forced into a good one-on-one save when Sterling slipped through again a couple of minutes later, and Sweden barely survived (he was offside anyway, so the goal wouldn’t have counted). He wasn’t offside when he got in behind again, and this time only a fingertip save from Olsen and a sliding block from Andreas Granqvist stopped him from scoring. It didn’t feel like Sweden would be so lucky if he slipped past them once more, and Sweden’s record in stopping him from slipping through the net wasn’t exactly looking great.

Sweden started the second half more aggressively, and they had their first genuine chance a few minutes after the game restarted. It was a good chance too, as Jordan Pickford was forced into a tough diving save when Marcus Berg rose above Young to head towards the bottom corner. When Forsberg started to get involved, even going so far as to send what was possibly a shot flying fairly close to the bar (it may have been a really bad cross, but it looked vaguely dangerous) the Swedish looked like they had an equaliser in them. That equaliser never came. England began to reassert themselves on the game, controlling possession well and looking increasingly dangerous when they had the chance to deliver a corner. Then, after slowing the game down and steadying the ship after Sweden’s fast second half opening, England got their second and began to professionally kill the game.

Dele Alli scored it, and again it came from a good cross into the box. Jesse Lingard delivered the pass, receiving the ball on the edge of the box and targeting a cluster of teammates on the back post with a delightful looping ball. Alli, having pushed into the box from midfield, rose above the rest as Lingard’s cross hit him perfectly on the forehead. Once he put the header on target, Olsen had no chance of making the save. England were 2-0 up, Sweden had barely threatened, and the Three Lions were almost certainly heading for the dizzy heights of the last four.

Embed from Getty Images

Robin Olsen attempts in vain to save Dele Alli’s close range header. Alli’s goal gave England a 2-0 buffer which Sweden never looked capable of overcoming.

Sweden did threaten when some excellent combination play between Ola Toivonen, Berg and Viktor Claesson provided Claesson with a chance and forced Pickford into another brilliant save, but England survived. They had their third real chance of the game when Pickford made another great save to tip Berg’s very dangerous shot over the bar, but they couldn’t break through. The latter chance even created tension within the English team, as Pickford politely bellowed at his defenders in pursuit of an explanation for the ease with which Berg found space to shoot. Presumably the matter was resolved amicably, as England didn’t look like conceding again.

For the most part, England just sauntered around the pitch doing as they pleased while the Swedish desperately chased them trying to get the ball back. Occasionally they got a corner, and really tested the Swedes. In four previous matches, Sweden’s defence had been extremely solid, especially in the air. Here, every corner seemed likely to pull them apart. Considering this strange effect has happened to all of England’s previous opponents, it may simply be that England are very good at corners. Sweden tried to make use of their height by bombing the ball long at every opportunity, and they even brought on Pontus Jansson, a central defender, solely to control said long balls. It didn’t work, and barely created so much as a half chance.

In the end, England weren’t tested by Sweden, who based their success around organisation and didn’t have the requisite skill or game plan to react to falling behind. As such, England’s cruisy run towards the latter stages of the World Cup continues unhindered, and the claims that the tournament is “coming home” will only intensify in the days to follow. Such statements started as something of a joke, as England weren’t actually expected to get this far. Now, they could well prove to be prophetic. Some will point out that Sweden had just three chances, and it may not be advisable for English fans to get ahead of themselves. After such a comfortable win, however, it seems unlikely that such advice will actually be heeded. Before this tournament began, the British press was strangely subdued. They’re unlikely to be so subdued now.

Samara – Cosmos Arena
Sweden 0
England 2 (Maguire 30, Alli 59)
Referee: Björn Kuipers (Ned)
Sweden (4-4-2): Olsen – Krafth (Jansson 85), Lindelöf, Granqvist, Augustinsson; Claesson, Larsson, Ekdal, Forsberg (Olsson 65); Berg, Toivonen (Guidetti 65).
England (3-5-2): Pickford – Walker, Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Lingard, Henderson (Dier 84), Alli (Delph 77), Young; Kane, Sterling (Rashford 90+1).

Embed from Getty Images

Jordan Pickford makes a diving save to keep out Marcus Berg’s dangerous header. Pickford wasn’t called into action very often, but he was still required to make some very difficult saves to preserve England’s lead.

Top 5
1. Jordan Pickford (England)
Sweden had three golden opportunities to score in the second half, and just one of them going in could have turned the game on its head. Thankfully for England, Pickford was there to ensure that England’s clean sheet remained intact and that there were no nervous moments. He made three stunning saves, and justified his selection with an excellent performance.
2. Raheem Sterling (England)
Watching Sterling play, it’s hard to see how he has managed just two goals in over 40 English caps. Here, he was too quick for the Swedish defence and he put himself into all the right positions. Somehow, he was still denied. His dynamic runs in behind scattered the previously well-organised Swedish defence, and he was England’s most dangerous attacker by some distance.
3. Harry Maguire (England)
Not for the first time this tournament, Maguire’s attacking exploits outshone his defensive work. The centre-back made good use of his size as he threw himself around in the box, and he managed to find himself a goal and create some chances with his dangerous headers. He is a big part of England’s success at set pieces.
4. Marcus Berg (Sweden)
Berg didn’t give up in his pursuit for a goal, and he was involved in all of Sweden’s dangerous attacking moves. His positioning was good, and he will consider himself unlucky to be leaving the tournament without a goal to his name. Had a lesser goalkeeper than Pickford been present he could have scored a couple.
5. Ashley Young (England)
Young looked dangerous as he moved up and down the left wing, and it was his corner that provided the assist for Maguire’s opener. His influence waned somewhat after that moment, but he continued to threaten and he put in some dangerous crosses. He asked plenty of questions of the Swedish defence.

Belgium’s golden generation come through to knock Brazil out

This was Belgium’s last chance. With their golden generation hitting their peak, a World Cup quarter-finals appearance wasn’t going to be good enough for a talented group of stars. To fulfil their immense potential as a team, they simply needed to win. Unfortunately, they were up against Brazil. A draw in their last group stage game would have taken them on a softer path, one which didn’t include the Brazilians (or the French, the team that would play the winner of the highly-anticipated clash). Instead, they won the last group stage match, and here they were. It’s hard to know how many people gave them a chance against Brazil. Belgium were good, but Brazil…were Brazil. They win things, and this team looked capable of winning things. Then Belgium delivered an inspired 90 minute performance which ended Brazil’s tournament and, once again, threw the race for the 2018 World Cup wide open.

The game started very openly. There was chaos in the Belgian penalty area when Neymar’s corner was flicked on by Miranda for Thiago Silva, who hit the post from very close range. Belgium survived and counter-attacked, with Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard combining dangerously against the stretched Brazilian defence. Paulinho had a pair of chances minutes later, firstly running onto the ball as it bounced around in Belgium’s box and then miscuing another flicked on Brazilian corner. Less than 10 minutes had been played, and every single second had been played at breakneck pace. Someone was going to score. It was inevitable.

Somewhat surprisingly, it was Belgium who took the lead. De Bruyne was in sparkling touch, and his incisive ball found Marouane Fellaini on the edge of the box. His shot was deflected out for a corner, which was swung in to the near post. Brazil didn’t defend Hazard’s corner particularly well, and Vincent Kompany was able to get his head on the ball to flick it on for a teammate. It never reached one of his teammates. Instead, it bounced off Fernandinho’s arm as the Brazilian midfielder attempted to block it, and it rebounded into the back of the net. Brazil were behind.

Embed from Getty Images

Kevin de Bruyne scores Belgium’s second goal from just outside the box. De Bruyne was back to his best, and his first half performance gave Belgium an ultimately unassailable lead.

Now in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable position, Brazil kept pushing. They drove the Belgian defence back, but Gabriel Jesus couldn’t quite force the ball in from inside the six-yard box. Belgium’s desperate defence cleared – just. Philippe Coutinho had a chance to unleash his lethal right foot when he found space outside the box, but he drilled his shot straight at Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. Meanwhile, Belgium continued to pose an attacking threat of their own. Hazard somehow worked his way out of a congested area to burst into space, and Thomas Meunier’s subsequent cross nearly connected with Lukaku in the centre. De Bruyne did connect with Lukaku in the box when he found space on the break, but the big striker wasn’t quite able to get his shot off. Brazil kept pushing, and Marcelo forced Courtois into a save. Then Belgium went forward, Hazard and de Bruyne combined, and Brazil once again scrambled to clear. It was fast, end-to-end action, and both sides looked capable of breaking each other down at any given moment.

One team looked certain to score before the half was up. It was Belgium, not Brazil. Ever since they took the lead, they had threatened to turn one of their counter-attacks into a potent opportunity. When a cleared Brazilian corner found Lukaku, their break delivered. Lukaku simultaneously held off those behind him and took on those in front as he made a barnstorming run to the middle of the field, and he managed to squirt out a pass to the influential de Bruyne just before his momentum finally dissipated. The unmanned de Bruyne took a shot and didn’t miss, leaving Alisson with no chance as he drilled his unstoppable strike into the bottom corner. It was bad enough being behind. Now it was panic stations.

Naturally, Brazil kept pushing harder. Courtois was forced into a pair of tough saves in a matter of seconds, first keeping Marcelo’s deflected cross out with his outstretched hand and then flinging himself to his left to punch Coutinho’s well-placed shot away. Then, in keeping with the rhythm of the game, Belgium countered, and Hazard, Lukaku and de Bruyne threatened again. Shortly afterwards, Alisson tipped de Bruyne’s free-kick over the bar, and was tested again from the resultant corner when Kompany’s back-heeled flick was on target. Neymar hadn’t been too much of a factor, and the Brazilian star was thwarted thrice as the half came to a close. Firstly, he was set upon by Belgium’s afroed central midfield duo of Fellaini and Axel Witsel, and then he was stopped by club teammate Meunier. At the end of the half, he slipped in behind – and he was stopped by the offside flag.

The second half picked up where the first had left off. Kompany dispossessed Neymar and kick-started a counter-attack which saw de Bruyne play Lukaku through. Miranda, Brazil’s captain of the week, managed to stop him. Marcelo played in a few dangerous crosses, but they couldn’t find a target in the middle. Neymar went down in the box and appealed for a penalty, which wasn’t awarded. Paulinho nearly broke through minutes later, but Courtois saved his shot and Brazil couldn’t get onto his follow-up ball across goal. Another penalty appeal came when Kompany brought Gabriel Jesus down. The video assistant referee deliberated for what seemed like an age before deciding no error had been made. Play on. Then, after a protracted period of desperate defending, Belgium broke, and very nearly scored. De Bruyne (again) teed up Hazard (again), and the Belgian captain’s shot fizzed across the face of goal.

Embed from Getty Images

Belgium’s players celebrate after the historic victory. They were pushed right to the end, but they held on well to progress to the semi-finals.

It soon seemed like Brazil’s attacks were beginning to falter. They still had chances, like when Courtois turned a cross into Paulinho’s leg, but Brazil weren’t coming quite as hard or as dangerously. Then Renato Augusto scored. He hadn’t been on the pitch for a long time, coming on as Tite’s last throw of the dice. Then things opened up for him with Coutinho’s perfect chip into the box, and he headed it into the bottom corner where Courtois couldn’t reach it. Brazil had hope, and they had Belgium on the back foot.

For the last 15 minutes, Brazil were a reinvigorated team. Neymar teed up Roberto Firmino in the centre, but the ball was blasted over the bar. Coutinho found Augusto on the edge of the box, and Augusto’s shot just missed. Neymar found Coutinho, for what should have been a simple chance for the star midfielder. He couldn’t have hit a worse shot if he tried, with the ball flying sideways instead of at the target. In the dying moments, Neymar had a shot after combining well with Douglas Costa. It looked perfect. It was dipping, bending and arcing dangerously towards the top corner. It was set to loop perfectly under the bar. It was set to become Neymar’s heroic moment. Then a black glove appeared and tapped the ball out for a corner. Courtois was too good for it.

As the final whistle sounded, it confirmed a win that had looked likely for some time. That didn’t mute the Belgian celebrations, however. De Bruyne was masterful, Hazard was dangerous, Courtois nearly unbeatable and the defence rock-solid. The contrast with Brazil was striking. Neymar occasionally threatened, but was nowhere near his best. Philippe Coutinho was similarly off his game. Fernandinho, in the side for regular defensive midfielder Casemiro, had a catastrophic 90 minutes, and right-back Fagner was tormented by Hazard. Brazil weren’t good enough, and Belgium most certainly were. In the end, the golden generation took their last chance. After the biggest win in their footballing history, they are a huge chance of lifting the World Cup.

Kazan – Kazan Arena
Brazil 1 (Renato Augusto 76)
Belgium 2 (Fernandinho 13 og, de Bruyne 31)
Referee: Milorad Mažić
Brazil (4-2-3-1): Alisson – Fagner, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Marcelo; Paulinho (Renato Augusto 73), Fernandinho; Willian (Roberto Firmino 46), Philippe Coutinho, Neymar; Gabriel Jesus (Douglas Costa 58).
Belgium (3-4-3): Courtois – Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Meunier, Fellaini, Witsel, Chadli (Vermaelen 83); de Bruyne, Lukaku (Tielemans 87), E Hazard.

Embed from Getty Images

Thibaut Courtois dives full length to stop Philippe Coutinho’s long range effort. The save was one of many remarkable stops made by Courtois in his brilliant performance.

Top 5
1. Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
It took an immense effort, a perfect cross and an even more perfect header to eventually beat Courtois, and even Renato Augusto’s perfectly-placed effort wasn’t too far away from the Belgian goalkeeper’s desperate clutches. When Belgium needed him to stand up, he delivered, and he was the match-winner with his heroic goalkeeping.
2. Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium)
Before this game, de Bruyne hadn’t been at his best. He was playing in a deeper midfield role, and he wasn’t getting on the ball in dangerous areas. Then he was moved into a more advanced position. From the start, de Bruyne was pulling the strings, floating into space and seemingly making something happen with every touch. His impact waned after half time, but his first half was enough.
3. Eden Hazard (Belgium)
When Hazard and de Bruyne combined, Brazil were put under immense pressure. Hazard was free to roam, and he made Fagner look completely out of his depth with some exceptional displays of skill. His balance, poise and ability caught the Brazilians out, and his counter-attacking runs were invaluable in the dying minutes for the time they chewed up.
4. Douglas Costa (Brazil)
Costa came off the bench, and he looked more likely to have an impact than many of his teammates. He made incisive runs cutting in from the right wing, he played some dangerous crosses and he connected well with the rest of the Brazilian attack. It wasn’t his best tournament, but a lively performance was a good way to finish it.
5. Vincent Kompany (Belgium)
Kompany wasn’t able to start in the group stage due to injury, but Belgium took the risk of picking their former captain despite his troubles. In their biggest ever win, he justified that selection. His defensive work was outstanding, and he was a huge factor in Belgium’s ability to keep the Brazilians out. To cap it off, it was his header that was deflected in for the crucial opening goal.

Varane’s redemption and Muslera’s howler sees France into the final four

Paul Pogba received the ball in space, and set about running towards the Uruguayan goal. France’s powerful midfielder had been in excellent form, and France were cruising towards the semi-finals of the World Cup against a Uruguayan team that hadn’t really tested them all game. In Pogba’s path stood Uruguayan centre-back José María Giménez. Pogba attempted to neatly skip past him, and Giménez stuck out a leg. As the foul was paid, Giménez looked as if he was about to burst into tears. As the free-kick was taken, he did. There was still time left, but a miraculous Uruguayan comeback seemed impossible. As it turned out, it was impossible.

Uruguay were in trouble before the first kick of the ball. Edinson Cavani, the star of their round of 16 win over Portugal, succumbed to a calf injury accrued during his man-of-the-match performance, and he was replaced by Cristhian Stuani. Stuani is a capable player, but the change was akin to replacing a brand-new Ferrari with a banged-up Holden. He tried his best, but Uruguay’s attack was lacking in almost every department. Cavani’s hard work in transition was lost, and without him Uruguay were fighting a losing battle.

Embed from Getty Images

Cristhian Stuani (left) and Lucas Hernández battle for the ball. Stuani came in for the injured Edinson Cavani, and although he fought hard he couldn’t make up for the loss of Uruguay’s star striker.

It didn’t necessarily seem that way in the opening exchanges, as France looked nervous and made a number of early errors as a result. Balls were awkwardly controlled under little to no pressure, passes were missed and occasionally even hit straight into pursuing players. With Cavani around, Uruguay may have taken advantage. Without him, they couldn’t even turn France’s nerves into a clear-cut chance. France settled and began to control the early possession, but neither side was creating too many chances despite the openness of the contest.

Then, just as the sides were approaching half time, France took the lead. Four years earlier, in the quarter-finals against Germany, French centre-back Raphaël Varane was beaten in the air by Mats Hummels as France conceded the goal that eliminated them from the World Cup. Now Varane received a chance for redemption when Antoine Griezmann’s well-choreographed free-kick found him in the box. He was unmarked, and he got his head on the ball, but the chance was still a tough one. He converted it expertly, diverting a glancing header into the bottom corner and leaving Fernando Muslera helpless to intervene.

Uruguay reacted well after going behind, and they had an almost identical chance to Varane’s minutes after going behind. Martín Cáceres got his head on a free-kick, and diverted it into the bottom corner. It seemed destined to level the scores as it flew towards the bottom corner. Then Hugo Lloris got in the way. The French captain dived full length, stuck out a hand and parried it away, before Diego Godín blasted the rebound wide of the target from close range. Thanks to Lloris, and Godín’s remarkable miss, France survived. After the break, Uruguay kept pushing, but there was always something missing in their attacks. Then a goalkeeping error put France two goals up, and Uruguay never recovered.

Embed from Getty Images

Fernando Muslera watches helplessly as his poor attempt at a save loops past him into the back of the net. Muslera’s mistake consigned Uruguay to elimination, and all but confirmed France’s passage to the semi-finals.

It wasn’t Muslera’s first mistake. Shortly after half time, the goalkeeper was caught in possession in his own box, and Griezmann nearly capitalised. It was Griezmann who benefitted from his next error a few minutes later. The goal started with Pogba, who strolled easily past Uruguay’s midfield and reached the edge of the box almost unopposed. He shuffled the ball to Corentin Tolisso, who was in space, and Tolisso moved the ball on to Griezmann. Griezmann took a seemingly harmless shot, directed straight at Muslera. Then it swerved. It didn’t move much, but it was enough to leave Muslera in an awkward position as he looked to make the save. His clumsy two handed bat at the ball didn’t work, and the ball looped over the goal line.

After going 2-0 up, the French finished the game off well, with a bizarre clash between Kylian Mbappé and Cristian Rodríguez the only hitch. It wasn’t exactly clear what had taken place, but high tempers ensued as Mbappé ran into Rodríguez, went to ground and drew the ire of Uruguay’s players. Confusingly, both players ended up booked, with Néstor Pitana seemingly cautioning Rodríguez for the indiscretion and Mbappé for simulation at the same time. The French calmed down and potential suspensions were narrowly averted, and with Uruguay’s attack looking increasingly toothless as the game wore on the French never looked threatened. It was a calm, composed performance, and it bodes well for France as they enter the business end of the tournament.

Nizhny Novgorod – Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
Uruguay 0
France 2 (Varane 40, Griezmann 61)
Referee: Néstor Pitana (Arg)
Uruguay (4-4-2): Muslera – Cáceres, Giménez, Godín, Laxalt; Nández (Urretaviscaya 73), Torreira, Vecino, Bentancur (Rodríguez 59); Suárez, Stuani (Gómez 59).
France (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Pogba, Kanté; Mbappé (Dembélé 88), Griezmann (Fekir 90+3), Tolisso (N’Zonzi 80); Giroud.

Top 5
1. N’Golo Kanté (France)
Kanté is far from the most talented player on France’s team. He’s not particularly quick, he’s not particularly strong, and he can’t really contribute to the attack from his position in holding midfield. He is also France’s most important player. His superhuman endurance and brilliant reading of the play cut out a number of Uruguayan attacks, and he dominated the midfield.
2. Paul Pogba (France)
Pogba had a massive impact playing alongside Kanté, contributing to attacks with his robust runs from the centre of the park and playing a key role in their most dangerous offensive forays. He was everywhere, and his combination with Kanté is a huge part of France’s success. He was nearly suspended for an off-the-ball incident, and France will be thankful for his lucky escape.
3. Antoine Griezmann (France)
Griezmann just kept popping up in dangerous positions, and eventually he got his reward with a fairly lucky goal. He also provided the assist for Varane’s opener, and his ability to find space and use the ball effectively made a big difference for the French as they looked to break down Uruguay’s strong defence.
4. Olivier Giroud (France)
If there’s one man that can be credited with France’s rebound from a slow start to this tournament, it’s Giroud. He came in after an underwhelming first up performance and has delivered in every match, tying the team together with his strong play up front and striking up a devastating combination with Griezmann. He hasn’t really looked like scoring, but he plays a massive role.
5. Martín Cáceres (Uruguay)
Cáceres was one of few bright lights in an otherwise poor Uruguayan display, as he worked tirelessly shuffling up and down the right wing and made contributions in both attack and defence. He came closest to scoring for Uruguay with a brilliant header, and he was their best player by some distance.

England break the curse in fiery affair

Jordan Henderson looked confident as he walked towards the penalty spot. He even juggled the ball as he was preparing to take England’s third kick of their decisive penalty shootout against Colombia. The shootout was evenly poised. Colombian captain Radamel Falcao had gone first, and made no mistake. His opposite number, English striker Harry Kane, scored his penalty with similar confidence. Juan Cuadrado, Marcus Rashford and Luis Muriel took the next three shots, and all of them scored. The pressure on each kick, especially each English one, was increasing. Henderson’s penalty was good, hit with power and precision to the right. Unfortunately for Henderson, Colombian goalkeeper David Ospina was ready. He made a brilliant save, and England seemed done. They had worked determinedly to break their penalty shootout jinx at major tournaments. They had prepared themselves mentally and physically for the dreaded tiebreaker that has so often proved England’s undoing. Now, it seemed that, despite their best efforts, they had lost on penalties again. Turin 1990, London 1996, Saint-Étienne 1998, Lisbon 2004, Gelsenkirchen 2006 and Kiev 2012, England’s previous penalty shootout defeats, were about to be joined by Moscow 2018.

It started brightly enough for England. They had most of the early play, and created some good chances. Kane came especially close to scoring when he got on the end of a dangerous Kieran Trippier cross, but he couldn’t quite put the tough header away and it landed on the roof of the net. Colombia began to settle, but their sole attacking threat was a couple of long shots from Juan Fernando Quintero. England had a few more chances, but they never really looked like scoring as the first half drew to a close. The first half did, however, set the tone for what was to come with a few heated incidents.

The first flashpoint involved Trippier and Falcao. The English right-back pushed into the Colombian striker from behind, the Colombian striker went down, and Colombia received a free-kick. Then the pair exchanged words as Trippier seemed to accuse Falcao of exaggerating the contact. It didn’t seem too unfair an accusation considering the incident, but Falcao shot to his feet immediately, determined to address this slight on his honour. A couple of minutes later, Harry Maguire and Cuadrado looked like they were about to come to blows. Had other players been in the vicinity, blows may well have ensued. There was an undercurrent of tension bubbling up, and it looked like things might just go crazy.

Embed from Getty Images

Raheem Sterling (front) is fouled by Yerry Mina as they battle each other for the ball. There was plenty of physical play during the game, and it resulted in a contest that was often heated.

Then they did. A larger fracas broke out when Kane was brought down on the edge of the area, although none of it actually stemmed from the original foul. Instead, the trouble originated from the wall. Colombia arranged their wall effectively, before England decided to get involved in an attempt to disrupt Colombia’s defence of Trippier’s shot on goal. Amidst the chaos, Wílmar Barrios softly headbutted Henderson in the chest. Henderson went to ground, England remonstrated, the video assistant referee intervened, and eventually Barrios was fairly lucky to escape with a yellow card. All the jostling was a waste of time in the end, as Trippier didn’t even put his free-kick on target.

Mateus Uribe had the next penalty after Henderson’s miss. Colombia now held the upper hand, and all Uribe needed to do to consolidate that advantage was put his penalty past Jordan Pickford. For Pickford, it was do or die. He needed to save the kick, or England would almost certainly be consigned to another penalty shootout defeat. Uribe went high, aiming for the top corner. It was impossible to save. It was also off target, hitting the underside of the bar and bouncing out. England were suddenly back in it. Trippier slammed his penalty home. Scores were level.

There was another minor incident as the increasingly spiteful half drew to a close, as Raheem Sterling seemingly sent Yerry Mina crashing to the turf in an off-the-ball coming together. It turned out that Sterling had done nothing of the sort, and Mina had just taken a massive dive before angrily remonstrating with his supposed assailant. The Henderson-Barrios incident hadn’t yet cooled temperatures, and American referee Mark Geiger was desperately fighting to keep the game under control.

Then, shortly after half time, Colombia won a penalty and sparked the biggest incident of the match. It wasn’t surprising. As the English prepared to take a corner, four English attackers – and Colombian Carlos Sánchez – stood in an orderly line awaiting the delivery. Sánchez wasn’t really meant to be there, and England didn’t really seem to want him around, but he wasn’t willing to let Kane out of his sight. Or, more importantly, he wasn’t willing to let Kane out of his grasp. Referee Geiger gave the customary talk on holding in the box, but Sánchez clearly paid little attention. The ball was eventually put into the area, Sánchez attempted to block Kane from running at the ball, and eventually Kane went crashing to the turf as Sánchez seemingly attempted to mount him. Sánchez’s actions wouldn’t have been out of place at a rodeo, and Geiger didn’t hesitate in pointing to the spot. England were happy with the call. Colombia were incensed.

Embed from Getty Images

Harry Kane celebrates after putting England ahead with a well-taken penalty. The lead lasted until the 93rd minute of the match.

They remonstrated very vocally with Geiger, forcing a delay in the game as they made their feelings clear. Sánchez and Falcao led the protests, but there were consistently four or five Colombians surrounding Geiger and demanding that the egregious injustice they had just suffered be rectified. Eventually, the kick was taken, and scored quite easily by Kane. England had the lead, and Colombia didn’t seem ready to get it back just yet. They were just angry about how the game had panned out, and the result was chaos.

Falcao clashed with John Stones immediately after the goal. Then he accused Maguire (not unfairly) of sharp practice as the big centre-back went to ground in the box, and found himself booked for his slightly over-zealous and threatening protests. Geiger soon decided that when in doubt, brandishing the yellow card was the best option. Carlos Bacca came on and clattered into the back of Stones, receiving a yellow card as a result. Stones wasn’t best pleased, and he rejected Bacca’s apologetic handshake. Bacca just looked slightly sad. Jesse Lingard clipped Carlos Sánchez’s heels rather unnecessarily. He too received a complementary caution. It was beginning to seem like it would take a miracle for both sides to finish the game with their full complement of players.

Bacca was entrusted with taking the crucial fifth penalty for Colombia. The shootout had reached the point where the slightest slip, or one moment of brilliance from either keeper, would almost certainly decide the game. All Bacca had to do was score. He couldn’t. Pickford flung himself the right way, and almost flung himself too far. The ball was above him, but he raised his left arm, batted the ball away and left England on the verge of the unthinkable: a win in the knockout stage on penalties. Could it really happen? Eric Dier stepped up to take the kick that could seal it.

A rare moment of footballing action saw Lingard attempt to find Kane in the centre after slipping into the box with a nice run. It was blocked, and the resultant corner saw Maguire head the ball onto the roof of the net. Then Kyle Walker gave Colombia their best chance of the game. The English centre-back was dispossessed in a very dangerous area and England’s defence was outnumbered. Cuadrado missed the target. Suddenly, with the game on the line, Colombia seemed to decide that fighting the English wasn’t really the answer, and seemingly realised that Cuadrado’s missed chance, and Quintero’s pair of long shots, was the sum total of their attacking efforts. They needed to do better, and they lifted.

Embed from Getty Images

Carlos Bacca (right) is distraught after having his penalty saved by Jordan Pickford. Pickford’s stop allowed England to win the match on penalties.

Out of nowhere, Pickford was required to make a stunning save to deal with Uribe’s ridiculously ambitious attempt from a very long way out. He managed to tip the ball away for a corner, one of Colombia’s first of the night. The clock had passed 90 minutes, and the match was into added time. The corner was Colombia’s last throw of the dice. It was swung in, and Mina rose to meet it. Mina had scored from corners in Colombia’s previous two matches, and now he found space against Maguire in the box. He headed it into the ground, hard, and it bounced towards goal. Trippier was too short to get his head to the bouncing ball and keep it from crossing the goal line. Pickford was too far away to make a last-ditch save. The game was going to extra time, and penalties were on the agenda.

There were a few chances in extra time, but neither side was able to break the deadlock. The game was to be decided on penalty kicks. This English side had been hailed as the new generation of stars who could make their own history. Now, that reputation was at a crossroads. England could overcome the scars of the past, and continue to forge ahead into the quarter-finals and, quite possibly, beyond. Alternatively, they could lose. It was hard to know what a loss would do. Would it prove that this English side, for all the hype surrounding the fresh and exciting squad, couldn’t overcome the historical burdens carried into every tournament? Would it suggest that England’s supposed renaissance under Gareth Southgate was just a false dawn, driven by the media excitement accompanying their success? It wasn’t clear.

Thankfully for England, those questions didn’t need to be asked. Dier was calm as he slotted his penalty into the bottom corner, and England celebrated madly as they made their way into the quarter-finals. It was fitting that Southgate, on the losing side in the shootouts of 96 and 98, was the man in charge of the team as they finally overcame their demons. Maybe England are a newly resurgent force, although the jury could still be out. After all, their next game is against Sweden, and they have a horrible record against the Swedes. It seems the perfect opportunity to create some new history.

Moscow – Otkritie Arena
Colombia 1 (Mina 90+3)
England 1 (Kane 57 pen) (a.e.t, England won 4-3 on penalties)
Referee: Mark Geiger (USA)
Colombia (4-3-2-1): Ospina – Arias (Zapata 116), Mina, D Sánchez, Mojica; Barrios, C Sánchez (Uribe 79), Lerma (Bacca 61); Cuadrado, Quintero (Muriel 88); Falcao.
England (3-5-2):
Pickford – Walker (Rashford 113), Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Alli (Dier 81), Henderson, Lingard, Young (Rose 102); Sterling (Vardy 88), Kane.

Embed from Getty Images

England’s players pile on top of Jordan Pickford after their penalty shootout victory. After losing six of their seven previous penalty shootouts at major tournaments, including three World Cup shootouts, the victory was a huge weight off England’s shoulders.

Top 5
1. Kieran Trippier (England)
Trippier has been brilliant all tournament, and he delivered another excellent performance to send England through to the last eight. He worked hard going forward and tracking back, and his crosses from the right wing were very dangerous. His set piece delivery was on song once again, and it caused plenty of problems.
2. Harry Kane (England)
Kane scored England’s only goal, and his sixth of the tournament, from the penalty spot, and his impact stretched beyond that one moment. He made plenty of dangerous runs, and fought through a number of fouls as he desperately attempted to drive England forward. He appears to be England’s greatest hope of an even deeper run into the tournament.
3. Johan Mojica (Colombia)
Mojica was the only Colombian who consistently threatened the English as he used his pace and crossing ability to good effect. He had little support on the left and was often forced to go it alone, but he always worked hard and he very nearly breached the English defence on a few occasions.
4. Jesse Lingard (England)
Lingard was his usual energetic self, making penetrating runs in midfield and establishing himself as England’s main second half threat with his work on the counter-attack. He came close to scoring or assisting an English goal on a few occasions, and put Colombia under the pump.
5. Juan Cuadrado (Colombia)
Cuadrado worked hard to get into some decent attacking positions, and he made some decent forays forward. He collected the assist for Colombia’s late equaliser, and he looked more likely than most of his teammates to make something happen.

Sweden calmly remove Switzerland with Forsberg’s fortunate strike

There was less than a minute remaining in the round of 16 clash between Sweden and Switzerland when Isaac Kiese Thelin received the ball in the centre of the field. Sweden led courtesy of Emil Forsberg’s slightly fortunate opener, and they had found an opening as the Swiss desperately committed men forward to their last ditch attack. Kiese Thelin played the ball into space, where Martin Olsson was running onto the ball at speed. There seemed to be no way to deny the onrushing Swedish left-back. Then Michael Lang entered the scene. The Swiss right-back, deputising for suspended captain Stephan Lichtsteiner, was quicker than Olsson, and he was breathing down his neck as the Swede reached the edge of the box. Lang gave him a push. It was subtle, but it was enough to send Olsson toppling to the ground, and enough to convince Damir Skomina to award a penalty and expel Lang for the foul. Lang left without complaint, and he was already off the field when the video assistant referee decided that the foul had actually been committed outside the box. Yann Sommer saved the resultant free-kick, but it was little consolation for the Swiss.

Embed from Getty Images

Martin Olsson (right) is brought down on the edge of the box by Michael Lang. Lang was sent off for the challenge, but his expulsion had no impact on the outcome of the match.

The opening exchanges weren’t exactly filled to the brim with goalmouth action. Sweden had some early chances, mostly coming as a result of Swiss turnovers coming out of defence, but none of them really tested Sommer. When Switzerland settled, they began to control the ball and Sweden began to sit back and watch as their opponents played the ball around harmlessly. Occasionally Xherdan Shaqiri or Lang would slip in a dangerous ball, and occasionally Blerim Džemaili would squander a brilliant chance, but otherwise the Swiss posed little threat. The Swedish, despite conceding the lion’s share of possession, had the better chances in a generally slow first half. Albin Ekdal missed a couple of shots, most notably a close-range volley which should have been put away. Marcus Berg made his presence felt in attack, but he couldn’t quite combine his excellent positioning with the finishing touch required. Through all of it, Sommer’s nice diving save to turn away Berg’s dangerous volley was the only real save either goalkeeper had to make in the first 45 minutes.

The second 45 started similarly to the first, and it seemed like more of the same was imminent. Switzerland continued to look in control, even taking four corner kicks in a row early in the half, but they still couldn’t find a way through Sweden’s very well drilled defensive unit. They tried crosses, but most of them didn’t even reach the middle, let alone their intended target. Sweden’s direct, counter-attacking style looked more effective than Switzerland’s attempts at slow build-up play with their best finishers isolated in non-dangerous positions, but it wasn’t like Sweden’s counter-attacks were really worrying their opposition. Then they went ahead.

Forsberg, Sweden’s previously underperforming star, was the man who finally broke a deadlock which had lasted for over an hour and was threatening to carry on past the standard 90 minutes. The Swedish attacked the Swiss with a bit of urgency, and they managed to reach the edge of the area with the defence slightly out of position. That was enough for Forsberg. He received the ball from Ola Toivonen just outside the box, and he proceeded to take a touch before firing a shot at the Swiss goal. Between the posts, Sommer sunk into a low crouch, ready to make the save that seemed to be coming. The ball was headed straight to the ever-alert Swiss goalkeeper. It never reached him. Instead, it flew into the top corner, courtesy of Manuel Akanji’s incautiously outstretched leg. The ball hit the defender’s foot and took off, leaving Sommer with no time to react and no hope of making the save.

Embed from Getty Images

Emil Forsberg (right) gets in the way of Breel Embolo’s header as Robin Olsen watches on. The slightly threatening corner was one of Switzerland’s only real chances as they looked to equalise.

Switzerland put some dangerous balls in. They tested Robin Olsen from range on a couple of occasions. They had corners, lots of corners. Nothing came of them, save for one threatening clearance which was cleared by Forsberg and Andreas Granqvist. Breel Embolo made an impact, but he could do no more than threaten to threaten. Ricardo Rodríguez put in plenty of crosses, both from set pieces and in open play, but none of them really tested the Swedish defence, and none of them provided Olsen with anything to do. Shaqiri’s crosses were even less dangerous. Attackers were thrown into the box, but Switzerland’s lack of a good finisher rather undermined their attempts to breach the Swedish defence through their numbers in the box. One of Rodríguez’s crosses finally found its mark shortly before the last act of Switzerland’s tournament ended in Lang’s expulsion. Haris Seferović actually got the header on target, but Olsen made the save and it came to nothing. Ultimately, Switzerland were just too short on talent in the final third, and they paid a heavy price.

Saint Petersburg – Krestovsky Stadium
Sweden 1 (Forsberg 66)
Switzerland 0
Referee: Damir Skomina (Svn)
Sweden (4-4-2): Olsen – Lustig (Krafth 82), Lindelöf, Granqvist, Augustinsson; Claesson, Svensson, Ekdal, Forsberg (Olsson 82); Toivonen, Berg (Kiese Thelin 90).
Switzerland (4-2-3-1): Sommer – Lang, Djourou, Akanji, Rodríguez; Behrami, Xhaka; Shaqiri, Džemaili (Seferović 73), Zuber (Embolo 73); Drmić.
Sent-off: Lang 90+4

Top 5
1. Emil Forsberg (Sweden)
Forsberg finally found some of his best form just when Sweden needed it, and his goal, while lucky, was a fitting reward for a strong performance. He looked threatening when he received the ball in the attacking third, and he made good things happen. It bodes well for Sweden’s quarter-final clash.
2. Ricardo Rodríguez (Switzerland)
Rodríguez was involved in most of Switzerland’s attacking play, and there was little wrong with his deliveries into the box. He put in plenty of crosses overlapping from the left side of defence, but he was never found wanting despite his aggressive forward play. With some quality players in the middle he could have easily picked up a few assists.
3. Andreas Granqvist (Sweden)
Granqvist has been a dominant force in Sweden’s penalty area throughout this tournament, and he saw them through to the quarter-finals with another big effort in the heart of the defence. He is seemingly never beaten in the air, and he just continues to hold the fort for his side.
4. Marcus Berg (Sweden)
Berg worked into plenty of good spots, but once again he left goalless after a series of saves and misses conspired to thwart him for the fourth match in succession. He has specialised in making a nuisance of himself at this tournament, and he was always heavily involved in Sweden’s attack.
5. Manuel Akanji (Switzerland)
Akanji is so composed that it’s hard to believe he has just 11 international caps to his name. He has slotted into the Swiss defence effortlessly at this tournament, and he didn’t miss a beat here despite losing his group stage partner, Fabian Schär, to suspension. He is a massive talent, and seems to have a big future ahead of him.