After an exciting start to the knockout stage of the World Cup that saw a shootout between France and Argentina, Belgium storm back from 2 goals down to beat Japan at the death, and Croatia and England advance on penalties. Now, those four teams that saw overcame tough challenges in the Round of 16 are the last four standing. This has been called by many outlets “the best World Cup ever” and it’s hard to disagree. The Quarterfinals saw Croatia take a lead against Russia in extra time only to lose it on a free kick but come back to win on penalties with a keeper fighting through a hamstring injury. As always, there has been criticism from American media outlets about having penalties settle a World Cup knockout match, but it’s hard to argue with the drama and excitement that comes from a penalty shootout. Now, four European teams will battle for the championship.
France vs Belgium
Tuesday, July 10
France took advantage of a Uruguay team lacking striker Edison Cavani and rolled to a 2-0 victory in the quarterfinals. The key to France’s run has been midfielder N’Golo Kante of Chelsea who has done a masterful job controlling the game and shuttling the ball forward into the Les Blues attack. At the front, the French are certainly not lacking with 19-year old Kylian Mbappe whose brace against Argentina broke open the game and seemingly solidified the “Best Young Player” award. Beside Mbappe at the front is Athletico Madrid striker Antonie Griezmann who won the Golden Boot at the 2016 European Championships. In goal, Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris has been outstanding with 3 clean sheets in 5 games. But he will face a challenge in Belgium, the most offensively talented team in the tournament.
Belgium scored the most goals of any team during the group stage (9) and has added 5 more in the knockout stage. Manchester United forward Romelu Lukaku has led the Red Devils with 4 goals and will test France’s back line. Chelsea forward and team captain Eden Hazard has been outstanding in combination with Lukaku and is solidly in the conversation for the Golden Ball. Fellow Man U forward Marouane Fellaini has played the role of a “super sub” and scored the tying goal against Japan with a massive header. Belgium has been prone to some defensive lapses, but Chelsea keeper Thibaut Courtois has stepped up with some big saves when it mattered, including some massive stops against Brazil in the waning moments.
Croatia vs England
Wednesday, Jul 11
Both teams have reached this point thanks to victories in penalty shootouts. In dramatic fashion, England conquered the penalty shootout that had plagued their national team with a come-from-behind win over Colombia in the Round of 16. The Three Lions then cruised past Sweden with a comfortable 2-0 victory in the quarterfinals. Striker Harry Kane seemingly has the Golden Boot wrapped up with 6 goals in the tournament (half of them coming on penalty kicks). England boasts a dynamic attack with Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling playing alongside Tottenham’s Kane. Fellow Spur Dele Alli has been the star in the midfield for England, coming up with big plays on both ends of the pitch. The question mark coming into the tournament was in goal where Everton’s Jordan Pickford has performed adequately. No team has scored more than once against England during this tournament, which is a credit to both their defense and the way they have been able to maintain possession of the ball through the midfield.
Croatia has returned to the semifinals for the first time since their memorable run in France 1998. This new “Golden Generation” finally delivered on the World stage, and the Blazers have overcome two penalty shootouts against Denmark and Russia to reach the semifinals. Midfielder Luca Modric of Real Madrid might be one of the front-runners for the Golden Ball and has been a force all over the pitch. While 6 of England’s 11 goals have come from Harry Kane, Modric is the only Croatia player with more than one goal. He has two and his distribution skills have enabled the Blazers to find balanced scoring from 7 other players. The biggest question for Croatia will be if keeper Danijel Subasic will be fit enough to play. Subasic set a World Cup record by stopping 3 penalty kicks in a shootout against Denmark then stopped another against Russia after suffering a hamstring injury. After allowing only one goal (on a penalty to Iceland) in the Group Stage and pitching clean sheets against Nigeria and Argentina, having Subasic in goal is a key to Croatia making a run at their best finish in team history.