It was a Round of 16 that saw the World Cup leave the two greatest players of a generation behind as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo failed to lead Argentina and Portugal to the promised land in what may be a final chance for each.
Spain would soon follow after failing to fire in a somnambulant performance that led to a penalty kicks “loss” to Russia with the hosts thrilling a nation with a composed defensive performance and holding its nerve in the penalty kick phase.
Brazil dispatched Mexico 2-0, with El Tri bowing out at the Round of 16 for the seventh time in a row. A remarkable record of consistency that won’t cheer anyone involved with the sport in Mexico.
Brazil was led by a magnificent performance from its superstar Neymar, long expected to take over from Messi and Ronaldo at the very top of the game, although the PSG man’s penchant for embellishing contact has earned him as many detractors as admirers.
Croatia entered the KO round favored to go deep after impressing mightily in group play but found themselves trailing Denmark 1-0 in the game’s opening minute when Mathias Jorgensen scored off of a long throw.
Three minutes later Mario Mandzukic tied the game at one and neither side would register another score in the remaining 86 minutes of regular time and 30 minutes of extras. That seemed unlikely when Luka Modric stepped up the penalty spot with five minutes remaining in Extra Time but the Real Madrid star was denied for Croatia by Kasper Schmeichel, while his father Peter, AKA The Great Dane, exulted from the stands.
On to penalties then where Schmeichel the younger put on a show but in the end, it was Croatia’s number one Danijel Subasic who won the plaudits with the AS Monaco keeper propelling Croatia into the quarterfinals by saving Nicolai Jorgensen’s effort.
England survived a battering from a Colombia team that, minus its talisman James Rodriguez, offered little going forward relying on resolute defending to stay level until a 57th-minute penalty allowed Harry Kane to show off his proficiency from the spot yet again.
England looked as if they would advance to the quarters in regulation until goalkeeper Jordan Pickford was forced to concede a corner when he made an outstanding save on a thunderous long-range blast from Mateus Uribe.
When Yerry Mina rose to power home a header to tie the match it was as impressive as it was unsurprising, the goal being the third in three games for the Barcelona product.
In the run-up to this World Cup England coach Gareth Southgate has been pushing a “new” England narrative in an effort to liberate his squad from past failures. What better way then than for his charges to sever those ties to the bad old days but to prevail in penalty kicks, a longtime bugaboo for the English?
Jordan Pickford, deemed too short recently by Belgium and Chelsea keeper Thibaut Courtois, used his 6”1” frame to good effect in saving from Carlos Bacca after Uribe had rattled the crossbar setting the stage for Eric Dier to send England to a quarterfinal matchup with Sweden this Saturday.
With Edinson Cavani scoring twice and linking lethally up front with Luis Suarez Uruguay proved too much for Portugal, eliminating the Euro champions and ending what is likely Cristiano Ronaldo’s last chance at winning the sport’s greatest prize.
Uruguayan hopes to build on this victory were, however, dealt a blow when Cavani limped off late in the match. As of now, the talented striker is uncertain for Saturday’ showdown with France.
And what of France? Les Bleus did what was necessary to advance out of group play without ever really taking flight. One goal wins over Australia and Peru plus a dull 0-0 draw versus Denmark did not deliver the dynamic play promised by the young French squad but fears that stage was too big for this collection of talent were allayed by a spectacular 4-3 win over Argentina and Lionel Messi.
19-year-old Kylian Mbappe left the veteran Argentine defense in tatters and his two goals only tell part of the story.
A 93rd-minute goal from Sergio Aguero made this match appear close. It wasn’t. France dominated but they will need to tighten up a bit at the back if this young generation is to fulfill its vast potential at this Mundial.
As good as France was though, the game of this World Cup came on Monday with red-hot favorites Belgium storming back to steal a 3-2 victory over everyone’s new World Cup darlings, Japan.
The unfancied Japan side made Belgium’s Golden Generation look decidedly tarnished as they ran out to a 2-0 lead with a classy and brave performance. Japan’s refusal to bow to their so-called betters was rewarded in the 48th minute when lazy defending by Jan Vertongen was ruthlessly punished by Gene Haraguchi and followed quickly by a second Japan goal, this one by talented winger Tashi Inui, who tormented the Belgium defense all game.
With his back to the wall, Belgium manager Roberto Martinez turned to his bench and sprung Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli? It would be an understatement to say that Martinez’ moves were meant with less than unanimous support.
Twitter might not have approved but the comeback was soon on, sparked by a headed cross? shot? from Vertongen that landed in Japan’s goal in the 69th minute bringing with it a measure of redemption for Tottenham defender.
Fellaini, the oft-criticized Manchester United man, powered home a header five minutes later to level and set up a dramatic 94th-minute winner from fellow substitute Chadli.
It was breathtaking stuff and if it was a bit unfair on Japan it must be said that Japan showed some inexperience in sending so many players up for a corner kick that was caught by Courtois and turned into an exquisite counter-attacking winner for Belgium.
You’ve likely seen Courtois’ rolled pass to Kevin DeBruyne, the Manchester City man’s deftly played pass to Thomas Meunier, and Meunier’s crossed pass along the ground that led to the greatest dummy in soccer/football history, as Romelu Lukaku allowed the ball to continue into Chadli’s path, with the much-maligned Chadli finishing coolly.
If you haven’t, do it. If you have, give it another look.
For U.S. fans, certainly, the goal was reminiscent of Landon Donovan’s dramatic goal versus Algeria.
For Belgium, it is on to face Brazil. There has been much focus on Martinez’ three-back set and the trouble Japan’s speedy wingers caused that defense. Neymar and Willian are likely licking their lips at the thought.
Will Martinez tweak his trusted lineup to deal with the threat? We will find out on Saturday and I for one can’t wait.