After another thrilling set of matches Russia 2018 rolls on into the penultimate round with France, Belgium, England, and Croatia still standing.
France and England had the easiest time of it with Les Bleus topping a Uruguay side that dearly missed red-hot striker Edinson Cavani, while England swept aside toothless Sweden.
Belgium coach Roberto Martinez sent his side out against Brazil in a new four back formation and handed starts to Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli after the pair’s heroics off the bench against Japan and it worked a charm in a 2-1 Belgium win.
And then there is Croatia versus Russia. The only one of the Quarterfinals matchups to go to penalty kicks saw the gifted Croatian side outlast the host nation in what became a match of attrition.
Russia jumped into a 1-0 lead just past the half-hour mark with a wonder strike from Denis Cheryshev, a man who began the World Cup on the bench and finished with four goals, level with Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaku, and behind just Harry Kane, the English marksman whose total has benefitted from three penalties.
Croatia answered quickly, equalizing in the 39th minute as Andrej Kramaric headed home a perfect Mario Mandzukic cross.
Neither side could add to its tally inside 90 minutes but Russia looked to have gained a potential edge when Croatia’s talented and somehow underrated goalkeeper Danijel Subasic went down in pain with minutes remaining in regulation time and Croatia with no subs left to play until the one extra allowed in extra time.
Subasic played on, looking laborious at times, but battling until his leg seemed to come around. Penalties are always a tough way to decide a team’s fate and so it was when Barcelona man Ivan Rakitic buried a no doubt peno leaving Russia broken hearted and Croatia exultant and one match from the nations first World Cup Final appearance.
England awaits in the semifinal, and it is an England team bent on banishing ghosts of World Cups past, a penalty kick success and a place in the semis for the first time since 1990 are signs that manager Gareth Southgate and his squad are doing just that.
English supporters were thrilled to see Croatia forced into extra time and penalty kicks in consecutive games and the sight of Subasic and Mandusic struggling with potential injuries versus Russia can only be interpreted as good news for England.
So too the fact that Croatia struggled versus Denmark and Russia, teams that this Croatia side should have handled with less drama.
Then again, Croatia became the first team to advance on back to back penalty shootouts, a sign that the star-studded Croats will not shrink from the big occasion.
France and Belgium face off in the other semifinal, although it makes little sense to attach the appellation “other” to a match between two of the most highly rated sides in the tournament, also the survivors of the much tougher side of the World Cup draw.
France seems to be peaking, a scary proposition for not just Belgium but for any potential opponent in the Sunday’s World Cup Final. Against Uruguay, a difficult team to break down, France got on the board through a Raphael Varane header from an Antoine Griezman set-up.
Greizman added a second goal for Les Bleus when Fernando Muslera fumbled his shot over the line. A tremendous save by Hugo Lloris was required to keep the clean sheet, a reminder that France has appeared vulnerable defensively, at times throughout this World Cup.
But with weapons like Griezman, Kylian Mbappe, and Paul Pogba, Uruguay never looked liked advancing.
The stage is set, so who will advance to the World Cup Final?
The pick here is a Belgium vs Croatia World Cup Final.
Croatia’s midfield featuring Luca Modric and Ivan Rakitic backed by a solid defense, an outstanding goalkeeper in Subasic, assuming he is healthy, and led by forwards Mandzukic and Kramaric should just about shade it over England.
This England team has received good performances from John Stones and Harry McGuire in front of keeper Jordan Pickford, who is doing his reputation no harm in this Cup. But Stones and Pickford seem less like sure things than their Croatian counterparts and Jordan Henderson figures to have trouble containing Croatia’s Modric led midfield, especially in England’s system which leaves the Liverpool man somewhat isolated in the center of the park.
Harry Kane can score at any time, of course, but Raheem Sterling’s scoring drought continues, so Croatia gets the nod.
France vs. Belgium is the Heavyweight title bout of the semis and the very difficult choice here is for Belgium’s Golden Generation to move on while the young French side marinates for another four years.
Belgium has shown tremendous heart to come back from a 2-0 deficit to defeat Japan and unexpected versatility when Martinez scrapped the three back set that had served Belgium so well to frustrate and send home Neymar and Brazil.
France could make this prediction look silly if firing on all cylinders and the defense has more than enough talent to stifle Belgium but a pick must be made and the occasional French defensive frailty is the hook that I am hanging this pick on.