USATSI_19130206

The FIFA World Cup quarter-finals are nearly here, and what a journey it’s been to get to this point. We’ve seen giants fall and underdogs rise, ultimately ending up with six traditional heavyweights in the final eight. Croatia and Morocco have punched above their weight, but how much longer can they manage?

For this quarter-final preview, I’ll be taking a look at all four matchups, highlighting players to watch and shedding some light on which teams have the edge. 

Netherlands v. Argentina

This is a classic World Cup match. These two titans of the sport have previously locked horns at the World Cup on five separate occasions, with each country winning two and drawing once. This sixth match will serve as the head-to-head tiebreaker, as well as the next step toward lifting the trophy. 

The obvious story for Argentina is Lionel Messi’s quest to claim the only trophy that has eluded him in his career, effectively ending the GOAT debate. The rise of both Julian Alvarez and Enzo Fernandez has offered a nice side story to this team as well, providing their captain much needed assistance in the attack. On the other side, the Netherlands have a squad that feels very solid, with Frenkie De Jong and Denzel Dumfries really stepping up for the Oranje. They’ll be hoping that this is the squad to finally lead them to World Cup glory.

Dutch manager Louis Van Gaal is one of the best international managers in the world, effectively dismantling the USA and navigating Group A with his tactics. For this matchup, the goal is simple: keep Messi off the ball as much as possible. If they manage that, there’s no reason the Netherlands can’t go on to win this game. Unfortunately for them, marking that man is easier said than done. After some more Messi magic, I expect to see Argentina in the semi-final. 

Croatia v. Brazil

Not too much to say here. Brazil are scary good, Croatia are shockingly boring. With Richarlison, Neymar, Vinicius Jr. and the rest of this Brazil squad playing the way they are, I expect this one to get pretty ugly. It might take them longer to break Croatia down than it did against South Korea, but the end result is almost certainly going to be the same: a blowout win for the Selecao. 

Croatia’s only bright spots thus far have been young defender Joško Gvardiol and veterans Luka Modric and Ivan Perisic. While goalkeeper Dominik Livaković saved three penalties against Japan, the Blue Samurai put on what was probably the worst finishing display I’ve ever seen in that game. The Brazilians won’t be so easy to stop.

USATSI_10954703

England v. France

This European showdown pits two of FIFA’s top five teams against one another. Probably the most intriguing quarter-final this year, England v. France is packed with narratives, history, and star players. 

For the French, Kylian Mbappe has taken the tournament by storm, scoring five goals and looking like the heir apparent to Messi and Ronaldo. Kyle Walker will be hard-pressed to contain the young phenom, but his defensive prowess and speed will give him a fighting chance. Alongside Mbappe, Olivier Giroud has shown his timeless class in Qatar, becoming France’s all-time leading goalscorer and providing a focal point to draw attention away from his younger co-stars. 

For the English, it seems like no player can put a foot wrong. Bukayo Saka has been marvelous at this tournament, as has defender Harry Maguire. With eight different goalscorers at this World Cup, the Three Lions have shown that there isn’t one player their opponents have to worry about, it’s the whole squad. A stellar +10 goal differential proves that this squad is capable from back to front. 

Between England’s overall solidity and France’s explosive attack, this could be the most exciting game of the tournament thus far. This will be the first real test for both of these squads, with the winner likely to advance all the way to the final. I’m tipping the English to come out on top after an exhilarating fight. 

Morocco v. Portugal

In the most surprising matchup, we have a date between Morocco and Portugal. The former will be looking to take down yet another team from the Iberian Peninsula, while the latter will be hoping to see their momentum keep rolling from their 6-1 thrashing of Switzerland. 

Morocco’s miracle run has already topped their best ever finish at a World Cup. The next hurdle for the Atlas Lions will be to become the first African nation to ever reach a World Cup semi-final, a feat that would immortalize this team in soccer lore. Their organized defense has allowed just one goal this tournament, making them perhaps the most difficult squad to break down in the entire field of teams. Star-man Achraf Hakimi has produced several inspired moments already, with the wizardry of Hakim Ziyech pushing the team to heights they’ve only ever dreamed of. 

Portugal’s story thus far has been less about their exploits on the pitch and more about the drama surrounding their superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo. Though CR7 has distracted many, the product on the pitch has been outstanding for his team recently — especially in his absence. 21-year-old Goncalo Ramos started in Ronaldo’s stead last match, notching a hat-trick and leading the team to a 6-1 statement against Switzerland. 

While Morocco’s story is nice and inspirational, Portugal’s form and quality are undeniable. My heart is with Morocco, but my head tells me that Portugal will be advancing in convincing fashion. 

For most nations, simply making it this far would be good enough. But with the trophy just three wins away, all eight of these teams will be dreaming of rising above the rest. While Brazil and Portugal are nearly shoe-ins to make the semis if they can maintain their form, England and Argentina are going to have to fight for their spots. Regardless of who comes through in the end, these quarter-finals are going to be must-watch spectacles.