Eight became four this week as Brazil, Uruguay, Sweden and hosts Russia all bade farewell to the 2018 World Cup.
Belgium, France, England and Croatia all sailed through the semi-finals, ensuring that it would be an all-European last four in the battle to take home the trophy.
As has been the case throughout the competition, a number of players stood out in having a big say in their respective national sides’ fortunes – be it through scoring, playmaking or shot-stopping.
Who stood out from this weekend’s four eventful quarter-final clashes?
Thibaut Courtois (Belgium). With the Belgian attack having held up their end of the bargain by putting the Red Devils 2-0 ahead in the first half against Brazil, Courtois was called upon to make a number of fine saves to keep out a resurgent Selecao after the restart. The Chelsea keeper has been very impressive throughout this campaign and has been a key factor in their success thus far.
Mario Fernandes (Russia). Gave Russia the chance to take the game to penalties with an equaliser five minutes from the end of injury time, but that goal simply capped off what had already been a fine performance from Fernandes. A constant threat down the right-hand side, strong and assured in the tackle and winner of most aerial duels with Croatian left-back Ivan Strinic, Fernandes put in a strong performance.
Dejan Lovren (Croatia). Lovren’s impressive World Cup showing continued on Saturday as he helped eliminate the hosts with a dominant showing at the back. A colossus in the air and a wall along the ground, the Liverpool man has been a hero at the back throughout this campaign.
Harry Maguire (England). The Bobby Moore comparisons being made by sections of the English media are hilariously premature, but Maguire has exceeded all expectations in Russia so far. The Leicester City man was dominant in defence against a physical Sweden side, more than ready for anything they threw at him. Scored his first goal for England to cap off a terrific performance.
Raphael Varane (France). Varane’s performance will be remembered for the goal, naturally, but that was just the tip of the iceberg for Varane’s brilliant display. Didn’t give the Uruguay attack an inch, which was a huge factor in the sense of fatalism that enveloped the South Americans towards the end of the game when it became clear that they weren’t getting past the Real Madrid man.
Luka Modric (Croatia). Arguably the best player remaining in the competition, Modric was at his masterful best when his country really needed it against Russia, always looking for the ball and trying to make things happen – be it making a killer pass, gliding past players or having a shot himself. Supplied one assist on Saturday night and the battle with Jordan Henderson on Wednesday will be fascinating.
Eden Hazard (Belgium). Playing with Romelu Lukau either side of Kevin De Bruyne, Hazard was a constant threat to the Brazilian defence throughout Friday night’s clash. Didn’t get on the scoresheet or provide an assist himself, but his constant harassing of Fagner and confidence in dribbling and taking on the Brazilian defence was outstanding.
Jordan Henderson (England). The unsung hero of England’s midfield so far, and one of the most consistent performers throughout their run to the semi-finals. The Liverpool captain operates at the base of the Three Lions’ midfield, shielding the defence and covering ground while getting the ball forward to Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard. Henderson was excellent against Sweden.
Romelu Lukaku (Belgium). He may not have got on the scoresheet himself on Friday, but Lukaku turned in a performance of the highest quality against Belgium. Strong and dominant in holding up play, selfless in his passing and creation – the Man United striker reminded the world that there is much more to his game than goalscoring.
Antoine Griezmann (France). Griezmann was limited to flashes of brilliance by a strong Uruguayan defence, but the contribution he did make turned out to be vital. His pinpoint ball into the box found Raphael Varane for the opener just before half time, while he found the net himself in the second (thanks, in part, to a horrible mistake from goalkeeper Fernando Muslera).
Kevin De Bruyne (Belgium). Looked far more comfortable in a more advanced position against Brazil than that which he been operating in earlier in the competition. De Bruyne looked much freer and more confident without the burden of playing in a rigid midfield two, and his brilliant goal was the cherry of a brilliant performance. The false nine role suited the Man City man, and there’s surely no going back to the midfield for him now.