And then there were four – the World Cup has reached the semi-final stage, and we’re left with an all-European affair.
Brazil, Uruguay, Sweden and hosts Russia all fell at the last eight hurdle, leaving France, Belgium, England and Croatia with just one more hill to climb between themselves and the promised land of the World Cup final.
Ahead of this week’s semi-final showdowns, which teams look best-equipped to lift that prestigious trophy in Moscow later this month?
England may have been swept up in the belief that “it’s coming home” but in Croatia, they are going to face the toughest test of any side they have faced so far. The confidence in the England camp is obviously there in spades, but that might not hold up in the face of technically superior opposition.
For all of the talk that England have played brilliantly throughout, they really haven’t. They’ve been very effective in parts and they’ve maximised their strengths magnificently in terms of their danger from set pieces, but they have created precious little from open play and, sooner or later, a better team than a limited Sweden and overly aggressive Colombia is going to take advantage of England’s lack of control in matches and lack of shots from open play.
That said, they have their obvious strengths, Jordans Pickford and Henderson, Kieran Trippier, Harry Maguire and Raheem Sterling all played really well against Sweden, and Harry Kane has six goals in Russia already, so there are pieces of a great side there – but it remains to be seen if the jigsaw is complete enough to get over that line.
Croatia are a strange animal at this World Cup – insofar as they have relied upon penalty shootouts twice to bail them out of trouble when they should have been good enough to see off Denmark and Russia without the need for spot kicks.
They sailed through the group stage – the destruction of Argentina was particularly noteworthy – but have looked ponderous ever since as they struggle with the burden of matching the class of 1998. Having matches that feat, one would hope that they can play without fear int eh semi-finals.
In Luka Modric, they have a genuine superstar, ably assisted by his supporting cast of Ivan Perisic and Ivan Rakitic, while Dejan Lovren has been immense in defence and Ante Rebic, when on form, has been extremely lively. If all of these pieces click as well as they did earlier in the competition, there’s every reason to believe that Croatia could win the whole thing.
The Golden Generation finally came of age against Brazil in the last eight, but now the onus is on them to build on that and deliver the greatest night in the national side’s history.
Having persisted with Yannick Carrasco at wing-back and Kevin De Bruyne in central midfield, Roberto Martinez seems to have finally stumbled upon an effective system that plays to the sides’ strengths while allowing his star players to perform (i.e. with De Bruyne further forward and Carrasco on the bench).
The jury is still out on Martinez tactically, however, which suggests that they might struggle against France (though Didier Deschamps is in a similar boat, truth be told). If De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois all play as well as they did on Friday night then they will take some stopping.
Arise, the new favourites. With Brazil out of the picture, France have stapped into the void and are now the team most likely to deliver a first World Cup since 1998.
There was an assuredness with which they took care of Uruguay, far removed from the madcap attacking brilliance by which they defeated Argentina. It was more controlled in the face of a Uruguayan defence that gives very little away but was no less impressive for it. It wasn’t pretty, but it was never going to be.
It suggests that France can adapt can adapt to certain situations and opposition styles yet still dictate the game on their terms. It was, perhaps, the toughest test that any of the semi-finalists faced in the last round (though Belgium would have plenty to say about that), and they powered through it.
How much (or little) Deschamps’ tactical influence is on show here is unclear, but in a last-four where there are no perfect sides, the imperfect team that can be more than the sum of their parts for just long enough will win out.
Right now, it’s hard to look past that team being France.