Eight teams remain in the 2018 World Cup, so it’s time for our latest Power Rankings.
Giants like Argentina, Portugal and Spain are done, while surprises like Sweden, Croatia and Russia remain. And with all three of those surprises on one side of the bracket, that leaves a tough road to navigate for four of our top five teams.
The hosts have already exceeded the expectations of many by overcoming Spain and getting to the quarter-finals. A few players have impressed, most notably 22-year-old Aleksandr Golovin, who is reportedly close to joining Chelsea.
Yet their limitations were evident in the somewhat fortuitous spot-kick victory over Spain and more clinical opponents than Fernando Hierro’s men will likely fancy their chances against the Russians.
But, resolute as the host nation’s defending was, sitting inside your own penalty area for 120 minutes and praying for a shootout isn’t a recipe for sustained success.
Winning is winning, no matter how you get it done, but it’s tough to see Artem Dzyuba and Co. scraping another victory against a far more direct Croatian team in the quarter-finals if they only complete 191 passes again.
We said this before the previous round, sure, but this time it really feels like the run is about to end.
Defensively, Sweden have been very impressive at this tournament, but player for player, they are arguably the weakest side left in the competition. A team who dumped Italy out of the World Cup play-offs cannot be dismissed too lightly, but surely they don’t have enough individual quality to go much further.
Emerge from a World Cup qualifying group that included both France and the Netherlands? Beat four-time champion Italy in a play-off? Get out of the tournament’s group stage at the expense of reigning tournament victor Germany? Check, check, and check.
Now the Swedes, enjoying their best World Cup performance since 1994, can start having serious thoughts about reaching the final four of a competition most people didn’t expect them to be in when the qualification draw was completed.
Don’t get it twisted: Sweden, anchored by Andreas Granqvist and Victor Lindelof in defence, has a strong spine consisting of workmanlike players who know and execute their roles to a tee. It deserves to be here.
The team’s style may not be the most pretty on the eyes, but Janne Andersson’s solid 4-4-2 system is proving a nightmare to play against.
Croatia were less than convincing in their round-of-16 clash, squeaking past Denmark on penalties. Yet they won all their group games, most notably a comprehensive 3-0 victory over Argentina. With Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitić, few if any sides in the competition have a better midfield. In addition, they have a beatable Russia in the quarters, and then if they get through, England or Sweden in the semis, a final appearance is hardly beyond the realms of possibility.
At various points in that match, it looked as though the Croatians were forging a path similar to their Euro 2016 run – dominate the opening round, only to underwhelm and get bounced in the last 16. Danijel Subasic ensured that didn’t happen with a brilliant shootout performance, though, making three saves to get Zlatko Dalic’s team over the hump, and set up a very winnable quarter-final clash with Russia.
They may not be the same red-hot juggernaut they were heading into the knockout stages, but Luka Modric and Co. still have the best midfield in the tournament. Thanks to their positioning in the bracket, they’ll likely be expecting to at least match the country’s semi-final run of 1998.
The likes of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani invariably attract the headlines, but Uruguay’s defence more than anything else has stood out in the tournament. Atletico Madrid star Diego Godín has been typically immense, with Óscar Tabárez’s side conceding only one goal in four games so far.
Not that their attackers have disappointed though — Cavani scored two brilliantly taken goals in the win over Portugal, though he is a fitness doubt for their upcoming clash with France, and whether the PSG star is ready in time for that game ultimately could have a big say in determining his country’s fortunes.
Plenty has changed over the years in international football, but amid all the upheaval and chaos, Oscar Tabarez’s Uruguay remains the one constant.
Yes, the beloved 71-year-old bench boss, dubbed El Maestro, has overseen a shift from the boorish, often brutal cynicism that once defined the national team to a more cultured style of play, but the steely, defensive determination that’s long been the bedrock of La Celeste is still very much alive.
“You can’t turn your back on your collective DNA. We’ve always been very good defensively, direct, balls in to the forwards quickly, speed on the outside, but I think we’ve improved inside: we keep the ball better, the younger players have come in and given us that,” captain Diego Godin told the Guardian’s Sid Lowe prior to the tournament. “But Uruguay hasn’t lost that commitment, that fight, the sacrifice and solidarity, the determination to overcome adversity.”
Anchored by Godin and his Atletico Madrid teammate Jose Gimenez, Uruguay continues to be nearly impossible to break down. The South American nation enjoyed far better chances than Portugal in their last-16 encounter despite being outshot 20-to-five because the Selecao were unable to pierce the baby blue wall, having to resort to low-percentage efforts from distance.
France could find the task equally difficult in the quarter-finals, though Edinson Cavani’s calf injury is a dark cloud looming over this contest.
Sound the alarm. Football may actually be coming home.
They had an almighty scare against Colombia tonight, but the Three Lions are still alive. They probably just about deserved their win, and many will now fancy them to overcome Sweden and reach the semi-finals. There are better sides in the competition quality-wise, but strange things can happen in football, so an English triumph is not completely unthinkable.
England, felled on spot kicks on three separate occasions in its tortured shootout history, finally lifted the curse on Tuesday, winning on penalties for the first time at the World Cup.
The Three Lions controlled the match against a James Rodriguez-less Colombia, only to see enormous centre-back Yerry Mina use his head to tie the match in the 93rd minute.
After so much impressive work – and another tally from captain and Golden Boot frontrunner Harry Kane – this young English side could’ve been snowed under by suffering such a crushing late setback. But Gareth Southgate’s charges wrestled back control in the second half of the extra frame, before ultimately getting over the line in the shootout.
If anything, the manner in which England won may actually serve the team’s psyche better in the long run.
Belgium’s combination of sheer talent, and some blunders by Japan, saved the Red Devils from another shocking exit at a major international tournament.
In terms of individual talent, Belgium are as good as most of the teams mentioned here. Yet despite reaching the quarter-finals, they were deeply unconvincing in their 3-2 last-16 victory over Japan, with the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard below their best for much of the contest. So in many ways, they are the anti-Sweden, with an abundance of brilliant players, but a lack of balance to the team at times, while their three-man defence has looked shaky on occasion.
Overturning a 2-0 deficit with 21 minutes remaining is nothing to scoff at. Belgium’s comeback win over Japan was nothing short of incredible.
But it does feel as though that late onslaught papered over the very real cracks that exist in this team, including a questionable defence.
Exhilarating as the victory was, it’s concerning that a team with so much pure talent relies so heavily on Marouane Fellaini to be its saviour when things aren’t clicking. It worked against Japan, but unless Roberto Martinez sorts things out against Brazil, the Red Devils are going to be on the next plane home.
Four matches into the tournament, and we still have no idea what this talented France team actually is. In the group stage, Les Bleus were the ultra-conservative, sometimes flat-out boring side that we worried about – Didier Deschamps put the shackles on with his tactical choices, turning a team that should perform like a Ferrari into a minivan.
The four-goal performance against Argentina in the breathless last-16 match was fun, no doubt, but it felt like that had more to do with the Albiceleste being a defensive mess than it did with France actually asserting its authority on the proceedings.
There are still questions to be answered.
That said, if unstoppable teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe decides that he wants to have his Pele moment at this World Cup, France could win it all.
As Marcos Rojo found out first-hand, he’s that good.
Neymar is starting to take matters into his own hands, and that’s very, very bad news for the rest of the world. Despite his infuriating antics, there’s simply no denying that Brazil’s No. 10 is one of the best footballers on the planet.
In the last 16 against Mexico, and for the first time in this tournament, he showed that, scoring once and setting up another in the 2-0 win.
He’s clearly been struggling to regain full fitness after breaking his foot in late February – Tite admitted that he would need time during the tournament to find his groove – but if his performance against El Tri is any indication, things are trending in the right direction for both the 26-year-old and the Selecao.
Many people’s tips to prevail pre-tournament, Brazil have not exactly taken the World Cup by storm. They have, however, improved with every game, and were quietly impressive as they rode out an early storm to dispatch a strong Mexico side. Neymar, for all his antics, has looked sharper with each game, while defensively they have looked very compact for the most part, conceding just 11 goals in 18 games in qualifying, as well as one in four since the tournament began.
If he’s firing on all cylinders, stopping Brazil, already the tournament favourite, becomes an even more daunting task.