The 2018 World Cup reaches at it’s final week with four European nations remaining in a tournament that has captured the imagination. The nerve-wracking thought about what we will do with ourselves once it is over can wait, because two well-matched semi-finals await.
France face Belgium while England play Croatia in their major tie for a generation. It is England’s first World Cup semi-final appearance since 1990 when they lost to West Germany on penalties.
Here, once again we are here with the SportsMate Power Ranking for the Last-4 of 2018 FIFA World Cup, Russia.
It is bit of a theme among those remaining but Croatia are yet to completely convince and, as they sweated on a second successive shootout win on Saturday night, the ease with which they disposed of Argentina in the group stage looked a distant memory.
Croatia have managed to reach the 2018 World Cup semi-finals without winning a single knockout game in normal or extra time.
The euphoria turned up several notches though and that will, presumably, keep energy levels high before they face an England team they will fancy beating. Their technical quality in midfield is as good as anything remaining in the tournament but, as Russia showed, a brisk tempo might cause them difficulty.
They were impressive in the way they dominated the ball for long periods against Russia and deservedly came through that game despite the fortuitous manner in which they ultimately secured the victory. Yet it will be of concern to manager Zlatko Dalic just how swiftly they folded under the pressure of the hosts’ extra-time onslaught, having worked so hard to establish a lead in the game.
What will also be worrying for their supporters is that by far their most complete performance of the tournament so far came back in their second match — the 3-0 destruction of Argentina.
They have struggled to emulate that level ever since. Moreover, while England enjoyed a straightforward, comfortable 2-0 quarter-final win over Sweden, the Russia game appeared to take a lot out of Croatia, with several players picking up knocks and struggling badly with fatigue by the end of extra-time.
If it is not coming home quite yet then it is, at least, packing its suitcase and preparing a picnic for the journey. The oddity about England is that, to this point, they have not had to sparkle much but that hardly matters. They saw Sweden off with a confidence alien to anyone who has watched recent failures through their fingers and the sense that there is more to come may work in their favour.
The Croatia-England semi-final is an extremely hard game to call. Of the four teams left, Gareth Southgate’s men have surely had the easiest route to this stage. But you can only beat what’s in front of you, and the Three Lions have done that fairly well so far. Croatia will certainly make them work harder off the ball but England have a confidence and momentum that could take them all the way now.
Unlike in most of their previous matches, against Croatia, they might have to endure lengthy spells without the ball — a midfield featuring Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic is always going to be stronger than one anchored by Jordan Henderson, who is a good professional, but hardly on the level of the Croatian duo in terms of skill and ability.
Nevertheless, two factors would appear to give England the edge. The reason Croatia have struggled to make their dominance count at times could be attributed to a slight lack of cutting edge in the final third, where they do not possess a finisher as lethal as Harry Kane.
And granted, England’s defence has not been perfect, but the Three Lions will be licking their lips at how easily Mário Figueira Fernandes was able to head home Alan Dzagoev’s free kick to secure a dramatic late extra-time equaliser for Russia on Saturday night.
England have so far scored eight goals from set pieces — the most since Portugal in 1966 — and they will likely be confident of adding to that tally against an unconvincing Croatian backline.
More than anyone else, France have grown into this competition. Victories over Australia and Peru in the group stages were far from convincing, but they have dispatched Argentina and Uruguay impressively in the knockout stages.
It is still impossible to ignore the thought that they are playing within themselves, though, and more moments like those Kylian Mbappé served up against Argentina will probably be required against Belgium, in what could be a scintillating shootout between the tournament’s best counterattacking sides. France have a feel of a team that can raise their game as the stakes get higher.
While it is difficult to think of a better defensive midfielder in the world than N’Golo Kante and Hugo Lloris is a goalkeeper with a wealth of experience at international level who is widely considered as being in the top bracket of goalkeepers at the elite level.
There are question marks over their defence and Didier Deschamps’ tactical. Yet in terms of the spine of the team and depth of talent in every position, no other country at the World Cup can match the French side’s prowess.
Player for player, there is a strong case to be made for Belgium being the best side at the World Cup. Would anyone have stood a chance against Belgium’s first-half evisceration of Brazil? Their front three were irresistible and in the process answered the lingering questions about Roberto Martínez’s ability to mastermind success on this stage.
Martínez got his set-up spot on and, if he is similarly tuned into France’s weaknesses, his team has an outstanding chance of making the final – although Didier Deschamps will spy some susceptibility at the back, particularly when faced with pace.
There will never be a better opportunity for this set of players, many of them at or approaching their peak, to confirm the promise they have held for years.
And while they enjoyed similar good fortune in the second half against Brazil with contentious decisions going their way and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois needing to be in top form, beating the country many identified as favourites for the World Cup felt like a serious statement and went against the narrative put forward by naysayers, which portrayed this generation of Belgian players as too ego-driven and unreliable to prevail when the pressure is on.
Perhaps, contrary to the critics’ sentiments, they are actually finally starting to fulfil their undoubted potential as a team.