World Cup quarterfinals: What to watch and predictions for each matchup

After three weeks and 56 matches, the quarterfinals of the 2018 World Cup are set. A tournament that began with 32 teams is now down to just eight. Defending champion Germany is out, along with perennial favorites Argentina and Spain. Of the eight sides remaining in Russia, only two were among the pre-tournament favorites and several have already exceeded expectations to make it this far. Here’s what to watch for in the upcoming quarterfinals, when to watch, and our predictions for who makes it through to the semis.

Uruguay vs. France – Friday, July 6, 10:00 a.m. EST

In Friday’s first quarterfinal matchup, two of the three remaining sides in the tournament to have previously lifted the World Cup face off against each other. Unlike Uruguay, France came into this tournament among the favorites. After a slow start that saw Les Bleus labor to victories over Australia and Peru, and play out a boring stalemate with Denmark, Didier Deschamps’ team finally caught fire in a seven-goal Round of 16 thriller that saw it knock Lionel Messi’s Argentina out of the World Cup.

Teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe was the star of that show, bursting down the field with belief-defying speed to win the penalty that opened the scoring and netting two second-half goals to effectively end Messi’s hopes of ever winning a World Cup. With the likes of Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann, Blaise Matuidi and Olivier Giroud, France boast one of the most formidable attacks left in Russia.

France’s forward Kylian Mbappe (L) in Kazan on June 30, 2018, and Uruguay’s forward Luis Suarez (R) in Samara on June 25, 2018. (Getty Images)
France’s forward Kylian Mbappe (L) in Kazan on June 30, 2018, and Uruguay’s forward Luis Suarez (R) in Samara on June 25, 2018. (Getty Images)

But if France is an unstoppable force, Uruguay might be the closest thing to an immovable object we’ve seen in this World Cup. The South American nation, which last won the World Cup in 1950, has a lockdown defense anchored by the Atletico Madrid centerback pairing of Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez. In four matches at the World Cup, Uruguay has given up just one goal. With Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani spearheading the attack, it also boasts what could be the deadliest strike partnership in the tournament.

The worry for Uruguay is whether Cavani will be able to recover from the injury that saw him limp off against Portugal. Even if Cavani is fit, this France team has quality in every area of the pitch and seems to be hitting its stride at just the right time.

Prediction: France over Uruguay, 2-1

Brazil vs. Belgium – Friday, July 6, 2:00 p.m. EST

After not entirely convincing in the group stage, Brazil looked comfortable in the Round of 16 as it brushed aside the same Mexico side that opened its tournament by beating Germany. Having seen the team largely being carried by Philippe Coutinho in the early going, the match against Mexico gave us a glimpse of what a fully fit and motivated Neymar is capable of. With players like Coutinho, Neymar, Willian and Gabriel Jesus, Brazil’s attack is second to none. But its defense is equally formidable, with just one goal given up so far at this World Cup.

But Belgium has been almost as impressive, coming through the group stage unscathed and fighting back from two goals down to win its knockout tie with Japan. Striker Romelu Lukaku is two goals behind England’s Harry Kane in the race for the Golden Boot and the 12 goals Belgium has scored have come from seven different players.

The concern for Belgium is that we’ve seen it leak goals against far lesser teams than Brazil. Fighting your way back from two down to Japan is one thing, doing it against Brazil is entirely different. If Brazil scores first, Belgium could find itself exposed as it presses for an equalizer. Belgium is also a team that enjoys possession, and as we saw against Mexico, this is a Brazil team that looks very comfortable letting the opposition possess, soaking up pressure and then choosing its moment to strike.

Prediction: Brazil over Belgium, 3-2

Romelu Lukaku of Belgium during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia round of 16 match between Belgium and Japan at the Rostov Arena on July 02, 2018 in Rostov-On-Don, Russia. (Getty Images)
Romelu Lukaku of Belgium during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia round of 16 match between Belgium and Japan at the Rostov Arena on July 02, 2018 in Rostov-On-Don, Russia. (Getty Images)

Sweden vs. England – Saturday, July 7, 10:00 a.m. EST

If there is a team in this World Cup that’s passed every test it’s been faced with, it’s Sweden. Playing in its first major tournament since the international retirement of talisman, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden came through a difficult qualifying campaign and topped its group convincingly. The Swedes may not be spectacular to watch, but coach Janne Andersson’s players have bought into his gameplan and stuck to it. Despite benefiting from a lucky deflection in getting past an arguably superior Switzerland team, Sweden is here in the quarterfinals and has no reason to fear anyone, least of all England.

That’s not to take anything away from Gareth Southgate’s likable team, which has made a good account of itself in this tournament, perhaps without being entirely convincing. Yes, England made easy work of lowly Panama, but it struggled to beat Tunisia, lost to Belgium’s reserves and required penalties to get past a Colombia team sans James Rodriguez. Although the fact that it did emerge from the shootout victorious could put wind in the sails of an England team that’s not short on talent but historically suffers from fragile confidence. The England we know gets easily rattled, this Sweden team seemingly does not. If things don’t go their way early on, it could be tough going for Southgate’s team of Premier League stars. Unless this truly is the “new England” team we’ve been assured it is.

Prediction: Sweden over England, 1-0

Russia vs. Croatia – Saturday, July 7, 2:00 p.m. EST

These are two teams no one really expected to still be around at this stage of the tournament, Russia in particular. But having already exceeded expectations by getting out of its group and knocking Spain out in the Round of 16, the host nation can play with a certain freedom, and perhaps a certain confidence. But just how far that confidence will get Russia against the team with the best midfield in the World Cup remains to be seen.

Luka Modric has been an absolute orchestra conductor at the center of the park for Croatia. His tandem with Ivan Rakitic was instrumental in the 3-0 destruction of Argentina in the group stage. Disregarding Russia having squeaked past a Spain team that was clearly not itself on penalties, the one time we saw Russia go up against a truly quality team in this World Cup was when it got swept aside with relative ease by Uruguay in the group stage. Croatia, like Russia, may have required penalties to reach this stage, but the quality of Modric, Rakitic, and Co. should be too much for a Russian side that’s overly dependent on athleticism and has essentially ridden its luck so far.

Prediction: Croatia over Russia, 3-0

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