World Cup 2018 - When eight became four: roundup of the quarter finals
By Daniel J. McLaughlin
And then eight became four. The 2018 World Cup in Russia has been one of the most exciting tournaments in recent years, where genuinely anything can happen. The early favourites have made an early exit, and the underdogs have a chance to win football's biggest competition. Along the way, this year's World Cup has claimed the scalps of Germany, Portugal, Spain, Argentina and now, Brazil.
France, England, Belgium, and Croatia are all competing for the top prize after an exciting round of quarter-finals this weekend.
Les Bleus were the first through to the last-four after a 2-0 win against Uruguay. They capitalised on an error by goalkeeper Fernando Muslera, while at the other end, Hugo Lloris produced a stunning save - perhaps the best of the competition so far.
Didier Deschamps' were ahead in the 40th minute after Raphael Varane nodded in a free-kick by Antoine Griezmann. It was the perfect set-piece with Griezmann stuttering his run-up, before swinging the ball into the box. Varane made a run and guided his header inside the far post.
Uruguay almost produced an immediate response, but they were denied by Lloris. A similar set-piece from the Charruas resulted in a header from Martin Caceres seemingly destined for the goal. The Tottenham goalkeeper stretched as he made a diving stop, producing an excellent one-handed save. The rebound Diego Godin was blasted over.
Griezmann sealed the win for his side, thanks to a bit of calamity from Muslera. The Atlético Madrid forward hit an audacious long-range effort from the edge of the area. It was heading straight for the Galatasaray goalkeeper, but he misjudged it and made a howler of his save. As he flapped at the ball, it slipped through his hands and into the back of the net.
Moving from Nizhny Novgorod to the Kazan Arena, five-time winners Brazil faced Belgium on Friday evening. After a dramatic late winner against the Japanese in the last-16, Roberto Martinez's side were outstanding in attack in the first half, and stubborn in defence for the second. The game plan simply worked.
Tite's side had conceded just one goal in their past four games in Russia, but they were two down before half-time. An own goal from Fernandinho in the 13th minute stunned the Brazilians. It has been a tournament of own goals, with the Manchester City midfielder netting the 10th in Russia. His hand caught a corner from Nacer Chadli, and it flew into the back of the net.
Kevin de Bruyne hit a stunning goal from 25 yards out in the 31st minute. The goal was the result of a Belgian counter attack with Romelu Lukaku lumbering forwards. He sent to the ball to the Manchester City midfielder, whose hard and low effort scorched into the bottom corner.
Les Diables Rouges had to endure a barrage of Brazilian attacks who attempted 27 shots throughout the game. One of them eventually crossed the line with 14 minutes left on the clock. Philippe Coutinho spotted substitute Renato Augusto alone in the box, chipping the ball to the 30-year-old midfielder who headed it in. But it was not enough for Brazil, yet another tournament favourite who failed to live up to expectations.
The next quarter final came the following day between England and Sweden on Saturday afternoon. Gareth Southgate's side have impressed so far, breaking the penalty shootout curse against Colombia in their previous knockout game. Under his guidance, the Three Lions made it to their first World Cup semi final in 28 years.
England have been ruthlessly effective with their set pieces in Russia. And it was more of the same when Harry Maguire opened the scoring for his country in the 30th minute. He rose above the Swedish defenders to meet a corner from Ashley Young. The Leicester defender scored his first goal for England, sending a powerful header past goalkeeper Robin Olsen.
Jordan Pickford was once again a safe pair of hands for the Three Lions, pushing away a header from Marcus Berg. The England goalkeeper won his first World Cup clean sheet, denying efforts from Viktor Claesson and Berg once again.
Dele Alli doubled England's lead just before the hour mark. He was left completely unmarked at the far post, latching on to a cross from Jesse Lingard and heading it in from five yards out. England made it to the World Cup semi-final for only the third time in their history.
It came to penalties when Russia played Croatia in the last quarter final on Saturday night. Denis Cheryshev hit the first for the hosts in the 31st minute, scoring a goal that came from nowhere. He played a one-two with Artem Dzyuba, and upon receiving the ball back, he hit a screamer that curled into the top corner.
Croatia equalised just eight minutes later when Andrej Kramarić steered a header past goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev. Mario Mandžukić was in plenty of space down the left, when he looked up and sent the ball to Kramarić who bent down to head the ball into the bottom right.
The next goal did not come until extra time when Domagoj Vida put the Vatreni ahead in the 100th minute. He was able to find his way through a crowd of players in the Russian box to head it down into the bottom corner.
With five minutes left in extra time, it was another header that drew the sides level again. A free kick from Alan Dzagoev was swung into the box, Mário Fernandes was able to rise the highest and flash his header past a flat-footed Danijel Subašić.
The last place into the World Cup semi-finals was to be decided from a penalty shootout. Fyodor Smolov attempted a cheeky chip, but goalkeeper Subasic was able to read it perfectly and saved the first spot kick. Croatia's Marcelo Brozovic converted his penalty, beating Akinfeev who guessed the right way but it was too high for the Russian.
Dzagoev sent the goalkeeper the wrong way to score for Russia. The teams were level again when Kovacic's tame effort was pushed away at the bottom right by Akinfeev. With a chance to put the Russians ahead, Fernandes fluffed his lines and dragged his shot wide. Akinfeev was able to get a hand to Luka Modrić's penalty, but all he could do was push it to the post, but it fell across the line.
Ignashevich and Vida scored their penalties for their respective countries. Russia needed to score to stay in it, and Kuziaev converted it. The fate of Croatia's progression fell to Ivan Rakitić - if he scored, they were through. The Barcelona midfielder sent the goalkeeper the wrong way, and found the back of the net.
France will play Belgium in the World Cup semi-finals on Tuesday night (K.O. 7pm), and the game will be available to watch on BBC One. You will be able to catch England v Sweden in the last-four on ITV One this Wednesday (K.O. 7pm).