From eight to four. With the Quarter-Finals wrapped up, here’s my rankings of #8-5, ranked by losing margin in the last game, then continuing criteria if required, with ranking relative to 2014 included also.
8. Sweden (Beaten 2-0, +2 GD) (NA)
This was more than Sweden could reasonably have hoped for, even if the end of the campaign was a disappointment. A routine, if somewhat boring, victory over Korea got them going, and then they were within a few seconds of taking at least a point from Germany. The loss must have stung, but the strength of Sweden in organised defence was obvious, and their best display of the tournament followed in a dominant victory over Mexico, that got them both progression and an unexpected first place.
The Swiss were a tough test, with both teams being quite similar in their emphasis on reactive defensive football, and with similar deficiencies going forward. In a tight game, it was perhaps fitting that it was decided by a deflected shot, with Sweden good enough to survive a late Swiss rally.
But the weaknesses – namely that lack of forward impetus – were exposed by England, in a game where Sweden failed to gain any initiative until they were already two goals down. With the defence failing to guard against English set-pieces and the forward line unable to beat Pickford, that was all she wrote. Sweden were one-dimensional, but effective to the quarter-final stage which, for a team playing their first post-Zlatan tournament, is a good return.
7. Uruguay (Beaten 2-0, +4 GD) (-8)
If this is the last ride of the latest generation, and a primer for the next, Uruguay can’t be too unhappy. They took a long time to get going properly, with mostly toothless displays against both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, games played in third gear and decided by one goal, before the hosts were dispensed with in clinical fashion. Despite some lacklustre football, it was jo done as far as the group stage was concerned.
Portugal and Ronaldo awaited in the next round, and Uruguay first proper test, which they passed thanks to the goal-scoring acumen of Cavani, and the oppositions over-reliance on their star-man. While we cannot be too critical of Uruguay’s part of the affair, it is accurate to say that Portugal lack of exceptional players in other parts of the field was exploitable.
Whatever Uruguay quality, they proved unable to really challenge France, especially with Cavani off the field. Suarez was anonymous in the quarter-final, and France took their opportunity when it came. Combined with a goalie howler, and Uruguay bid for a third triumph was over. This is probably Cavani and Suarez’ last ride, and the younger players will have to step up next time.
6. Brazil (Beaten 2-1) (-2)
While this is technically a drop from four years ago, it’s fair to say that its an improvement in performance terms. Some cracks were evident in the first two matches, as Brazil lost a lead and two points to the Swiss and then needed a late, late show to put away Costa Rica. But they showed what they were really capable off in an excellent last game effort against the Serbs, with the forward line of Neymar, Coutinho and Firminho all excelling.
The Mexican opposition in the Second Round were undoubtedly inferior, surrendering the majority of possession and banking on a counter-attack that never got going, while the Brazilians were patient in their build-up play and took their opportunities when they came. Neymar’s antics grated, but it couldn’t be doubted that Brazil appeared a more capable side to the won that rode their luck in 2014.
Until the Quarter-Finals that is. Again, Brazil got most of the possession, but this time the opposition defence held a lot firmer, and on the other end of the pitch Belgium’s counter-attacks were devastating when they came off. A late rally offered hope, but Brazil didn’t have the composure to get the equaliser, while Neymar reached new lows with his simulation. Brazil have gotten better, and given four more years this side may well challenge properly, but the ghosts of 2014 have not been exercised just yet.
5. Russia (Beaten in a Shoot-Out) (+19)
An excellent run from the hosts. The preparation and the squad quality seemed to portend disaster, but then they showed what they were made of, in a ruthless dismissal of the Saudi’s and in an expectedly competent performance against the Egyptians, before their level became more readily apparent in the final group game loss to Uruguay.
The vast majority thought that Russia had reached the end of the line when they came up against Spain, but they not only rallied after conceding, they then shut out one of the best attacks in the tournament for over an hour. The shoot-out victory was not unjust, and it was a very significant moment for Russian football.
The bravado, inability to lay-down, and sheer grit were replicated against Croatia, perhaps to even more of an extent, with the Russians having the wherewithal to bounce back from an extra-time concession. Croatia were the better team, but to take two of the best sides in the world to back-to-back shoot-outs was seriously impressive. Going out as they did must be tough to take, but this was an exceptional showing from a side so little was expected of.
Prediction wise, it’s a clean sweep, four for four, increasing my overall to 37/60, or 62%.
So, onto the semis then.
Both France and Belgium have had similar runs to the final four, slowing out of the gate in the group stages, then picking things up bit by bit, before similarly impressive performances in the Quarter-Finals. Both are replete with attacking talent, both want to make the most of respective golden generations. I’ll be optimistic and predict a glorious goal-fest, one for ages, or maybe it will be a nervy conservative slog to a shoot-out. Either way, I think Belgium’s attacking trio will have a very slight edge. Prediction: Belgium
It’s dreamland for both teams, but perhaps mostly for England, now properly dreaming of an another World Cup triumph. They have the attackers, they have an excellent set-piece record and, most importantly, they have a sense of belief England have lacked for a while. Croatia have struggled in the knock-outs, and will surely be feeling some fatigue, but they do still have Modric, and they are looking at a moment of destiny too, emulating the ’98 side, and hoping to go one step further. But I think England will have the legs when the Croats don’t. Prediction: England