Seven-goal classics, unbelievable comebacks and England winning a penalty shootout – one of the best World Cups of recent times enters the quarter-final stage on Friday.
BBC Sport looks at the major storylines we can look forward to as we reach the last eight – including the man who loves Uruguay but now has to try to knock them out.
‘The very Uruguayan Frenchman looking to knock his pals out’
Uruguay v France (Friday, 6 July – 15:00 BST, Nizhny Novgorod)
There will be an interesting clash between France forward Antoine Griezmann and Uruguay defenders Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez, his Atletico Madrid team-mates. They are such good friends that Godin is the godfather of Griezmann’s daughter.
Griezmann met Godin and Gimenez at Madrid airport wearing a Uruguay jersey when they flew back after clinching World Cup qualification – and has said he feels “part Uruguayan”.
“It’s a nationality that I love, a country that I love and it’s going to be very emotional for me.”
Uruguay midfielder Nahitan Nandez, who used to play for Penarol – a team Griezmann is a member of – said: “Griezmann is very Uruguayan, he passes himself off as a Uruguayan. For him, it’s going to be a special game, like for us.
“All I can say is that we hope he behaves well on the pitch and remembers he is half Uruguayan!”
However, Uruguay’s Barcelona striker Luis Suarez had less time for such sentiment. “He is French and he doesn’t know what it is to feel Uruguayan,” said the 31-year-old.
“He doesn’t know who we are or what we must do to be successful in football. He enjoys our customs and can speak the same language – but we feel differently.”
Atletico Madrid love-in aside, the game itself promises to be a fascinating encounter. Both countries have some of the world’s top attacking talent and knocked out two of football’s all-time greats in the previous round.
France’s squad will have three of the five most expensive players in football, once Kylian Mbappe’s 180m euros (£159m) transfer from Monaco to Paris St-Germain happens. Mbappe became the first teenager since Brazil great Pele to score twice in a World Cup game when France beat Lionel Messi’s Argentina 4-3 in a last-16 epic.
Uruguay – who got past Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal – have Suarez and Paris St-Germain’s all-time top scorer Edinson Cavani up front. The pair have a combined 98 international goals.
- From Messi to Mbappe – the passing of greatness to the next generation?
- World Cup schedule – plot the way to the final
Belgium might pay the price for beating England
Brazil v Belgium (Friday, 6 July – 19:00 BST, Kazan)
Belgium are probably cursing right now that they are in the ‘tough’ half of the World Cup draw after winning Group G.
They came from 2-0 down to beat Japan in an absolute thriller on Monday – the first team to do so in a knockout game since 1970 – but their reward for that is facing the tournament favourites and five-time champions Brazil.
Had they lost to England in their final group game, no previous winner would have stood between them and the final.
Belgium – now unbeaten in 23 games – are one of only two teams in Russia to win all four games and have perhaps found the killer edge that had been questioned after coming back from the brink of going home to reach the quarter-finals.
“When we went 2-0 down [against Japan] there was the psychological feeling of ‘OK, we have nothing to lose’, which freed us up,” said Red Devils manager Roberto Martinez.
“That’s like how it will be against Brazil, except we can feel like that from the first second.”
Many of the superstars left in the tournament should feature in this game – Barcelona, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Paris St-Germain all supply at least one player to both squads.
Neymar has been one of the most memorable players in the competition – although not always for the right reasons. He has scored twice in Russia but his reaction to tackles has earned him much ridicule.
Another important thing to remember is that for all the chat about Brazil’s attacking stars, they have only conceded one goal in their past nine games and have only allowed five shots on target against them in the tournament so far.
- Brazil v Belgium and Sweden v England on BBC TV
- Is Belgium’s golden generation set to deliver?
- Neymar ‘charms Brazil, but annoys whole world’
Is football coming home?
Sweden v England? (Saturday, 7 July – 15:00 BST, Samara)
England came into this World Cup with a new-look team, largely unsullied by past tournament disappointments. And it has already shown as they knocked out Colombia on penalties in the last 16 – the first time the Three Lions have won a World Cup shootout.
Excitement levels have gone through the roof in England as a Colombia-Sweden-Russia/Croatia path to the final has opened up in front of them.
They know they may never have a chance like this again to match their 1990 run to the semi-finals or their 1966 triumph.
But before they can look that far ahead, the England manager Gareth Southgate is conscious his team must get past a “bloody difficult” Sweden side.
“We’ve not got a good record against them, I think we’ve always underestimated them,” he said.
“They have good plans, they have a clear way of playing – and it’s bloody difficult to play against. They are greater than the sum of their parts more often than not, so that is a hugely difficult game for us.”
The Scandinavians have a strong team dynamic with no star names after the international retirement of skilful maverick Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
They finished above the Netherlands in qualifying, beat Italy in a play-off and then helped eliminate Germany by finishing above them in Group F.
That made Switzerland in the last 16 seem almost straightforward.
England and Sweden drew 2-2 in the 2006 group stages, with Joe Cole scoring a screamer. A repeat of that scoreline and ‘penalty experts’ England might be facing another shootout.
‘A world record with the players we produce’
Russia v Croatia (Saturday, 7 July – 19:00 BST, Sochi)
Russia, the lowest-ranked team in their own World Cup, came into the tournament given no hope by anybody in or outside the country. They eased through a weak group, but then stunned 2010 champions Spain on penalties in the last round after a backs-to-the-wall performance. They are now two wins – over Croatia and Sweden or England – away from the final.
This is a meeting between Russia, the largest country in the world, and Croatia, a nation of only 4.1 million people – but one which produces so many technically gifted footballers.
In Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, the Croats have midfielders who are integral players in the heart of both Real Madrid and Barcelona’s teams.
They are in the quarter-finals for the second time. In 1998, five years after joining Fifa following their independence from Yugoslavia, they reached the semi-finals – and they may now never have a better chance to reach the final.
The Clasico rivals, Juventus forward Mario Mandzukic and 101-times capped defender Vedran Corluka are all in their 30s and Inter Milan winger Ivan Perisic is 29.
Croatia legend Davor Suker – the Golden Boot winner in 1998 – told BBC Sport: “It will be a tough game against Russia. It’s impressive the way they beat Spain. They are physically strong and have great energy from the fans in the stadium and in the streets – that makes a powerful team.
“For Croatia, it’s impressive we have qualified for 10 of the past 12 major competitions – we are a nation of four and a half million people, so it’s a world record with the players we produce. I am so proud to be part of it.”
This is Russia’s best World Cup run since the break-up of the Soviet Union. They have never got past the group stages as a separate nation, but did reach the 1966 semi-finals as the USSR.
As BBC Sport’s Patrick Jennings said after watching the win over Spain: “Everyone is watching now. People tell you about their 90-year-old grandma who suddenly became an obsessive after the second group game, a 3-1 win over Egypt that sealed Russia’s place in the knockout stage.
“It is a special mood that perhaps only a host nation can experience. The world’s largest nation, experiencing the birth of a new chapter in its football history, 144 million people and just as many smiles.”
And before you go…
How’s your Russian coming along? Can you guess which quarter-finalist is which in the Russian cyrillic alphabet?
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Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/44702778