I bet you can’t even remember Friday’s quarterfinals, can you? What with all the drama on Saturday? The FIFA World Cup 2018 is very much on the last leg now. The remaining four horses are on the final furlong and there isn’t a South American, African or Asian nag in sight.
How so? Because France went and beat Uruguay and Belgium, yes Belgium, dispatched of Brazil in true “Roberto Martinez is a tactical genius actually” style in the second game of Friday. Sure, we might have expected the first one once Edinson Cavani was confirmed to be unavailable to buddy up with his fellow gunslinger Luis Suarez, but the second? Be honest, you had Brazil to do to Belgium what it looked like Japan were going to do, didn’t you?
And that’s not even mentioning all this “it’s coming home” rubbish which I am sure we will get on to at some point.
So, France. Boom. They’ve eased themselves into the poisoned chalice tag of “tournament favourites” by comfortably seeing off that Uruguayan team that were everybody’s “not so dark horse”. The hipsters suggested France might not even score against a team so well drilled in the defensive dark arts they don’t even turn the lights on at night.
Raphael Varane had given France the lead with another headed goal from a set-piece in this tournament but that is not what people are going to remember. The people of Uruguay will not look back in 25 years time and wonder what might have been if Varane hadn’t risen highest. Oh no, they will still be trying to get their collective heads around how Fernando Muslera had suddenly turned into Loris Karius and let Antoine Griezmann’s shot slip through his butter-fingers. And, believe we have checked, Sergio Ramos was nowhere to be seen giving the Uruguayan custodian concussion.
Luis Suarez did look a little lonely upfront on his own for the South Americans. What if Edinson had been available, eh? Something else for the Uruguay fans to consider when they get back to work.
It was up to Brazil to carry the torch for the non-European teams and boy did they look reluctant. That said, who can blame Tite and the Samba Boys for rocking up, checking the Belgian team and thinking, “Fellaini? We’ve got this!” Little did they know that Bobby Martinez had hatched a plan so cunning he’d only ever used it twice before – once at Wigan to beat Manchester City in an FA Cup Final and once at Everton to beat Arsenal. Yes, we all agree the first one is far more impressive.
Belgium bamboozled Brazil by sticking Romelu Lukaku out on the right wing standing in the space left by Marcelo. They also confused the opposition by sticking two guys in the middle of the park who have exactly the same afro going on. That is the kind of thing that wins a World Cup folks. That and Kevin de Bruyne being allowed to move forward and score a lovely goal into Allison’s far post, of course.
Belgium led and Neymar wasn’t happy. He genuinely spent so much time on the floor (again) that when he did have a legitimate claim for a penalty the VAR officials decided they were so sick and tired of his antics that they refused to give him one. And that, in the end, proved costly. What is Portuguese for “the boy who cried wolf?”
And there was Saturday. Oh, Saturday. And you mix of emotions. England had never beaten Sweden in a tournament match. England had won as many knockout games in this World Cup as they had in any other World Cup since 1990. Or, if you were slightly more positive, “it’s coming home”. Which, I hate to say, it probably isn’t but finally, there is an England football team that people can get behind. Unless, of course, you are the Daily Mail and after England win their first ever WC penalty shootout you publish a piece on the whistle slating Raheem Sterling for not scoring, again. Joyless? That’s one word.
Raheem Sterling is one of the reasons we are still in this tournament folks, and I implore you (if you haven’t already) to educate yourselves on what he actually does for the team. His pace, movement and brain create space for others to play as well as they do. Do you remember a guy called Emile Heskey? Yeah, he did a job for Michael Owen. Sterling is like that but far, far better and England are better with him in the team. Though, of course, if he wouldn’t mind taking a one-on-one chance sometime soon that would be great as well.
Sweden, Harry Maguire has been coming for you for two years. The Leicester City, for now, defender posted on Twitter a couple of years ago about a Saturday afternoon wasted fighting some IKEA flatpack furniture. Harry, we have all been there and threatened to get our own back somehow. Except, not many of us get the chance to score the opening goal against IKEA’s homeland in a World Cup quarterfinal like Harry did. Revenge? Oh yes. Maguire has been a revelation in Russia and will soon be off to Chelsea or Manchester City where he will see his once-promising career hit the skids.
Dele Alli is another one that people just don’t seem to ‘get’ and it was Alli who lept at the far post to give England the cushion that we probably needed, in case Colombia and last minute equalisers were still fresh in people’s minds. But were either of these two guys the hero? Not quite. That was definitely the shortest goalkeeper in town, Jordan Pickford. He is becoming a national hero quicker than he gets down to palm the ball away, making three top stops at key moments, finally getting his first clean sheet of the tournament.
England progress, then. They’d never won a WC penalty shootout, then they did. They’d never beaten Sweden, then they did. They’ve never won a WC semi-final away from England, so might I suggest that being the next record they reverse? Gareth Southgate said that “we didn’t feel like coming home yet” which tells me that he might be returning to an argument with his wife, or something. Mind you, if that gets us to the final Gareth, we don’t mind.
Credit to Southgate is due, especially for diverting praise to people not currently around the squad but played their part. The England manager thanked Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana, Joe Hart and even Roy Hodgson for what they had done to help England get there. Funnily enough, he didn’t thank the Telegraph and they deserve the biggest praise. Why? For getting Sam Allardyce sacked!
England will play Croatia on Wednesday night, the Croatians being brave enough to take on the host nation and Putin and beat them on penalties. There is no current word on the whereabouts of the Croatian goalkeeper who knocked Putin’s men out. Mind you, the medical staff helped the very same goalkeeper recover from what looked like a match-ending hamstring tear so quickly that Liverpool are believed to want them to come to Anfield and work on Daniel Sturridge.
You realise the next time you read this rubbish England might be World Cup winners, don’t you? Now there is a sentence I did not expect to be writing.