Thursday, February 2, 2023
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Every team left in Qatar is a rival

DOHA, Qatar. And then there were eight. In just over two weeks, the World Cup has reduced its roster from 32 contenders to eight true contenders, most of whom would consider anything less than ultimate success a bit of a flop.

Not all of them, of course. Morocco, the flag bearer for both Africa and the Arab world, reached the quarter-finals for the first time. It won’t come easy now, but everything else from now on will be a welcome bonus. Rational analysis suggests that this may be the limit for Croatia as well.

Everyone else, however, has never been here for the atmosphere. They are in Qatar for glory. England and France have huge resources that no other team can match. Portugal wants to ensure Cristiano Ronaldo’s ultimate triumph, even if he doesn’t start. Louis van Gaal, the Dutch coach, has repeatedly said that playing football is pointless if you are not trying to win.

And then there are the twin South American giants: Brazil is probably the most impressive team in the tournament right now, the smell of a sixth World Cup in their nostrils; and Argentina, inspired and devoted to Lionel Messi, decided that it was here that his career would reach its peak.

Friday 10:00 AM ET Al Rayyan

For the teams remaining in this tournament, there is nothing more ominous than Brazil’s entertainment. At least his last three World Cup campaigns have been long months of anxiety, tension and inevitable heartache. In Qatar, Neymar, Vinicius Junior and the rest of Tite’s team are light-footed, jumpy and all the more dangerous because of this.

On paper, Brazil also offered a helping hand thanks to the draw. He qualified so comfortably that he could afford to lose the last group match, for which Tite made many changes, and his round of 16 encounter with South Korea was such a mismatch that Weverton, the third goalkeeper, played. last 10 minutes. Brazil is expected to crack down on an aging Croatia in the quarter-finals.

However, the fact is that Croatia is good at it. Croatia, represented by Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic, has a rare midfield balance. Four years ago, the core of this group showed they knew how to negotiate knockout football well enough to reach the World Cup final. Brazil will rightfully be preferred, but don’t expect it to be fun.

Friday 2pm ET Lusail

There are two ways to read Argentina’s campaign in Qatar. One of them, fueled by this early but ultimately inconsequential loss to Saudi Arabia, is that this is a team constantly on a knife edge, swinging wildly from desperation to triumph and back again, a team that will not only tire physically, but and emotionally in their despair. Deliver the World Cup to Lionel Messi.

Another, somewhat milder interpretation is that Argentina’s coach Lionel Scaloni was gradually turning his team into a team capable of becoming a real force in the tournament. He brought Enzo Fernandez into midfield, adding some momentum; he replaced the toothless Lautaro Martínez up front with the more energetic Julian Alvarez. Against Australia, Argentina looked much more balanced than against the Saudis just 10 days ago.

Now he will have to repeat one of the classic quarter-finals of the World Cup – Argentina lost to the Dutch at this stage in Marseille in 1998. beautiful winning goal by Dennis Bergkamp — and one of his greatest rivalries. Argentina beat the Dutch in the 1978 final, lost to them in 1998 and then beat them again in the 2014 semi-finals. Argentina for most of this tournament felt like a team playing for history. The problem is, it depends on whose story you’re reading.

Saturday 10:00 AM ET Doha

For most of the decade, Portugal has been something of a controversy. For years, the country has boasted enough individual talent to match any team on the planet, and yet under the auspices of Fernando Santos, it has been as diligent, uncompromising, and in many ways successfully rigorous, as if a group of the world’s best artists, the entire world, had come together and asked to wallpaper the bedroom.

That all changed on Tuesday night, thanks to (seemingly) the biggest challenge of the tournament: Santos sent Cristiano Ronaldo, a national icon and one of the top two players of his generation, to the bench and liberated Portugal. Gonzalo Ramos, his direct replacement, scored a hat-trick in a 6-1 thrashing of the Swiss, while Otavio and João Felix succeeded in a more dynamic system.

Thus, Morocco represents a test of Santos’ determination – does Ronaldo remain in the reserves? — and the Portuguese newfound sense of adventure. The first North African or Arab country to reach this place in the World Cup played four matches in Qatar. Despite her raucous, fervent support, bloated by the support of much of the rest of the region, she has yet to concede a goal from an opponent’s foot, even on penalties. His approach to Portugal will be the same as in the victory over the Spaniards: sit back, stay away and pounce on the break.

Saturday 2:00 pm ET Al Khor

France, the reigning champions, sailed through this tournament with a kind of aerial inevitability: scoring four goals without a care after seeing their pride pricked by Australia, comfortably beating Denmark, losing to Tunisia because it seemed funny, and then masterfully smashing Poland in the first knockout. round.

Such serene progress augurs well, especially since by the time the group stage ended, France had lost so many players to injury that their coach, Didier Deschamps, was so tired of trying to replace them that he simply stopped. It seemed risky at the time, but it turned out that the absence of Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Karim Benzema and the rest is only a minor inconvenience when you still have Kylian Mbappe.

However, England will present a far greater problem than anything the French have faced so far. No team has scored more goals than Gareth Southgate’s – like Portugal, they have scored 12 goals in four games – and in Jude Bellingham, England have one of the main stars of the tournament. Having reached the semi-finals in 2018 and the European Championship final in 2021, England look like a team ready to take the next step.



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