And then there were four.
After another eventful knockout round in what is surely one of the most unpredictable World Cups in recent memory, it’s little wonder these semifinals are unprecedented: 2018’s are the first-ever semifinals not to include one of either Brazil, Argentina or Germany.
Four nations remain in contention in Russia, all European and all have a legitimate shot at lifting the trophy in Moscow on July 15.
Here’s how we rank the remaining four countries based on their play in the last three rounds:
Quarterfinal result: 2-0 vs. Uruguay
Pre-tournament FIFA ranking: 7
Les Bleus followed up a thrilling victory over Argentina in the round of 16 with their most convincing outing of the World Cup with Friday’s 2-0 win over Uruguay.
A defence that has been dominant most of the tournament completely shut down the Uruguayans, who looked particularly out of sorts without injured striker Edinson Cavani.
France’s midfield duo of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante have emerged as the best in Russia, while Antoine Griezmann, who has struggled to find his top form at the World Cup, had his best game of the tournament so far against Uruguay.
All of this points to France only getting better in the semifinals. Look out.
Quarterfinal result: 2-1 vs. Brazil
Pre-tournament FIFA ranking: 3
Belgian manager Roberto Martinez took a tactical risk in the quarterfinal against Brazil, and it paid off in spades.
The additions of Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli to the starting XI were immense, as Fellaini allowed Kevin De Bruyne — the best player in the entirety of the quarterfinals — to play much higher up the pitch, and Chadli neutralized Brazilian midfielders Fernandinho and Paulinho.
With De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard deployed in a front three, the Red Devils tore Brazil’s defence apart on the counter in the first half, and the trio looked like scoring nearly every time it attacked. Brazil were at a clear disadvantage without suspended defensive midfielder Casemiro, whose absence left the Seleção back line exposed.
Belgium, however, were far from perfect. Brazil had multiple quality chances to score in the early goings of the game, and then dominated the second half with 17 shots (six on target) to just one from Belgium (none on target). Friday wasn’t Brazil’s day, but Belgium shouldn’t expect the same rust from France.
As Mel Brooks said, tragedy is when I cut my little finger, comedy is when you fall in an open sewer and die. pic.twitter.com/tqz6pjM3Do
— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) July 6, 2018
Quarterfinal result: 2-0 vs. Sweden
Pre-tournament FIFA ranking: 12
After the tension of the round-of-16 penalty-shootout win over Colombia, Saturday’s convincing victory against Sweden was uncharacteristically drama-less for an England team.
Outside of three vital saves from Jordan Pickford (What else is new?) the Three Lions took care of business against Sweden with relative ease. Once again, a goal from a set piece — their eighth of the tournament — gave England the boost it needed to take control of the game before Dele Alli’s 58th-minute header put it out of reach for the Swedes, as the Harry Maguire-led defence stifled an uninspired attack from their opponents.
85% passing accuracy
9 aerial duels won
2 chances created
1 shot on target
Mt. Maguire reaches new heights. pic.twitter.com/mj1HGcTZJc
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) July 7, 2018
England’s set-piece efficiency could also be seen as its biggest weakness, though, as Gareth Southgate’s side has notched just three goals from open play. It’s a flaw that could plague this side should it fail to come up with answers from dead-ball situations.
But from Southgate to Pickford to captain Harry Kane, this edition of England has shown a composure and calmness fans aren’t used to seeing — a quality that’s been key to its success so far and will surely be tested over the next week.
Quarterfinal result: 2-2 (4-3) vs. Russia
Pre-tournament FIFA ranking: 20
Croatia advances to its first World Cup semifinal since 1998 after playing 120 minutes in each of the last two matches, then enduring a pair of emotionally charged penalty shootouts — a rollercoaster ride that’s bound to mould a belief of destiny among this side as Wednesday’s final-four match draws nearer.
Zlatko Dalic’s side has the talent to win this tournament, but it has withstood a stretch that would take a marked toll on the best of teams. Croatia’s now dealing with multiple injuries to key players, including quarterfinal goalkeeping hero Danijel Subasic.
And their excellent group-stage form has made way for a side that’s struggled to put lesser opponents away in the knockout stages, and quality scoring chances have been few and far between for the likes of Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Perisic and Andrej Kramaric.
However, in Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, Croatia still boast one of the world’s most dominant midfields, an area of distinct advantage against semifinal opponent England, and the key to winning its first-ever World Cup.