World Cup Daily: It’s now Belgium’s to win or lose

Watch as Sportsnet’s Soccer Central panel discuss today's quarterfinal matches between Brazil and Belgium and France and Uruguay. The panel also discussed the play of Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois in Belgium’s victory.

After each matchday of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Sportsnet.ca’s World Cup Daily blog will recap the day’s events, and look ahead to the next day’s slate of games.

Here’s what happened on Friday, in case you missed it…

THE RESULTS

Uruguay 0, France 2 in Nizhny: Match report || match stats

Brazil 1, Belgium 2 in Kazan: Match report || match stats

MAIN TALKING POINTS

France goes from strength to strength
Maybe, just maybe, the French implosion so many have been waiting on won’t come after all. Fans and pundits alike touted this France team as one of the pre-tournament favourites, with the caveat being as long as they don’t self-destruct. Les Bleus have a history of being their own worst enemy at major international competitions, letting player feuds and general pettiness get in their way and allowing them to derail their hopes as they unravel for all of the world to see.

This French side is different. Not only is it incredibly talented, with world-class players at almost every positon, but it is also playing as a team. Manager Didier Deschamps gets criticized for his tactics at times – the belief being that he’s far too conservative while having an abundance of quality attackers. But he was careful in selecting his 23-man roster for Russia, selecting only players who he felt could gel as a cohesive unit. Hence the notable omission of Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema.

France sleepwalked its way through the group stage with laboured but ultimately sufficient performances to earn wins against Australia and Peru, and then did what it had to do to draw with Denmark. Since then, they’ve come into their own, with a dominant performance against Argentina (the 4-3 score line masked just how much the French overwhelmed Lionel Messi and his cohorts) and then took it up another notch with a masterclass effort against Uruguay.

Diego Godin and company conceded just one goal at the World Cup and never trailed ahead of Friday’s contest. No doubt, the South Americans suffered without the injured Edinson Cavani. The French, though, dominated proceedings once again, with N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba teaming up to overpower and thwart Uruguay in central midfield, while Antoine Griezmann gave Uruguay’s defence fits with his deft movement both with and without the ball. This was a controlled and rock solid performance by France, who were facing questions about their toughness, and whether they could hang with a physically robust side such as Uruguay. They emphatically erased those doubts, and moved one step closer to reaching their first World Cup final in 12 years.

Now we can take Belgium seriously
A return trip to the World Cup semifinals for the first time in 32 years is Belgium’s just reward after a fabulous display against Brazil in Kazan. The Red Devils jumped out to a first-half lead thanks in large part to their exemplary counter-attack, and then defended for their lives after halftime – riding their luck at times along the way – to send the Brazilians packing and set up a tasty final four showdown against France next week in Saint Petersburg.

Manager Roberto Martinez was spot on with his tactics, using Kevin De Bruyne as a “false nine.” Flanked by Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, the Manchester City man asked serious questions of a Brazilian side who prior to this contest had only conceded one goal, had never trailed, and who had allowed only five shots on target.

Belgium overcame some harried defending in the early moments of the game to take a surprise lead off a Fernandinho own-goal. Belgium benefited from good fortune on the play, but there was nothing lucky about its second goal, with De Bruyne scoring on a brilliant finish from outside the box after a marvellous setup from Lukaku on the counter. Brazil poured on the pressure in the second half, but Belgium held its nerve to see out the game after Renato Augusto’s goal for Brazil in the 76th minute made things interesting.

Surely, there can be no more questions asked about Belgium’s credentials as legitimate World Cup contenders. Four previous wins in this tournament did little to quell the critics, as two of those victories came against modest Tunisia and Panama, while another was earned against England’s “B team.” Even the Round of 16 win against Japan raised concerns about Belgium’s somewhat suspect defence. And, of course, for years Belgium has been due for a breakout at a major tournament, its “Golden Generation” of world-class stars – led by the aforementioned trio of De Bruyne, Hazard and Lukaku – giving Belgian fans hope that someday the national team will come good.

What Belgium has lacked is a defining moment, a victory against a top-class side that it isn’t some World Cup also-ran, but rather a team that is capable of winning it all. The moment came on Friday in Kazan, beating a Brazil outfit that had been the best team at this competition thus far. Victories don’t get much bigger than ones against the Brazilians in World Cup knockout matches. With this victory firmly under their belt, the Belgians finally have the monkey off their backs, and can rightly be called the team to beat in Russia.

The FIFA World Cup in Russia runs from June 14 to July 15, and Sportsnet.ca will have in-depth daily coverage.

BEST GOAL

In the 31st minute, Belgium launched a counter-attack as Romelu Lukaku went on a lung-busting run down the middle of the pitch, powering past several Brazilian players, before passing off to Kevin De Bruyne. The Manchester City star took a few steps before unleashing a furious shot from just outside the penalty area that beat goalkeeper Alisson at the far post.

BEST SAVE

In the 43rd minute, Uruguay floated a free kick deep into the French penalty area where Martin Caceres directed the ball towards the bottom left corner with a powerful header. French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris read it all the way, diving at full stretch to his right to tip the ball out of danger.

BEST MOMENT

France’s Antoine Griezmann consoling Uruguay’s Diego Godin after the game. Not only are they teammates at Atletico Madrid, but Godin is godfather to Griezmann’s daughter Mia.

THE GAME WITHIN THE GAME

With Edinson Cavani ruled out due to injury, Luis Suarez was expected to carry the majority of the attacking burden for Uruguay. He was as industrious as ever off the ball, but the FC Barcelona man simply wasn’t involved enough, especially in the first half.

The Jeff Blair Show
Cobi Jones: Possession-oriented teams not succeeding much in Russia
July 06 2018

BEST TWEET

BEST QUOTE

“I love Uruguayan culture and I love Uruguayans, so I have a lot of respect for them.” – France’s Antoine Griezmann.

SIX PACK OF STATS

• Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez did not start a competitive game for Uruguay together for the first time since March 2017, when they lost 4-1 to Brazil.

• France is only the second team to beat three different South American nations in a single World Cup tournament, after the Netherlands in 1974.

• Uruguay is winless in their last 17 World Cup games in which they’ve conceded the first goal (with 14 losses), since beating France 2-1 in 1966.

• Fernandinho is only the second Brazilian to score an own goal in a World Cup match, after Marcelo vs. Croatia in 2014.

• Belgium is unbeaten in its last 24 matches (with 19 wins), a national record and the longest current run of any team left remaining at the 2018 World Cup.

• This year marks the fifth time in World Cup history that both semifinals will be all-European contests (1934, 1966, 1982 and 2006).

Stats courtesy of Opta

THREE STARS

1) Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium: Scored the winning goal with a fabulous finish from outside the penalty area, and caused Brazil plenty of problems while operating as a “false nine.”

2) Romelu Lukaku, Belgium: Helped set up De Buryne’s goal with a fabulous run, and was a tireless workhorse throughout in.

3) Raphael Varane, France: Scored the opening goal off a fabulous header, and was key part of a French defence that shut down Luis Suarez and gave away very little against Uruguay.

Sportsnet’s Starting Lineup
BBC's Conor McNamara: There is a scary momentum about Russia
July 06 2018

LOOKING AHEAD TO SATURDAY

Quarterfinals: Sweden vs. England in Samara (10:00 a.m. ET) – England has just won two of its previous 15 meetings against Sweden. Defender Mikael Lustig is suspended for the Swedes because of yellow card accumulation. But holding midfielder Sebastian Larsson will likely return to the starting 11 after serving a one-game ban. The winner will face either Russia or Croatia in the semifinals.

Quarterfinals: Russia vs. Croatia in Sochi (2:00 p.m. ET) – The host nation is riding high following its dramatic shootout win over Spain, while Croatia also advanced via penalties over Denmark. Russia used a five-man defense to beat Spain after using a four-man back line in the group stage. An injury to left fullback Yuri Zhirkov likely means Russia will go back to playing four at the back.

ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB

Former Crystal Palace captain Geoff Thomas wrote this interesting piece in The Daily Telegraph about his former teammate, England manager Gareth Southgate:

His dress sense wasn’t as sharp as his mind. Gareth came along with us to the FA Cup final when we reached Wembley in 1990 when we had these enormous baggy suits and Gareth’s looked a little ridiculous. His dress sense always tended to be pretty safe rather than anything too out there, so it’s quite funny to see him become this style icon with his waistcoat and smart suit. But I know he sees the funny side in all that. Gareth was never cocky or arrogant but he did believe in himself and wasn’t afraid to voice an opinion. He was also integrated into the social side of things very easily: we weren’t a band of heavy drinkers, but we were encouraged to celebrate success with a few beers and Gareth was always keen to play his part.

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