2022 Men's World Cup: Winners and Losers of the Quarterfinals
Somehow we have just four games left in the 2022 World Cup.
The quarter-finals are done and dusted. Lionel Messi marches on. Morocco stunned Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal. England go out in the most English way possible.
It's time for winners and losers…
Winner: Luka Modrić Defying Father Time
Luka Modrić is 37 years old. Like many legendary players at the 2022 World Cup, he is wrestling with the old foe who gets us all: Father Time.
Modrić's celebration after scoring the vital second penalty against Allison—an understated fist pump and quick shout of excitement—acted as a firm reminder that he is still the calm beating heart of Croatia's extraordinary tournament success.
He was superb against a Brazil midfield of Casemiro and Lucas Paqueta, a combination that had worked well prior to being swarmed by Croatia's energy and willingness to throw their bodies in front of everything.
Casemiro was overrun as his partner floated out of position, exasperated by Tite's failure to change things when Brazil had an obvious problem. This allowed Modrić to take control.
The Real Madrid star's ability to slip into tiny pockets, receive the ball and progress play was vital to Croatia continually halting Brazil's momentum. The favourites were unable to sustain offensive pressure, a result of Croatia's unmatched ability to drain the best qualities from their opponents.
There's been a sense throughout the tournament that Croatia have underperformed, looked leggy and not seemed like causing much of a stir. Yet they've always found a way, and key players are looking sharper with each match.
It sounds remarkably familiar to Argentina, their next opponents, who boast another player who has the clock in a chokehold.
On Monday, they were dancing. On Friday, they were heading home.
Brazil looked like the team to beat. They produced stunning goals; from Richarlison's first-round bicycle kick to Neymar's wonderful opener against Croatia. They also delivered amazing passing moves, were protected by a solid defence and boasted endless attacking talent. But it all came crashing down when faced with their first real test of the tournament.
Make no mistake about it, this World Cup was an unequivocal failure for the team many expected to win it. Tite stepping down was the only option after he left the team vulnerable in a game that also saw key players underperform. Before his goal, Neymar's casualness in possession was actually slowing Brazil down.
Brazil were unbelievable entertainment for neutrals, who will remember the highs, the celebrations and ultimately the shock of their exit. This will be a real source of pain for everyone back home, though.
As Neymar's tears rolled, you have to wonder if Brazil left it all out there, or if they got caught napping after an easy ride through the rest of the tournament.
Winner: Smart Tactical Decisions
We've nodded towards it a couple of times in this piece already, but smart tactical decisions are now playing a bigger part in these tight knockout games.
Lionel Scaloni switched Argentina to a 3-5-2 that transformed into five at the back to neutralise the Netherlands' biggest threats. It worked brilliantly. Denzel Dumfries was constantly hounded by Marcos Acuña, who eventually put him on to the backfoot and won the penalty that Lionel Messi converted for Argentina's second.
On the opposite side, flying wing-back Nahuel Molina skipped beyond the Netherlands' defence to score the opener. He was allowed greater freedom because of Scaloni's implementation of an extra centre-back.
Nicolás Otamendi, Cristian Romero and Lisandro Martínez must be a horror trio to face; they are all willing to throw their weight about and stop opponents by any means possible. They suffocated Cody Gakpo and Memphis Depay without much trouble at all, forcing Louis van Gaal into a tactical switch of his own.
LvG's decision to throw on the big men is likely seen as primitive by many, but it so nearly got the job done. Wout Weghorst's double sent the game to extra time, the second of which will be remembered for a long time. Netherlands' free-kick routine, which saw a deft pass land at Weghorst's feet rather than a shot on goal, is one of the moments of the tournament.
Van Gaal's side were finally taking advantage of Argentina's relatively short backline. They exploited the one area that provided a clear route to goal. And with extra time earned, they just stopped. If you let it go to the lottery of penalties, you must deal with the consequences. Argentina were the rightful winners, but tactically, the game was fascinating from start to finish.
Just as we saw with Croatia's win over Brazil, managers who are willing to influence games at this stage make a lasting difference. Both Tite and Van Gaal left it too late and were beaten by smarter, pluckier coaching.
Winner: The Morocco Story
Talking of smart, plucky coaching, here's yet another Morocco slide. We're running out of appropriate words to describe The Atlas Lions, who slayed yet another European giant with a stunning 1-0 win over Portugal.
A lot of headlines will focus on a helpless Ronaldo, who came on as a substitute, barely had a touch and was sent home upset. Let's focus on the brilliance of Morocco instead.
Walid Regragui, who only took the Morocco job in August, has made history. This is the first time an African nation has ever made the World Cup semi-final. Just think about that for a second.
Regragui's team are well-organised, ready to fire up the afterburners to get forward and just don't stop running until the final whistle. They've conceded just one goal this tournament, shutting out juggernauts such as Croatia, Belgium, Spain and Portugal.
All of these players deserve to be recognised as heroes. Youssef En-Nesyri. Hakim Ziyech and Sofyan Amrabat are the standout performers, but we're looking at a team where everyone deserves to be praised.
Even when a handful of Morocco's big names have fallen to injury, including Romain Saïss during the Portugal game, players have slotted in and covered brilliantly. There is not a team in the tournament that can match this togetherness. They face France next. They couldn't, could they?
Losers: England…Like Always
England were knocked out of the World Cup after a missed penalty. You've heard it before. You'll likely hear it again.
Gareth Southgate's side put up a good fight in the 2-1 defeat to France and can feel unlucky not to have gone further. Harry Kane blasted the Three Lions level with a fantastic penalty and then hit Row Z when another equaliser was needed from the spot. This tale goes into England's long, long history of coming up short when more is expected.
All the pre-match talk was on Kyle Walker stopping Kylian Mbappé, and for the most part, he did OK. Mbappé did wriggle free to play a part in France's first goal, but he was largely quiet. However, his presence had England scared in the first half, and it led to Les Bleus taking a lead into the break.
Southgate's concerns with the Paris Saint-Germain star meant Walker didn't get forward, which in turn pushed Jordan Henderson wide, leaving the middle free. A lot of English fans will be aggrieved by a poor referee—and boy, was it another awful showing after last night's Argentina game—but France just had the savviness to get the job done.
Kane's penalty is just about landing somewhere in the abyss. His team follow once more. Next time it's England's World Cup, right?