Into the quarter-finals of the 2018 World Cup we go! There are just eight teams left in the competition—and not the eight we expected!
Uruguay and France will kick us off in the early Friday slot, while Russia and Croatia will close the show later the next day. In between, Brazil and Belgium will do battle on Friday evening before Sweden and England face off on Saturday.
We got a taste of it during the round of 16, but from here, the matchups get really tasty. The top half of the bracket boasts the strongest four teams left in the competition, so don't be surprised if we get off to a real bang too.
Here, B/R breaks down each tie, looks at the key factors that could decide them and where they will be won and lost...and predicts the scorelines too!
France vs. Uruguay
Despite France and Uruguay's play carrying two distinctly different aesthetics, their approaches in the round of 16 were actually quite similar. Both surrendered a fair chunk of possession and territory, and both aimed to hit their opponents with rapid counter-attacks.
Uruguay leaned on their sturdy defensive structure and remarkable work rate to nullify Portugal, protecting the centre and directing the ball wide and into positions Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. could only cross from. They produced 40 in total, with only one converted.
They then countered through an Edinson Cavani-Luis Suarez double act that wreaked havoc on a suspect defence.
France did something quite similar, allowing Argentina's more ponderous players like Gabriel Mercado and Enzo Perez to have the ball while blocking off the route to Lionel Messi. Their strategy of stealing the ball in midfield and then handing it to Kylian Mbappe or Paul Pogba cut La Albiceleste to ribbons.
The early stages of this quarter-final will be a fight to establish who has the right to settle in that same strategy, to counter-attack, as only one side can. The smart money is on Uruguay, meaning we might see a France performance more comparable to those in the group stages than against Argentina. That should concern Didier Deschamps.
Those gaping spaces won't be there for Mbappe to sear into, while there may not be much space in behind for Pogba to send accurate, clipped passes into either. Cracking Uruguay's defence will require a wholly different strategy, and it's crucial Les Bleus don't fall into empty possession patterns where the ball is moved slowly from side to side. That's exactly what Uruguay want them to do.
Oscar Tabarez's problem here is that he's looking likely to head into this fixture with an unfit Edinson Cavani, per Goal.com. He's half of La Celeste's counter-attacking threat, and without him they might just feel a little toothless, meaning they can't outlast France in the end.
Prediction: France 1-0 Uruguay
Brazil vs. Belgium
Brazil and Belgium paved their paths to this stage in very different ways.
Brazil's journey was controlled, beating Mexico 2-0 in a game they gradually took over, with Neymar and Willian making the difference with their direct play and ripping El Tri's structure apart.
Belgium's was the opposite. They went 2-0 down in the 51st minute to Japan and were forced to claw their way back into the game, netting two headers to draw level, then scoring on a last-gasp counter-attack to win it.
It should concern Roberto Martinez that The Red Devils' Plan A didn't yield much. He had to go to Plan B, which is essentially "we're really big, let's bring on Marouane Fellaini and score headers." Brazil's imperious centre-back pairing of Thiago Silva and Miranda won't be so easy to best if it comes to that.
That Romelu Lukaku didn't really threaten in the same way he did in the group stage was a part of Belgium's struggles. He didn't dart in behind much, and he missed a few chances you'd expect him to bury. The good news is that Dries Mertens and Eden Hazard did impress, so the supply line isn't broken, it's just the finisher had an off day.
Brazil will be the most powerful attacking team they've met (by far) in this tournament and will have their fair share of the ball, perhaps even to the point where Belgium record less than 50 percent of possession for the first time in Russia.
If that opens up the counter-attack, fantastic; Casemiro is suspended, and while Fernandinho is hardly a poor replacement, the Selecao aren't used to him at the base of midfield, and there might be some teething issues when Hazard and Co. flood forward.
Going the other way, you can bet we'll see Brazil's usual strategy of working the Neymar flank with overloads, but they may wish to balance their play out a little more. Belgium's left wing-back position has been a massive problem all tournament long and once again proved a weakness against Japan.
Yannick Carrasco's unfamiliarity with the position has seen him targeted, and he's not coping well. Jan Vertonghen has been doing two jobs this tournament, but that finally overwhelmed him against Japan when his muffed control led to Genki Haraguchi's goal.
Martinez replaced Carrasco with Nacer Chadli after 65 minutes against Japan, and the West Brom man was a marked improvement—not just because of the winner he scored, but because of his all-round play, physicality and positional sense too.
Perhaps Martinez will start with Chadli for the quarter-final, but you'd still expect Willian or Douglas Costa to get the better of him eventually, and for Neymar to weave his magic against club-mate Thomas Meunier on the other side. Which set of wingers crack the opponents' full-backs first may settle this one.
Prediction: Brazil 2-1 Belgium
Sweden vs. England
This matchup pits one team who loves to sit in and counter-attack (Sweden) against another who wants to dominate possession (England), so it shouldn't surprise you if the possession stats are split along the lines of 70-30.
England are extremely well suited to playing high up the pitch because their defence is so fast. Kyle Walker acts as a fail-safe, able to hunt down loose balls and prevent strikers from picking up scraps with rapid recoveries. John Stones is hardly slow across the ground either.
Those qualities were vital against Colombia in the round of 16, but they won't be so in-demand here. Sweden forwards Marcus Berg and Ola Toivonen are pretty slow, and they thrive due to their excellent interchanging and understanding. Stones, Walker and Harry Maguire's positional and tactical understanding will be tested instead of their athleticism.
At the other end, Sweden excel at removing the space between the lines and making the game a combative one. The midfield get through a lot of work—particularly Albin Ekdal—and the full-backs work hard to stop crosses, while Victor Lindelof and Andreas Granqvist have been solid in the centre when required.
Through four games, they've kept three clean sheets and conceded just two goals—both to Germany. The nature of those goals gives you a clue as to how to get the better of them, but it also points to the Blagult's ability to minimise the opponents' chances of scoring.
Germany's goals both emanated from attacking Sweden's right side; the first occurred when Timo Werner beat Mikael Lustig on the outside and crossed low into the box for Marco Reus to convert, the second when Werner was fouled in the same area by Jimmy Durmaz, with the following free-kick flying in.
It would be wrong to think of Lustig (or Ludwig Augustinsson at left-back) as weak points for Sweden—Lustig was actually excellent against Switzerland—but England must get around the sides of this team in order to crack them open.
Perhaps a change of formation, from 3-5-2 to 3-4-3, allowing four wide players rather than just two, would be a step in the right direction here.
Prediction: Sweden 1-2 England
Russia vs. Croatia
Over the years, Croatia have made a habit of impressing during the group stage, then falling to pieces during the knockouts. That hasn't happened here yet, but the drop-off in their performance during the win over Denmark was both noticeable and concerning.
Can they stomach the fight, or will they collapse inward despite winning 100 percent of their games so far? Russia—the host nation playing with immense spirit and determination—will be quite the test for the Vatreni on Saturday.
Russia negotiated the entire group stage using a 4-2-3-1 formation, but then dropped into a 5-4-1 system for the knockout tie with Spain. It held Isco and Co. at bay fairly well, though Spain were oddly negative and passive in possession, rarely breaking the lines with their passes and not stressing the flanks enough.
The hosts must now decide whether to continue with that strategy against Croatia. Ante Rebic attacked the channel between Denmark's left-back and left centre-back very well, so there's an argument for shoring it up again, but the approach did leave their attack short-staffed against Spain.
Despite the presence of the hulking Artem Dzyuba up front, they largely clawed their way up the pitch via Mario Fernandes on the right. He won throw-ins, free-kicks and corners, and it was from these situations that Sbornaya really worried David De Gea.
Can they afford to be so cautious against a side who will pass positively and look to find a way through, and who can easily decide to cross the ball into the box to Rebic, Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic?
Russia have been running themselves into the ground to compete so far; it's arguable they can't continue to be so reactive, as it will eventually see them eliminated.
Prediction: Russia 1-2 Croatia
All statistics via WhoScored.com