Only eight teams remain alive in the World Cup, and half of them will be crying on the field before you’re done with your second beer this Saturday. Belgium barely saved itself by wrong-footing the shorter Japanese team in the final seconds. England almost got played by Colombia in similar fashion. Such is life in Mother Russia these days. Think ahead of yourself for a minute, and book your flight the next one.

Even for the experienced reporters and hardcore bettors, Russia 2018 has turned into a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Surprises and early exits have always been a feature of short tournaments like the World Cup, but the seeming randomness of this specific one may correlate to the ever-widening gap between club and international soccer.

The former continues to refine its processes and favor the haves over the have-nots. But the precise timing and player availability required in a month-long event catches many coaches off-guard, and without time to react. On top of that, team chemistry is more probable — although never a sure thing — when players stick around for longer with their national teams. Because of their smaller pool of elite players, mid-tier teams like Croatia and Uruguay can approach the cohesion of a club side, which brings them closer to international heavyweights, like Brazil and France. (ESPN’s Gabriele Marcotti has more on this subject).

More importantly: Soccer is always changing, and we just can’t see how much just yet. This can be unnerving for players and tacticians on the side of the field. It is humbling for journalists, always full of early takes. It may confuse the beginner and intermediate-level followers. But, overall, it is incredibly entertaining.

So, let’s catch up:

Who are the favorites now?

In a tournament of wobbly, unconvincing performances by many of the soccer giants, Brazil has been the most solid and balanced side, so far. Despite a lackluster start against Switzerland, the team has settled into the sort of order that is rare for international sides, and a calmness in execution that has been mostly absent in Russia. The managerial style of coach Tite (pronounced “Chee-chee”) has tamed even Neymar’s appetite for over-indulgence, and sold everyone into the effectiveness of a bottom-up scheme. It may not be the prettiest, but it works.

Young and talented France could be the other candidate to the title, but the team has not been really tested yet. Although far superior than Argentina in their round-of-16 game, the French took their foot off the gas for long enough to find themselves down 2-1 after a neck-breaking start. Bluff-time is over now for coach Didier Deschamps, and Uruguay has the talent in the front to punish a few of those lapses.

On the other hand: Kylian Mbappé!

What’s up with the dark horses?

Continental darling Uruguay lies somewhere between dark horse and favorite territory. Their transgenerational team is a blend of tactical discipline and overlooked creativity. Sadly for them, top-striker Edinson Cavani will probably miss their quarterfinal clash against France with a calf injury, and coach Tabárez will hardly find enough firepower on the bench. They could still advance on the strength of their defense, the chaos originated by Luis Suárez, and the scrappiness of every single one of their players. Like a friend would say, their love of their jersey is so big that they use the same size since their time in La Celeste’s youth system.

Belgium seemed to overcome its “cold-chested” tag, if only for a single, round-of-16 game. But they succumbed to Japan’s pacing for long spells, and may suffer similarly with Brazil. Coutinho, Paulinho, and co. could also capitalize on the heavy legs of their defensive opponents.

Croatia? They were poor all-around against Denmark, but could pick up where they left off after the first round soon.

Can England win?

Their energy almost turned into a full-out brawl against Colombia, and only the nerves of the opposing players bailed them out during the penalty shootout. The boost of overcoming a decades-long losing streak on penalties, together with a comparatively weak side of the draw, is making islanders dream about the Cup “coming home.” The toothless but cold-blooded Swedish side will be a good test of their chances.

Can Russia win? (!)

Chaos is a ladder, but the motivation of playing at home has to hit a ceiling at some point. Croatia may be Russia’s final rival at its own World Cup. But a helping hand of the refs – not uncommon when dealing with tournament hosts —  could propel them to the semifinals should Croatia bring less than their best. Russians also seem to have the best recovery and nutrition patterns of the sports world.

Can Neymar stop flopping???!!!

Most definitely not. As long as his histrionics are rewarded, he will keep rolling and rolling (and setting a terrible example).

(The WSJ has some interesting analytics on the subject).

Please copy-paste all the things I MUST know to understand what’s going on:

  • If any game is tied after 90 minutes, the teams will play two more periods, of 15 minutes each. Although players are in great shape, extra time can be a lengthy agony for everyone involved. Even worse? Trying to shoot a penalty with aplomb after all of that.
  • Penalty shootouts tend to go to the “best of five.” Nerves and exhaustion tend to result in at least one failed shot, if not the skill of the goalie. (Prepare your tissues).
  • If the teams are still tied by then, additional rounds of one kick are used to break it, in what is called “sudden death.” This puts even more pressure on the team that kicks last. The importance of winning a coin toss!
  • Unless they were already suspended for accumulation, players carry their group-stage yellow cards to the knockout stage. If anyone gets a second, they are out of the next game. Yellow cards are only expunged from one’s record before semifinals.

The quarterfinals games are the following:

7/6 7 a.m. Uruguay v. France

7/6 11 a.m. Brazil v. Belgium

7/7 7 a.m. Sweden v. England

7/7 11 a.m. Russia v. Croatia

Bars and eateries are opening earlier than normal to serve your World Cup obsession. You can see them on the map below. As always, please send your tips, pictures and favorite spots to info@missionlocal.com.


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