Brazil and Neymar exit World Cup 2018 after losing to a strong Belgium team in the quarter finals.
If fortune can often be the thing that creates winners, misfortune has as big a part to play for the losers. That’s especially so in tournament football where things are so compressed and there is so little opportunity for a second chance. That’s why cup football is probably the purest form of the game and league football – proper leagues, not the group format we have here – is the only reliable way to uncover the best team.
Uruguay might not be the best team in either format, but bad luck certainly played a big role in seeing them bow out at the quarter-final stage, injury hammering their hopes before a ball was kicked, as had been the case with Colombia in the last round. How well you can mask those losses defines your destiny in a competition such as this but Uruguay simply did not look the same team without Cavani and that proved fatal to their chances.
Of course, had he played, France might well still have prevailed for they grow in stature as the games go by and we’re better able to cope with their own loss, Matuidi to suspension. Even then, had Muslera not chucked one in for them with an horrific piece of goalkeeping when they were still in it at 1-0, it could all have been different – contrast that with Lloris’ magnificent save from Caceres’ header at the same score and it reminds everyone that the game isn’t just about goalscorers.
Where some teams at this World Cup are, in large part, about one player, the French look a cohesive unit that makes the most of the sum of its parts. They are disciplined – they needed to be against a fractious Uruguayan side who tried to provoke them at 2-0 down – and that includes star names such as Pogba and the ever impressive Griezmann who knuckled down to do a job for their side rather than hunting the headlines. Even Mbappe refused to let the hype go to his head post-Argentina and provided a workmanlike outlet that France needed, especially in the first half when Uruguay shaded the first half hour.
The game changed just before the break with a clever Griezmann free-kick, the stutter on his run up forcing the defenders back towards goal a fraction early, giving the French the extra bit if space to attack the ball, Varane planting a superb header into the net. Lloris produced that superb save from Caceres almost immediately and from there, as France came out strongly at the start if the second half, they controlled the game, gave Uruguay not a sniff of a chance and moved serenely towards victory. If only Cavani had been there to partner Suarez though…
Belgium Too Strong For Brazil
Who would have thought, three weeks ago, that Brazil’s key player was Casemiro? Yet so he is for his absence against Belgium proved every bit as significant as Cavani’s for Uruguay for in a first half when Belgium broke with pace, power and precision, there was nobody in that Brazilian midfield to break up the devastating runs of Hazard, De Bruyne and Lukaku, a trio that simply ripped Brazil to shreds.
It could have been different had Thiago Silva and Paulinho taken advantage of early opportunities from corners, but from there, Belgium bossed the first half and deservedly went in at the break with the game nearly won, the first goal a touch fortunate given it was a deflection off Fernandinho, but it was still created by the confusion caused by a superb corner ball in and a great run at the near post by Kompany.
The second goal was one of the best of the competition, scored on the counterattack, Lukaku too strong and too quick for a too open Brazilian rearguard, finding De Bruyne who advanced and smashed a tracer bullet of a shot into the far corner. Brazil, to their credit, fought back in the second half and might have had a penalty given by VAR, though equally Neymar might also have collected two yellow cards for further outrageous diving. A delicious ball from Coutinho allowed Renato Augusto to give them a sliver of late hope but Belgium ground it out, Courtois produced a couple of fine saves and they deservedly progressed.
Belgium To Meet France
As an attacking force in the first 45 minutes and then as a defensive unit after the interval, Belgium proved again they have all the attributes needed to win. More importantly, it seems to me that they have realised they are the best team in the competition too. Right from the outset against Panama in their first game, they have been relentlessly demanding of each other, setting high standards, determined not to pass up their chance.
All that might stop them – a bit of bad luck aside – is physical fatigue, brought about by being in the tougher half of the draw. They were out on their feet towards the end of the game with Brazil, and recovery from that will be key to their chances against the French and then, perhaps, in the final. But as we stand, they are the team to beat.