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Breaking down the World Cup quarterfinals

We are well past the halfway mark of the World Cup, and the field of 32 has been narrowed down to the final eight. This is the absolute cream of the crop. Some giants have fallen already — I’m looking at you Belgium, Germany and Spain — and some teams have over-performed (shoutout Morocco). With that being said, here’s how I see the World Cup quarterfinals playing out.

Croatia vs. Brazil: Friday, Dec. 9 at 10 a.m. EST on FOX

This matchup pits Croatia, the 2018 World Cup finalists, against the pre-tournament favorites and five-time champions, Brazil. When you look at it like that, it seems like a fairly even matchup. Digging deeper, maybe not so much.

Brazil are phenomenal and have looked every bit the favorites to win this tournament. So much so that their scintillating first half in a 4-1 victory over South Korea had a fellow Observer Sports writer texting me, “That honestly might be the best half of footy I’ve ever watched.” They are young, fast, exciting and endlessly creative. Neymar Jr. sits deeper than he has in the past, playing the creative No. 10 role behind the electric attacking trio of Richarlison, Vinicius Jr. and Raphinha. They score a lot, play beautiful football and defend well (only two goals allowed in four games).

On the other side, Croatia have gotten older since 2018 and lost some key players, even if their talisman in the middle, Ballon d’Or winner and Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modrić, remains. Regardless, at 37 years old, Modrić’s age is starting to show, and he was even subbed off in extra time during his team’s win over Japan in the Round of 16.

I am also concerned about Croatia’s lack of goals. In four games they’ve scored just five times, with four of those coming in a 4-1 win over a weak Canadian side. They played two goalless draws in the group stage and needed a heroic penalty shootout from goalkeeper Dominik Livaković to beat Japan in the first knockout game.

Prediction: Brazil 2 – 0 Croatia

Netherlands vs. Argentina: Friday, Dec. 9 at 2 p.m. EST on FOX

This game is fascinating. Netherlands have played better than I expected coming in, and Argentina bounced back from a shocking 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia to reach the quarterfinals.

The Oranje have been led by 23-year-old forward Cody Gakpo, who scored three goals in the group stage and brought some thrust to an otherwise unimpressive Dutch performance in the group stages. Regardless, Netherlands remain unbeaten at the World Cup and seemed to find another gear against the United States in the previous round. In particular, left back Denzel Dumfries had a game for the ages against the United States, tallying two assists and a goal in the 3-1 victory.

However, likely their most important player ahead of the Argentina match is captain and central defender Virgil van Dijk. The Liverpool man will be under increased scrutiny because of the player he’s tasked with stopping: Lionel Messi.

The diminutive Argentinian is, in my humble opinion, the finest footballer in the history of the sport, and this is his World Cup swan song. It’s also the first World Cup since the passing of the legendary Diego Maradona, who led Argentina to their second — and last — World Cup triumph in 1986. This all gives Argentina some serious “team of destiny” vibes, but still, the games need to be played and won on the field.

Nothing showed this more than their group stage opener. La Albiceleste entered the tournament on a 36-game unbeaten run, having not lost a game since 2019. They were clear favorites to run the table and win the tournament. Instead, they conceded twice in five minutes and lost to Saudi Arabia, who snapped their unbeaten streak.

Despite this, they bounced back with some strong showings against Mexico and Poland to top their group and progress to the knockout stages. The game with Australia was maybe a little closer than expected and they missed some crucial chances, but with Messi looking like he’s back at the peak of his powers, Argentina is not to be underestimated.

Prediction: Argentina 3 – 1 Netherlands

Morocco vs. Portugal: Saturday, Dec. 10 at 10 a.m. EST on FOX

This game has very interesting storylines on both sides. Morocco were not supposed to be here, but after topping a group with fellow quarterfinalists Croatia and world No. 2 Belgium, then beating European power Spain in the knockouts, they certainly look the part.

Then you have Portugal; the Iberian side looked solid in the group and then looked incredible in their round of 16 game against Switzerland after benching Cristiano Ronaldo, the player widely considered the greatest in their nation’s history.

On the Moroccan side, you have two exceptional players leading the team: right back Achraf Hakimi and winger Hakim Ziyech. Hakimi was a great storyline in the last round, as the 24-year-old Madrid-born defender scored the winning Panenka penalty to eliminate Spain. Hakimi is also part of a stingy Moroccan defense that has only allowed one goal in four games and just held Spain scoreless for 120 minutes and penalties. They will need more of that to overcome Portugal’s offensive prowess and become the first African nation to reach a World Cup semifinal.

Portugal are similar to the Netherlands in that they topped their group somewhat unimpressively. Their opening 3-2 win against Ghana benefited from a suspect penalty decision, and then they lost to South Korea in the final game. They took care of any doubts, though, as they blew Switzerland out of the water, beating them 6-1 in their opening knockout round game. The most remarkable thing about that victory was the hat trick from Gonçalo Ramos, the man tapped by manager Fernando Santos to replace the benched Ronaldo. It’s hard to know if Santos will bench Ronaldo again, but Ramos’ hat trick — and the dominant 6-1 result —certainly suggests that he should.

Prediction: Portugal 3 – 1 Morocco

England vs. France: Saturday, Dec. 10 at 2 p.m. EST on FOX

In my opinion, this is the most exciting of the four quarterfinals. It’s a World Cup final-caliber matchup, and I believe the winner should be considered a favorite entering the semifinals. Both teams cruised through their groups and then comfortably handled business in the first knockout round, where France dominated Poland 3-1 and England won 3-0 over African champions Senegal. These are two absolutely stacked and in-form teams going up against each other.

France are the reigning world champions and they have the tournament and possibly the world’s best player: 23-year-old forward Kylian Mbappé. The PSG star has scored five times and assisted two more goals in the first four games of the World Cup. France have suffered injuries to several key players (N’Golo Kanté, Paul Pogba, Karim Benzema and Presnel Kimpembe) and somehow look just as dominant as anyone could’ve expected. They seem poised to become the first nation to repeat at the World Cup since Brazil did so in 1958 and 1962.

On the other side is England. Much of their strength comes from their depth; eight different players have scored for the Three Lions and that only includes 1 goal from their captain and striker, Harry Kane, who won the Golden Boot with six goals at the previous World Cup in Russia.

The star of England’s side so far has been midfielder Jude Bellingham, whose brilliance doesn’t show up on the stat sheet like Mbappé’s. Regardless, the 19-year-old wonder kid has been the undroppable lynchpin in England’s midfield, even when playing alongside Champions League and Premier League winners who are many years his senior.

Bellingham has excelled in the attacking third just as much as the defensive one, and his composure on the ball is astonishing for such a young player. England’s chances rely as much on him controlling the middle of the field as they do on their ability to contain –— or at least, somewhat limit — Mbappé’s impact for France.

Prediction: France 3 – 2 England AET (after extra time)

Contact José Sánchez Córdova at jsanch24@nd.edu.