FLOW Qatar Spotlight | The quarters are coming! Neymar, Messi, Oranje, Modric and the art of not blinking
The Oranje question mark
And then there were eight.
The Oranje have looked solid throughout the tournament. Ball possession … check, pace in all areas of the field … check, winning mentality … pending.
Having lost three World Cup finals, doubt seems to creep into the Dutch mentality, the further they progress, and with a hungry and lurking Argentine group with Lionel Messi, who seems to be gathering steam, someone will be left in tears. Cometh the hour, cometh the man … or men?
Beaten finalists Croatia have gone quietly about their business. But with the majority of their battle-tested warriors from Russia 2018, their clash with Brazil is by no means a foregone conclusion, as they will go as far as the 37-year-old Luka Modric can take them.
For the much-beloved Brazilians and their supporters, take note.
Since winning their last title back in 2002, the five-time champions have bowed out of the tournament at this stage, three of four times.
So, could Croatia use The Kolo to stop the Samba?
Modric, Perišić et al to force Brazil out of first gear
After their sublime round-of-16 win over South Korea, opponents must be trembling at the prospect of facing the Brazilians. Croatia will have the burden of that unenviable task in the first quarterfinal of the Qatar experience.
The Brazilians have been imperious at the back and electrifying and free-flowing in attack and will be clear favourites.
However, 2018 beaten finalists, Croatia, led by wily old fox, Luca Modric, are not short on experience and have proven to be efficient and pragmatic. If underestimated, a surprise is in the offing.
So although Brazil is expected to go through, they might have to come out of first gear for the first time this tournament.
There are no clear favourites between heavyweights Netherlands and Argentina on Friday. Although the Dutch have been fairly solid in their four matches thus far, this will be their first real test of the tournament.
The Europeans have looked the more convincing of the two, but the Argentines have the Lionel Messi x-factor and if the little maestro can produce a performance, like the ones he displayed in his last two outings, it could tip the balance in the South Americans' favour.
Bet on a Brazil-Argentina semi-final
The last World Cup meeting between Holland and Argentina was in Sao Paulo eight years ago where a penalty shooutout helped Argentina book passage to the 2014 final in Rio after a dull 120 minutes.
Louis Van Gaal will have to once again produce another tactical masterclass to end their wait for a world title.
Argentina were made to sweat the last 15 minutes against Australia in the round of 16 but know their is no margin for error beyond this point. Messi is not going to win a title by himself. He needs the supporting cast to step up. And I think they will. While it will go the distance, I see an Argentina win in extra time
If Brazil play against Croatia the way they did against South Korea, then they will be impossible to handle. A healthy Neymar will be a plus with Richarlison firing as well as Vinicius Jr causing the Croatia backline fits.
But if Croatia are going to cause a shock, they will hope that their captain Luka Modric can lead a midfield that can produce quality when it matters. All eyes point to a Brazil-Argentina semi-final showdown, unless the Dutch and Croatia can cause a shock. Brazil should get this done in normal time, but Croatia will make them suffer.
Lionel Messi vs Louis van Gaal, the highlight of the final eight
Lionel Messi had not scored in the knockout rounds of a World Cup before his round-of-16 opener against Australia the other day. After that, the obviously restrained Messi, began to show the audacity in possession that have made his name almost a certainty during discussions concerning who is the GOAT. If that confidence spills over into the Netherlands game this weekend, the Oranje, as solid as they have been, may be in for a tough time. Argentina tends to do well when the little maestro is happy. But therein lies the danger. The converse is also true. When Messi struggles, so does the entire team and they are playing against a wilie Oranje coach in Louis van Gaal. He will know this and it may be easier to get into the head of one player than an entire team. This one will be fascinating.
Brazil have not enjoyed playing against European teams in the knockout rounds, but against Croatia, who they’ve played twice at the World Cup, they’ve never lost. The almost metronomic pattern of Croatia’s play allows them to outlast teams, even teams better than themselves.
This might not work on Friday for two reasons. One; an aging Croatian unit has gone through some tough battles up to this point and they may not have the legs to stay with a fluid-looking Brazil attack. And two; Brazil, have proven to be a very good side defensively. The game of waiting for your opportunity may prove problematic and Croatia may be forced out of their comfort zone to find a way to score, who knows what that will do their apparently unflappable organisation.