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This has been the longest stretch between matches since the World Cup began. I’m okay, really, and I hope you are, too. Sunlight was a shock at first, but I adjusted after a few hours.
I’m back inside now, and ready for a stretch run that promises to be thrilling from the very first game.
Of the eight teams remaining, four have won the World Cup before. But only two have won in my lifetime, and I’m 51. There have only been three first-time champions in the past 40 years.
The four best teams are all jammed onto one side of the bracket. They play Friday in what, on paper, looks like the best day of matches in the tournament so far. The games will showcase some of the best attacking players on the planet — nagging injuries allowing — and the best defense in the tournament.
Here we go.
All times Eastern
Quarterfinals: France vs. Uruguay
10 a.m. | Nizhny Novgorod | FS1, Telemundo
Quarterfinals: Brazil vs. Belgium
2 p.m. | Kazan | FS1, Telemundo
THE PREVIEW: FRANCE vs. URUGUAY
Uruguay has been solid from the start, and the French are coming on strong. Both are former champions — France much more recently — and both have balance, depth and a so-far alchemic mix of young and old.
Uruguay has conceded only one goal in four games. It features the best remaining center-back pairing in the tournament — Atletico Madrid teammates Diego Godín and José Giménez — who can both stifle and score.
The issue is Uruguay’s health, specifically the injury status of the world-class strike partnership of Edinson Cavani (who plays with and against a lot of the French players in club competition for Paris Saint-Germain) and Luis Suárez, who will face FC Barcelona teammate Samuel Umtiti, a French center back.
After scoring twice against Portugal, Cavani limped off the field and had to be substituted late in the game. Suarez limped out of practice this week. It is unclear whether either will play, but of the two, Suarez is the more likely to do so.
This Uruguay team, though, has proved to be much more than star strikers and stout defense. Manager Óscar Tabárez remade the team after a poor start in qualification, bringing several young midfielders into a stale attack.
Juventus’s Rodrigo Bentancur is 21 and already a standout holding midfielder for La Celeste. Lucas Torreira is 22, played last season for Sampdoria in Italy and may be on his way to Arsenal. He tore apart the Portuguese midfield, winning tackles and creating chances.
That contest in the middle of the field should be among the best in the tournament (along with the Belgium-Brazil match a few hours later). Bentancur will face France’s Paul Pogba, both of whom are one yellow card away from a one-game suspension (which would be for the semifinals if it comes Friday).
Pogba, a mercurial if sometimes breathtaking talent, helped stretch out the Argentine midfield in the previous game, allowing the French forwards space to use their formidable speed.
But it is N’Golo Kanté, diminutive and ubiquitous, who is the key to the French attack. The extraordinary amount of ground he covers allows Pogba and others to push forward without fear of being caught too far out on defense. Kanté is there — he’s always there, wherever there happens to be.
Uruguay’s defense will have to account for the speed of Kylian Mbappé and the guile of Antoine Griezmann, who can also run past most defenses. If goals come, celebrations will follow. And in the national cradle of the mime, they will be choreographed.
Manager Didier Deschamps, a World Cup winner in 1998, also uses Olivier Giroud, slow of foot but huge of head, as the target in the middle in case the defense decides to pack it in against an otherwise fast front line.
That could make for an interesting, open contest and goals at both ends.
BRAZIL vs. BELGIUM
There will not be another game in this tournament with more talent on the field.
Philippe Coutinho of Brazil and Eden Hazard of Belgium are two of the five best attacking midfielders on the planet. Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne also belongs on that list.
And then there are Neymar and Romelu Lukaku, forwards cut from very different cloth.
One is a whippet-fast-and-thin recent “best player in the world” finalist who unfortunately at times seems made of sugar.
Lukaku is a giant contending for the tournament’s Golden Boot who can score on the ground with speed, in the air with his head and from distance with a lethal left foot.
At 33, Brazil center back Thiago Silva has a difficult day ahead, given the speed and wit of the Belgian offense. It will be made far harder without Casemiro, the holding midfielder-destroyer who gives a sometimes delicate Brazilian team a harder spine. He’s out for yellow-card accumulation, no surprise to anyone who has watched him play for Real Madrid.
Brazil has an excellent, if less physical, backup in Fernandinho. He, too, is 33 (and seven years older than Casemiro). But he knows how De Bruyne, in particular, plays: The two share the midfield at Manchester City, the Premier League champion.
Will all this talent cancel itself out in the middle of the field? Or will it be a goal-fest?
Who knows? But both of these offensive powerhouses are backed by excellent goalkeepers: Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois and Brazil’s Alisson.
OVERALL SCORING LEADERS
- Harry Kane, England: 6
- Romelu Lukaku, Belgium: 4
- Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal: 4
- Edinson Cavani, Uruguay: 3
- Denis Cheryshev, Russia: 3
- Diego Costa, Spain: 3
- Artem Dzyuba, Russia: 3
- Kylian Mbappe, France: 3
- Yerry Mina, Colombia: 3
A TIME FOR BITTERSWEET GOODBYES
Three-quarters of the teams that arrived in Russia are out of the tournament. They leave behind pride and disappointment, confusion and frustration.
Now is the time for goodbyes — some forever, some for another four years.
So ciao . . .
To the managers . . .
From a team to its remarkable fans . . .
To the retiring great ones . . .
To longtime fans from a longtime fan favorite . . .
And from a continent to a team, one of the tournament’s most popular . . .
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