KL: Our film crew wasn’t back from his well-merited 4th of July holiday in time to film our update of the World Cup quarterfinal round, so G.P. Kennedy and I are doing this the old-fashioned way, in prose.
GP: I guess I can give Wyatt Newquist a break on this as I have been working him pretty hard with my near-incessant talking.
KL: The Latin teams are all out, and the World Cup semi is an entirely European affair. Let’s start with France’s 2-0 win over Uruguay. That went easier than I expected for the French.
GP: Uruguay was without its lead hitman, Edinson Cavani. He was a big miss and though Luis Suárez worked his ass off, it was in vain. While going in the other direction, France brought much of the élan they showed versus Argentina.
KL: You didn’t mention that horrible goalkeeping error by Fernando Muslera that made it 2-0 and killed off any realistic chance Uruguay had of getting back in the game. It looked like the one Loris Karius made in the Champions League final, but Karius at least had the excuse of being concussed. In other Friday news, Belgium beat Brazil 2-1. I spent the first 70 minutes of that game thinking Belgium were gonna win this whole tournament, and then the last 20 minutes the Red Devils went all wobbly.
GP: Kristian, you know that I have been high on Belgium from the outset of this tournament and I have seen nothing to blunt my enthusiasm. The have won going away, fought back from a deficit, and now have proven that they can hold on against a dynamic attacking team like Brazil.
KL: Granted, holding off Brazil’s offense is a tougher ask than any of the other quarter finalists’, but this is a recurring pattern with Roberto Martínez’ teams. They have trouble protecting leads, and that shouldn’t be the case for a side that has such great individual defenders like Vincent Kompany and Toby Alderweireld. As I said in our preview piece, Martínez is a really nice guy who accepts the occasional defensive lapse for attractive, attacking soccer. Maybe his flaws are easier to hide in a short international tournament than over the course of a long club season. I’ll say this: He chose his muscle options in the middle of the field in Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel, which pushed Kevin de Bruyne closer to goal. We haven’t said his name, but he’s freakin’ brilliant, and he played that way against Brazil.
GP: Honestly, Kristian, you or me could get this Belgium squad to the World Cup semis. That said, Martínez deserves credit for the adjustments he made from 0 -2 down against Japan, and the realization that the mercurial de Bruyne needs to play in an attacking midfield role.
KL: Belgium vs. France seems like the better semifinal for sheer entertainment value. How do you see this game playing out, G.P.?
GP: This game should be the final, because it showcases the two best teams in the tournament. Both sides operate well as a cohesive unit, have pace to burn on offense and individual standouts in players like Lukaku, de Bruyne, and Hazard for Belgium, and Mbappé, Griezmann, and Pogba for France. Each team has a solid stopper between the posts, too. I see this living up to expectations and I’ll stick my neck out with a specific prediction of 2 – 2 with France advancing on penalty kicks. Over to you, Kristian, and there’s no fence sitting allowed.
KL: Man, my heart says Belgium, but my head says France. Martínez shored up that left wingback spot by picking Nacer Chadli to start the Brazil game, but now it’s the wingback spot on the other side that looks weak with Thomas Meunier not up to scratch as the rest of his teammates. There’s a chance that Didier Deschamps is too timid with his lineup selection for France, but it looks like Les Bleus are the side with fewer holes. At least Belgium can definitively say it makes better beer.
GP: I’ll take a cold one from France or Belgium, thanks.
KL: In another game that I didn’t expect to be so easy, England vanquished Sweden 2-0, and everybody over in the U.K. is unearthing a cheesy novelty song from the 1990s.
GP: “Football’s Coming Home” was a #1 single in 1996, when England hosted the European Championships. It gets rolled out every few years. I think it was clear as soon as this match up was made that Sweden was the worst side in the last eight and by some distance. England worked its dead ball situations for a good opening goal. The second goal, for me, shows up the weakness of the offside rule which deems whether an offside player is active or inactive. To paraphrase the great Liverpool coach Bill Shankly, if you’re not active what are you doing on the field? The standout for me was England goalkeeper, Jordan Pickford, who made three excellent saves.
KL: Pickford looked ready to keep the world out of the net in that game. The Swedes never did look like they were coming back once Harry Maguire scored England’s first. People are ragging on England living off set-piece goals, but last time I checked, those count the same as goals from open play. As for the latter, Raheem Sterling played well against the Swedes even if he didn’t get on the scoresheet. His speed and quickness can drag defenders out of position and open up space for his teammates in the penalty box, though some sectors of the British press judge him solely by his numbers.
GP: You’re right, Kristian. There is no rule against scoring from set pieces. England realizes its limitations and plays according to its narrow skill set. Believe it or not, that is progress of sorts for England.
KL: We should discuss the last remaining quarterfinal game, with Croatia finally outlasting the Russian hosts on penalties. The Croatian favorites looked a bit labored, didn’t they?
GP: Au contraire, Kristian. I think the Croatian game management was excellent against a very well-organized and surprisingly energetic Russia team. Croatia controlled possession for the opening 20 minutes of each half, judiciously picking decisive passes only when they were highly likely to succeed. Getting past a host nation buoyed by raucous crowds is no small achievement.
KL: Their coach Zlatko Dalić made a mistake with his opening lineup, playing with no real defensive midfielders and forcing Luka Modrić to play deeper. As with Belgium, when Dalić introduced a proper defensive mid (Marcelo Brozović), it pushed Modrić closer to goal, where he’s more effective. The little guy was still running hard as the clock approached 120 minutes. My new World Cup hero is Domagoj Vida, the least talented Croatian starter, who’s basically on the team because he’s large. Not only did he score what should have been the game-winner, he also converted a penalty in the shootout and pissed off the Russian fans by shouting “Glory to Ukraine” on Twitter.
GP: Vida is a beast for sure but that hairstyle…
KL: Well, it’s all the better to frame his good looks, isn’t it? Now’s a good place to mention that when Croatia played England in 2007, the English opera singer messed up the Croatian national anthem before the game. Not being a Croatian speaker, he learned the lyrics phonetically and did okay until he got to the last line, which he mispronounced “Mila, kura si planina” (“My penis is a mountain”). I love that story. Will anyone screw up on that scale in this Croatia-England game?
GP: Lord-a-mercy! That is hilarious. What a cock up. How about a prediction for the Croatia v England game, Kristian? I’m going for Croatia by the only goal of the game. I expect an uneventful game, with Croatia repeating there 4-4-2 safety-first set up from the Russia win.
KL: Before the tournament started, I would have picked Croatia in this game. After the group stage, my pick would have been the same. Now, I’m not sure. Croatia’s coming off the back of consecutive 120-minute games followed by shootout wins, draining them physically and emotionally, and they’ve lost right back Šime Vrsaljko to injury, and he’s a big part of their offense. (His backup, Vedran Ćorluka, doesn’t offer nearly as much at the attacking end.) Modrić will be the best player for either side, and I won’t leave out the possibility of him dragging his team to the finals. Still, I think Sterling does his thing with Vida and Dejan Lovren, the fatigue takes away Croatia’s magic, and the English take this. Does Gareth Southgate try to nullify Modrić by subbing in Fabian Delph for one of his attackers?
GP: I don’t see Delph starting for England. I also don’t necessarily side with the fatigue narrative, though I understand where you are coming from. Another way of looking at it is that Croatia knows they are clutch. If they can push England to extra time and/or penalties Modric and Co. will like their chances.
KL: A Belgium-Croatia final would guarantee a first-time champion, although England vs. France would be fun for many reasons. We’ll be back after the semis.