Blimey. The last eight. After all the drama of the last few weeks, we’re down to the last eight games, or seven, if you agree that one of them is a pointless irrelevance. And I don’t mean England vs Sweden (boom, boom).
I love the quarter-finals of these things. The last 16 is often still littered with teams who squeaked through their groups, but who are hardly lighting up the tournament with their play; the semis can be tense, nervous affairs, with four teams all dreading going home one step from the Big Show. But the last eight, that is where giants collide and anything can happen.
Now, we have had plenty of giant-collision-based greatness already, starting with the second game of the group stages, and I have to say this was the best Round of 16 I can remember (and my memory goes depressingly deep into the past, thank you). Tension? Plenty of it, and not just in the contrived drama of penalty shoot-outs. I give you Japan vs Belgium, and a game destined to be the Greatest Shock Of All Time (all rights reserved) until it was shifted by the mercurial genius of Marouane Fellaini’s elbows.
It has even been tempting to wonder if there might be a new name written on the trophy
after the final is done. I put the kiss of death on Croatia before their last match, but I’m onto Fate’s game now, and offer no predictions, except maybe to use some reverse psychology on her and suggest that Sweden are nailed on to beat England. Anyway, either Russia or Croatia will be in the meat and drink of the semi-finals, up against either Sweden or England, and therefore one step away from the dessert course. Any one of those four teams (and I am not forgetting that England did manage to win the old Jules Rimet Trophy back in the days when Residents’ Parking Spaces were not a thing) could go all the way. In fact, one of them almost certainly will do, if All The Way only means as far as the last day in Moscow.
However, and I say this with true humility given what I have predicted before, it’s hard to look past previous winners France or Brazil now. They are doing what champions do in these tournaments: keep under the radar in the early stages, but then boss the knock-out games. It’s what Italy and Germany do best, though I hasten to note that both made a bit of a meal of slow starts this time around (including not starting at all, eh, Italy?).
Uruguay are going to be really hard to eject from the World Cup, like the guy being asked to leave your local who insists he left his mobile phone on the bar. If Edinson Cavani can’t play, though, they might not have the strength up front, even against a French team who let in goals like they are determined to give the other team a head start.
Brazil vs Belgium... well, it has to be a cracker, doesn’t it? Unless it turns into some anxiety-fuelled bore-fest only noted for providing additional footage for memes of Neymar rolling around in agony because a butterfly flapped its wings in Fiji. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst, I say.
I’ve looked at a lot of predictions in the last few days, from fans, from commentators, from pundits. My dog barked twice when an image of Harry Kane came up, and if that doesn’t mean he’ll score a brace, then I don’t know what. The end result of all that sooth-saying is that no-one knows where we’ll be in two days time, other than tired (well, we will be in New Zealand, with those kick-off times), emotionally strung-out and four games closer to knowing who might win the 2018 World Cup (and definitely knowing four teams that won’t).
By now, if your social media hasn’t succumbed to a bout of They Could, Couldn’t They?, with associated symptoms of If Not Now, When? and the often fatal Football’s Coming Home, then you’re a bigger fan of the tennis than most. My daughter-in-law was at a concert (Flight of the Conchords) that stopped when the last penalty went in and the crowd roared in triumph as England’s triumph came in through a few thousand text alerts. 24 million tuned into ITV’s (ITV!) coverage of England vs Sweden!
The people are with you, in all their flag-draped, face-painted glory. Now, just like any player or coach, you can revel in the glories of the quarters, knowing that if your team lose (and any attempt at impartiality must be gone by now) the acceptable “We only expected to make the quarter-finals” excuse is a reliable go-to, but that if your team win... oh, my.
Enjoy this next couple of days, I say. It really ought to be a feast of the best football imaginable. Plus England vs Sweden. Priceless.