The World Cup in Russia shifts up another gear.
The round of 16 is over. And the race for the ultimate glory in the most global game is now down to eight teams, from 32 only three weeks back. Most of the countries tipped as favourites have gone home. Thought to be stars in Russia, most of the superstars of world football will now watch others on television.
There was no short supply of cheers, tears and heartbreaks over the week. And there is a lot more to come in the weekend, when the quarterfinals will get underway. Fans across the world would themselves become armchair experts in social media and social life.
Uncertainty is to rule despite all of their views, analyses, betting and expectations. Only one thing is for certain: nothing is guaranteed! Every team will have to fight to the end, and a good slice of luck may be required to be the winners.
Half of the eight quarterfinalists-- Brazil, Uruguay, France and England -- have won a World Cup before, with the Selecao lifting it five times, Uruguya two-times and the rest only once each. Thanks to the quarterfinal fixtures, four others -- Belgium, Sweden, Croatia and hosts Russia -- will have a good chance this time to go for the ultimate glory in football.
The fixture now pits France against Uruguay, Brazil against Belgium, Sweden against England, and Croatia against Russia. Of the four matches, the first two have every possibility to be high-octane games. The remaining two matches can see England and Croatia move to the semifinals without much problem.
One cannot help but get a bit sad about Argentina, Germany, Spain and Portugal, the teams that tumbled out of the race. Just imagine how exciting the quarterfinals would have become had the three former world champions and Portugal not exited early! However, it would be fair to say that the eight best teams have moved on, and from those, four will have advanced to the semifinals by this Saturday.
The two teams that played like probable champions, France and Brazil, are going to face the stiffest challenges in the quarterfinals. You can't blame fans of France and Brazil if they look at the other half of the draw and say: England and Croatia are lucky!
France appearto have more talent than any other country with highly-rated players competing for every position. They looked all the more lethal in their round of 16 clash against Argentina,where they demonstrated what damage their 19-year-old weapon could cause up front. With his burst of speed and accurate shooting, striker Kylian Mbappe has been absolutely phenomenal in tearing apart the defence of opponents.
A midfield of Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante has the capability to dominate any country they face, and up front they also have Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud. Coach Didier Deschamps has a side so stacked with frontline stars that he has the luxury of leaving Ousmane Dembele and Thomas Lemar on the bench.
But Uruguay too have the meanest defence capable of putting the French firepower to a true test. And up front, there is the duo of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, who score effortlessly from quick counterattacks.
Brazil, on the hand, are growing in confidence. They looked solid at the back and got better in offence with every match. But, the call in the Brazil camp should be 'beware of Belgium'. Belgium can score and concede goals quite easily. The tournament's dark-horse scored the highest number of goals (12) so far. After their epic match against Japan, where they came back from 2-0 down to win a thriller, Belgium are drawing more respect than ever. The absence of Casemiro, out with two yellow cards, in the back should add a frown or two on coach Tite's forehead.
Whether the mercury goes up or not, Friday is going to be too hot for France and Brazil!
The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star