Profiling the eight remaining World Cup 2022 teams (New York Times & Guardian UK)

https://www.theguardian.com/football/2022/dec/07/world-cup-2022-power-rankings-how-the-remaining-eight-teams-shape-up-qatar

World Cup 2022 power rankings: how the remaining eight teams shape up

From left; Lucas Paqueta, Jude Bellingham, Lionel Messi with Juilan Alvarez, Achraf Hakimi.
From left; Lucas Paquetá, Jude Bellingham, Lionel Messi, Julián Álvarez and Achraf Hakimi will have a say in where the World Cup ends up. Composite: Getty; Shutterstock

We cast our eye over the quarter-finalists’ key strengths and assess who is most likely to lift the trophy in Qatar

Nick Ames in Doha, @NickAmes82, Wed 7 Dec 2022 09.21 EST

1

Brazil

The Seleção are in full flight and, as you may have heard, enjoying themselves in the process. Their first-half evisceration of South Korea felt like a throwback, moments such as Richarlison’s seal impression offering reminders of those days when nobody could rival Brazil for sheer fun. Even without Gabriel Jesus they retain a depth of attacking talent few can match, partly thanks to Neymar’s Lazarus-like recovery from injury. Keep this up and a first World Cup since 2002 should be theirs, although there are caveats: they squeaked past Switzerland, the only practised tournament side they have faced, and Croatia should offer an even sterner test on Friday. Alisson Becker was also worked harder than he may have liked on Monday night, although he demonstrated the value of a top-class keeper in the process. Can anyone stop them?

2

France

Sometimes it feels France’s plan is to send possession Kylian Mbappé’s way and say: “You do the rest.” The problem for their opponents is that it tends to work. Anyone who can halt Mbappé may be able to stop Les Bleus but he is in virtually unplayable form and already looks a safe bet for the Golden Boot. Didier Deschamps will also be encouraged that the supporting cast is showing signs of life and France, who have scored nine goals across the three games in which he has selected a first-choice side, may be clicking at the right time. The evergreen Olivier Giroud adds a valuable balance while Aurélien Tchouaméni has taken to life as their midfield linchpin. Further injuries would give Deschamps a headache but the core look in lean shape.

Kylian Mbappé on the ball during the 3-1 defeat of Poland
Kylian Mbappé in full flow for France in the 3-1 defeat of Poland. Photograph: Foto Olimpik/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

3

Portugal

That wasn’t so difficult, was it? Now that Fernando Santos has, perhaps terminally, cut the cord with Cristiano Ronaldo the tournament seems alive with possibility for Portugal. They were devastating against Switzerland, a rejuvenated frontline slicing their unusually loose opponents open at will and Gonçalo Ramos coming from nowhere to become a potential star of this winter. Beating decent Ghana and Uruguay sides in the group stage was further evidence of the weapons Santos has in his armoury, which include a potent substitute in Rafael Leão. They will not be devastated at facing Morocco on Saturday, who spent 120 minutes on a highly rewarding but hugely exacting task in defeating Spain. Could Ronaldo’s much-sought World Cup be won from the sidelines?

4

England

Gareth Southgate’s players will find France a clear step up from several lower-key assignments but it would not take an over-active imagination to see them pull through on Saturday. There were rocky moments early on against Senegal but England have some of the best young players in the tournament – Jude Bellingham has announced himself as an essential pick – and are a gripping proposition when on the front foot. When they are denied space, much of their possession can appear sterile: France will know that and may be content to utilise their own speed through counterattacks. But Harry Kane has opened his account, the midfield looks well-balanced and defensive bloopers have been minimised: could it be coming home for Christmas?

5

Argentina

Every Argentina match in Doha feels like appointment viewing, if not for the fare produced by Lionel Scaloni’s team then for the jaw-dropping support that turns stadiums into pulsating places of worship. La Albiceleste have only shone in flashes but have done well to banish that remarkable defeat by Saudi Arabia, and one thing is clear: Lionel Messi is already enjoying his best World Cup, scoring three times and operating on a different level to everyone else. There are signs his younger teammates are raising theirs: Julián Álvarez is showing why Manchester City brought him to the Etihad and the Benfica midfielder Enzo Fernández looks an outstanding talent. They still need to put it together against the best but with supporters that make it feel like they have home advantage, Argentina have a chance.

Argentina’s players salute their fans after victory over Australia
Argentina’s players salute the team’s raucous fans after the win over Australia in the last 16. Photograph: Foto Olimpik/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

6

Netherlands

There is a sense Louis van Gaal’s team has flown beneath the radar so far but, like others, they are stirring at a convenient point. Critics accused them of boring football during an unremarkable group stage but Memphis Depay and Cody Gakpo – the latter was certainly exempt from criticism in earlier games – shone against the USA and Denzel Dumfries was outstanding at right wing-back. Frenkie de Jong was also back to his best and their tie with Argentina, a reprise of previous classics, looks finely poised. The Netherlands are unbeaten in 19 games since Van Gaal’s return and, while he would still like greater control in possession, can be rapier-like in the transition. If Messi is to land the biggest prize, he has a stiff hurdle to overcome on Friday.

7

Morocco

Morocco showed in the group stage that they are a serious team and everyone is awake to that now after they dumped Spain out. Walid Regragui oversees a tough, clever unit with extraordinary tactical discipline and an attack capable of the unexpected. The only goal they have conceded was a consolation in the win over Canada and that is some achievement given they have played CroatiaBelgium and Spain. Shutting out Portugal on Saturday would top the lot and Morocco have a chance. In Achraf Hakimi they possess a genuine star, while Luis Enrique can testify to the qualities of the midfield whirlwind, Azzedine Ounahi. And nobody can discount a flash of genius from Hakim Ziyech. Africa has never had a representative in the last four and Morocco are a win away from making history.

8

Croatia

You know the old saying: never write off the Croatians. In all seriousness, Zlatko Dalic’s team have a whiff of past Germany sides about them: they never know when they are beaten and, while they are creaking in some departments, few know their way around a tournament more adeptly. They were on the ropes against a sparky Japan but pulled through; Ivan Perisic’s equaliser was a reminder that half this squad still boasts several World Cup finalists and that counts for plenty when fine margins need navigating. Whether they can handle Brazil’s attacking tempo remains to be seen but it would be foolhardy to rule them out on Friday. One way or another, Croatia have a habit of making you play on their terms.

**********

http://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/07/sports/world-cup/quarterfinal-preview.html?

Every Team Left in Qatar Is a Contender

France and England, Argentina and Brazil, Messi and Ronaldo: The quarterfinals offer everything except an easy path to the trophy.

Argentina’s Lionel Messi, as seen from above, with his arms outstretched and running in stride to celebrate a goal.
Credit…Kirill Kudryavtsev/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By Rory Smith

Dec. 7, 2022Updated 9:15 a.m. ET

DOHA, Qatar — And then there were eight. In a little more than two weeks, the World Cup has whittled its field from 32 hopefuls to eight genuine contenders, most of whom would regard anything less than the ultimate success as something of a failure.

Not all of them, of course. Morocco, the standard-bearer for both Africa and the Arab world, has made the quarterfinals for the first time. It will not go lightly now, but anything else, from this point on, will be a welcome bonus. A rational analysis would suggest this may be Croatia’s limit, too.

All of the others, though, were never here for the atmosphere. They are in Qatar for glory. England and France have a depth of resources none of the other teams can match. Portugal wants to deliver a final triumph for Cristiano Ronaldo, even if he is not starting. Louis van Gaal, the Dutch coach, has repeatedly said that playing soccer is pointless if you’re not trying to win.

And then there are the twin South American giants: Brazil, probably the most impressive side in the tournament so far, the scent of a sixth World Cup in its nostrils; and Argentina, inspired by and devoted to Lionel Messi, determined that it should be here that his career reaches its climax.

Vinícius Júnior, Lucas Paquetá and Neymar of Brazil doing a coordinated dance in celebration of a goal.
Vinícius Júnior, Lucas Paquetá and Neymar of BrazilCredit…Manan Vatsyayana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Friday, 10 a.m. ET, Al Rayyan

There is no sight more ominous for the teams left in this tournament than that of Brazil having fun. Its last three World Cup campaigns, at least, have been long months of angst and tension and inevitable heartache. In Qatar, Neymar, Vinícius Júnior and the rest of Tite’s team are light-footed, spring-heeled, and all the more menacing for it.

On paper, Brazil has been given a helping hand by the kindness of the draw, too. It qualified so comfortably that it could afford to lose its final group game — for which Tite had made a raft of changes — and its round-of-16 meeting with South Korea was such a mismatch that Weverton, the third-choice goalkeeper, played the final 10 minutes. In the quarterfinals, Brazil will be expected to make short work of an aging Croatia.

The thing about Croatia, though, is that they are good at this. In Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic, Croatia possesses a midfield of rare balance. Four years ago, the core of this group showed it knew how to negotiate knockout soccer well enough to reach a World Cup final. Brazil will rightly be favored, but it should not expect the matchup to be fun.

Denzel Dumfries of the Netherlands celebrates with his arms outstretched while Teun Koopmeiners leaps onto his back.

Denzel Dumfries of the Netherlands, wearing No. 22.Credit…Adrian Dennis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Friday, 2 p.m. ET, Lusail

There are two ways of reading Argentina’s campaign in Qatar. One, inflected by that early but ultimately inconsequential defeat to Saudi Arabia, is that this is a team on a permanent knife-edge, oscillating wildly from despair to triumph and back again, one that will tire not just physically but emotionally in its desperation to deliver a World Cup to Lionel Messi.

The other, somewhat kinder, interpretation is that Argentina’s coach, Lionel Scaloni, has slowly crafted his team into one capable of being a genuine force in the tournament. He has drafted Enzo Fernández into midfield, adding a little dynamism; he has switched out the toothless Lautaro Martínez up front for the more energetic Julián Álvarez. Against Australia, Argentina looked far more poised than it had against the Saudis only 10 days earlier.

Now, it faces a reprise of one of the World Cup’s classic quarterfinals — Argentina lost to the Dutch at this stage in Marseille in 1998, a game illuminated by a wonderful winning goal from Dennis Bergkamp — and one of its great rivalries. Argentina beat the Dutch in the 1978 final, lost to them in 1998, then beat them again in the 2014 semifinals. Argentina has felt, for much of this tournament, like a team playing for history. The problem with that is that it depends on whose history you are reading.

Four Morocco players run in celebration of a penalty goal to win the game.
Morocco’s Achraf Hakimi, second from rightCredit…Javier Soriano/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Doha

For the better part of a decade, Portugal has been something of a contradiction. The country has for years boasted enough individual talent to match any team on the planet and yet, under the aegis of Fernando Santos, it has been assiduously, unapologetically, and in many ways successfully dour, as if a group of the finest artists in the world had been gathered together and asked to wallpaper a bedroom.

That all changed on Tuesday evening, thanks (seemingly) to the biggest call of the tournament: Santos relegated Cristiano Ronaldo, a national icon and one of the two best players of his generation, to the bench, and cut Portugal loose. Gonçalo Ramos, his direct replacement, scored a hat-trick in a 6-1 rout of the Swiss, and Otávio and João Félix thrived in a more dynamic system.

Morocco, then, presents a test both of Santos’s resolve — does Ronaldo remain in reserve? — and Portugal’s newfound sense of adventure. The first North African or Arab country to make it this far in a World Cup has played four games in Qatar. In front of its raucous, fervid support, swollen by the backing of much of the rest of the region, it has yet to concede a single goal off an opponent’s foot, even in a penalty shootout. Its approach to Portugal will be the same as in its victory against the Spanish: sit tight, stay back, and pounce on the break.

England’s Jude Bellingham stands at a corner of the pitch, looking at the crowd with his arms outstretched.
England’s Jude BellinghamCredit…Adrian Dennis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Saturday, 2 p.m. ET, Al Khor

France, the reigning champion, has sailed through this tournament with a sort of airy inevitability: breezily scoring four after seeing its pride pricked by Australia, comfortably beating Denmark, losing to Tunisia because it seemed funny, and then expertly dispatching Poland in the first knockout round.

Such serene progress bodes well, particularly given that — by the time the group stage ended — France had lost so many players to injury that Didier Deschamps, its coach, had grown so weary of trying to replace them that he simply stopped. It seemed a risk at the time, but it turns out that the absence of Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté, Karim Benzema and the rest is but a minor inconvenience when you still have Kylian Mbappé.

That said, England will present a far stiffer challenge than anything the French have faced thus far. No team has scored more goals than Gareth Southgate’s side — like Portugal, it has mustered 12 in four games — and, in Jude Bellingham, England possesses one of the breakout stars of the tournament. After reaching the semifinals in 2018 and the European Championship final in 2021, England looks like a team ready to take the next step.

Rory Smith is The Times’s chief soccer correspondent, based in Britain. He covers all aspects of European soccer and has reported from three World Cups, the Olympics, and numerous European tournaments. @RorySmith

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