France moves on, but the rest were nearly divided into those who packed it in, and those who are packing up. Only Super Subasic flipped the script for Croatia.
Other than the France-Argentina match, a wide-open smorgasbord for attacking players, the knockout rounds featured extremely defensive teams dictating the entirety of three matches, and bringing the tournament into the stultifying realism of how teams with less overall skill tighten the screws. I don’t care for it, and few do (other than the true partisan), but it’s also true that we got some outstanding defensive performances in the processes.
I expected a bunkering in by whomever took the lead in Portugal-Uruguay, with the other to get a continuous drip-line of their own medicine, and Portugal drank the full dose after the always compact Uruguay saw Suarez and Cavani’s face combine for a smashing opening goal.
The two strikers are both dogged workers and the goal was a beauty. And then came the inevitable tightening, a load of histrionics from Suarez (the laissez faire Cesar Ramos seemed to be saying that he wouldn’t give a foul unless someone suffered quietly), and something unusual: Portugal showed their best play of the tournament. Bernardo Silva and Joao Maria moved the ball deftly in small spaces in midfield and built a steady platform for attack. They had 68% possession, 20 shots (to Uruguay’s 5), and a 10-2 corner kick advantage, with Pepe slamming home 10 minutes into the 2nd half. The vaunted new Uruguayan midifield couldn’t keep the ball (68% passing accuracy) and Portugal kept the heat on. Indeed, Uruguay brought in the hard men (including the terrifying Christian Rodriguez) to finish the game out. In classic form, Uruguay got one counter, and Suarez’s dummy let the ball run to Cavani, whose early strike caught Patricio off guard; it was a second brilliant moment between the two, and it made the difference. My hat’s off to Portugal--this was the best they’ve played, and they didn’t rely on Ronaldo (and it was great seeing Quaresma, too). I think I’m ready to say that Uruguay’s got the best backline in the Cup, and probably in the world; Godin is a superior organizer and Gimenez is a physical specimen, and the Atletico Madrid partnership has them on the same page. Caceres is terrific (though he wouldn’t have been, perhaps, if the referee had shown a card for the terrible challenge on Fonte); he has the power of a centerback (which he is with Lazio) but the speed to defend the wing, and in Laxalt they have a guy who as much as anyone has a chance at running with Mbappe. It’s been the same way every time I’ve seen them this century: nobody looks good against Uruguay. Cavani’s calf bears watching, though--it’s a much steeper hill without him. In any case, we’ll see a very closed Uruguay next round; they’ve got the tools in the right places and the set-up to beat France. They haven’t played a second from behind, though--that would be a very different story against most good teams (but perhaps not France, who haven’t been the most compelling when it’s come to protecting a lead.
Russia were the grand winners of the Bunker Derby. 21% Possession, poor accuracy, and absolutely fervent defending. Akinfeev and Ignashevich had the games of their lives, despite the latter’ simultaneous American football tackle/own goal for Spain’s goal. Fernandez, the right back, was once again massive. They built the bunker, even when down a goal, and Spain really couldn’t get anything, and then Russia got the break they needed when Pique inexplicably left a hand up, and on that the game turned. Other than Isco, no Spaniard was able to even look dangerous, though Rodrigo did very well to create an excellent chance on one of the only opportunities they had to break from their own half, a dummy and spin leaving one man on an island, then a great stepover breaking Ignashevich. Russia simply played to get into PK’s, and somehow it worked, Akinfeev with the best Russian footwork of the night.
It’s been a great tournament put on by the Russian nation, but this was utterly boring soccer. Spain weren’t good enough to undo it was the bottom line. There will be massive turnover by the next World Cup; iniesta, Ramos, Pique, Alba, Silva and Costa will all be gone, probably Busquets, too. It will be Isco’s team.
Russia gets a Croatian side who likewise played an utterly exhausting 120 minutes, and while Russia will feel emboldened by the win, Croatia was coming apart at the seams in this one, Mandzukic a bitchy mess, Modric missing the PK and scoring just barely with an utter lemon, and their veneer of strength deeply punctured. Denmark has played almost entirely uninspirational football throughout, but here you could see them just growing in confidence as the game progressed. But still--their best attack was an Ipswich Town fullback who crossed the entire pitch so he could take long throws from both sides, like a high school game on pitch nestled inside an American dimensioned track, really. How anyone that’s not Danish could get excited about that is a bit beyond me. However, they had tremendous esprit de corps; despite Eriksen’s petulance the first game, this was a team built on two exceptional leaders: Simon Kjaer and Kasper Schmeichel. Kjaer was dynamite throughout the tourney, on my initial All-Cup 11 after 2 matches. Physical, cool, and quick to react (he almost shut down Mandzukic’s equalizer), Kjaer was superb. Schmeichel’s performance was there for all to see. I’ve always thought him one of the better keeper’s in the Premiership, though he doesn’t get that much chatter. No one, for example, seems to have brought his name up as the next Liverpool keeper. Here, I saw a strutting cockiness, an in-your-head Harald Schumaker mojo. He brought an intimidating psychological edge to complement the plainly excellent goalkeeping over the four games.
While Delaney and Schone had very good tournaments as well, Poulsen was a real eye-catcher, a target man on the win who could win headers at every stretch, but brought the ball down with his chest to relieve pressure on the Danes. At one point, he created a great chance for the hapless #9, and then sprinted 60 meters to break up the counter. All tournament, he covered the entirety of his flank. He’s an unusual player of notable merit.
Eriksen was always dangerous when he got his chances, though that wasn’t too often here.
Croatia was mentally and increasingly physically broken down by the Danish side. Mandzukic was really a blubbering mess after about 60 minutes, and the Danes did just the right balance of fouling (19-5 count) to break up any Croatian rhythm). Croatia wasn’t very patient, and it looked like they’d need a wonderstrike from one of the midfield two. They did get a little something different from Mateo Kovacic, the Real Madrid midfielder who overdribbled perhaps but evinced the quality to prise open their next compact opponent, and brought the kind of spark you'd hope to see in a substitute. Rebic alone seemed to have endless energy, and he had it won when he latched onto Modric’s eye-of-the-needle splitter and rounded the goalie. The foul and PK (and somehow no red card, which is utterly ludicrous--if it’s a foul it’s clearly DOGSO and direct red) should have ended it--but that would have saved us a massive anxiety fest that turned into an outstanding goalkeeping exhibition. Modric of all people was stuffed. I detest a game decided by PKs, but the great thing about this was that the saves were for the most part excellent--every player hit the target, and a few of the saves (like Subasic’s on Eriksen) were from very strong shots. If it had to end in PKs, this was a pretty good way to do it. Schmeichel was fantastic, but Subasic went one better--and Modric won't be the last Croat to give him a huge hug.
I am glad for Croatia to go through--definitely the more interesting team to watch. Russia will pack it in fiercely, but Croatia’s got shooters who might make them pay for dropping so far off. I don’t expect Akenfeev’s performance to hold. But we’ve also seen this Croatia team get tight, and Russia will have the force of an ocean behind them in the stands.
So a day-and-a-half for the compactors--I don’t relish it at all, but hard-fought and victorious. Uruguay certainly look dangerous, the best possible set-up to take on the French juggernaut.