Harry Kane and England will be in the spotlight. Matthias Hangst/Getty Images
The quarterfinals in the 2018 FIFA World Cup concluded on Saturday with the last two semifinal spots up for grabs. France and Belgium had already booked their spots on Friday. By advancing to the next round, all four teams have secured themselves at least $5 million more in prize money - with the champion set to take a total of $38 million.
Sweden 0-2 England
Samara Arena, Samara
Two European nations with long droughts from their last semifinal appearance came in to Samara looking to book a place to the last four. Sweden had a shot from range right after the 10 minute mark but, apart from that, generated very little overall in the first half. England’s speed gave the Three Lions the edge in possession but it was a set piece that gave them the lead. A corner in the 30th minute was headed in by 6 ft. 4 Leicester City defender Harry Maguire. England had another chance just before the half on a long lob ball to Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling but Sweden’s defense would be able to fend off the talented winger.
Sweden would played to their strengths in an attempt to get back in the match but England keeper Jordan Pickford came up with three important saves in the second half. One of the saves would deny the header of Sweden forward Marcus Berg in the 47th minute. England would not forgive on a similar opportunity as Tottenham’s Dele Alli scored a mirror image of Berg’s opportunity in the 59th minute. Pickford would come up huge again in the 62nd minute and England would see out the 2-0 win.
Analysis: Sweden put together a good game plan and played with the solid effort they have shown all tournament. The difference in this game was England’s more talented squad. The Swedes will be disappointed because their road ends here but this campaign was a resounding success. Sweden missed the previous two World Cups and advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time since USA 1994. Janne Andersson has to be regarded among the top managers of the tournament for his work in building camaraderie and belief in the team, on top of adjusting tactics to their strengths. The omission of Zlatan Ibrahimovic - the national team’s all-time top scorer- from the team was never a controversy as Andersson handled the situation with grace and total transparency. The next step for Sweden will be to get out of the group stage at Euro 2020.
England’s campaign is also a resounding success and it will see them end it with their best finish since Italy 1990. Will it end with them lifting the cup as they did at England 1966? The fact is very few expected much from this England team. Not because they lacked quality but because they arrived without the pomp and circumstance that England usually arrived in. The didn’t arrive with a “big name” manager, a goalscorer with over 20 goals at the national team level and over half of the team had no more than 25 appearances in an England shirt. This team has had as little pressure as any England squad in the last 20+ years and they are thriving because of it.
Notable stat: England advanced to their third-ever semifinal and their first since Italy 1990, 28 years ago.
Russia 2-2 Croatia (CRO advances 3-4 on penalties)
Fisht Stadium, Sochi
Both Russia and Croatia played 120 minutes and needed penalties to decide their round of 16 bouts - and they would need them again to decide the winner of this match. Croatia would be a bit better with the ball from the start but it was Russia, with a daring shot from their goalscorer Denis Cheryshev, who would take the lead. It was that magnificent strike that had the hosts up in the 31st minute. Of course, Croatia would press harder looking for the equalizer. Andrej Kramaric would head in the tying goal for Croatia in the 39th minute. Fairly even in the stats, these two would head to halftime even on the scoreboard.
An angsty second half solved nothing on the scoreboard as an extra 30 minutes would be needed to break the deadlock. Domagoj Vida would be the man to break the draw with a header in the 101st minute to give Croatia a 2-1 lead. With both teams running on extra tired legs, it looked as though Croatia had scored the winner. Except, this World Cup has been anything but normal. Mario Fernandes scored headed in a set piece in the 115th minute to send the home fans into ecstasy. Penalties would be needed to decide the winner.
In the penalty shootout is where Croatia showed its quality. Russia missed its first penalty thanks to a softly taken attempt from Fedor Smolov. Marcelo Brozovic and Alan Dzagoev would trade goals before Real Madrid’s Mateo Kovacic’s had his attempt saved. Fernandes, the man who scored the 115th minute goal for Russia, would send his attempt wide and a lucky bounce on Luka Modric’s attempt had Croatia tasting glory. The legendary Sergei Ignashevich scored his shot to give Russia a chance but FC Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic would score the winning penalty for the second consecutive match.
Analysis: Russia came very far for a team that wasn’t expected to do anything despite being the home country. They arrived with a losing streak and fed on their fans’ support to give a performance to be proud of. They fought valiantly against a Croatia team that was head-and-shoulders the more talented team and they gave them a run for their money, just like they did with Spain in the round of 16. How much of that was the opposition playing below expectations? That can be debated but Russia took advantage of the situation and got this far. Going forward, Russia will need to emphasize the development of their talent to improve on the World’s stage.
Croatia continues its magical ride and now they are in the semis. While they boast some of the better midfielders in the world, the big test will come in going toe-to-toe with England. Croatia have had eight different goalscorers in this World Cup, which describes how they are more of a well-rounded team. They are coming off two matches that went 120 minutes so tired legs could begin to be a factor against England. If Croatia can keep the ball against England, they may well be going through to the final round.
Notable stat: Russia is the first country to contest two shoot-outs at the World Cup while hosting the event.
Programming note: Soccer Matters with Glenn Davis will be broadcasting from The Gorgeous Gael (5555 Morningside Dr. Houston, TX 77005) with a two-hour LIVE show, airing on ESPN 97.5 FM, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Wednesday.
Additionally, The Blitz will be broadcasting from the Hyatt Regency Houston/Galleria (2626 Sage Rd, Houston, Texas 77056) from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Thursday. Former Houston Dynamo forward and a member of the U.S. national team at the 2006 FIFA World Cup, Brian Ching, will be a guest on the show.
With a new season on the horizon, the Astros have high hopes for 2024 after coming just one game shy of being in the World Series for three consecutive seasons.
If Houston wants to get back to the Fall Classic in 2024, they're going to have to rely on their pitching. Owner Jim Crane believes the club has 8 starting pitchers when Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers Jr. return mid-season.
Which allows several of the starters to move to the bullpen and provide even more depth. Add those guys to Bryan Abreu, Ryan Pressly, and Josh Hader and you have a recipe for success.
Check out the video above as ESPN Houston's Jeremy Branham goes through the entire staff and makes his case for the Astros having the best pitching staff in baseball.
You can listen to The Killer B's with Jeremy Branham and Joel Blank every weekday on ESPN 97.5 & 92.5 from 3 pm - 6 pm!