World Cup Recap: Quarterfinals

France-Belgium today, Croatia-England Wednesday will decide World Cup finalists

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
Attendance: 39,991

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
Attendance: 44,287

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.

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The Astros suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Yankees Thursday. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

After an impressive two-game sweep of the NL-best Mets at home earlier in the week, the Astros took to the road to begin a four-game series with the league-best Yankees on Thursday night. To little surprise, the series started with a bang (no, not a trash can bang) in more ways than one, confirming that this series should be a must-watch this weekend.

New York's comeback proves no lead will be safe

Right from the get-go, the loud Yankee Stadium faithful had their chance to rain boos down on Jose Altuve before showing some pleasure as he led off the series by being hit by a pitch. They were quickly, though only temporarily, quieted as Altuve would come in to score two batters later on a three-run blast by Alex Bregman.

Three-run homers seemed to be a theme, as New York would get one of their own to tie the game off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to tie the game, then Yordan Alvarez continued his dominant June by pushing the Astros back in front by three with another three-run bomb in the third, making it 6-3. That lead held through to the bottom of the ninth, where instead of holding it, Ryan Pressly issued two walks to set up the fourth homer of the game to tie things again before Aaron Judge would get a walk-off single to complete the impressive comeback.

Not only will we get to sit back and watch the slug-fest between Yordan and Judge this weekend, but it looks like with Alex Bregman swinging well again to round out the top of Houston's order, the Astros may be getting closer to their full power. So far in June, these two teams sit third and fourth in on-base percentage, with the Astros at .351 and the Yankees right behind at .350. That means we should continue to see scoring opportunities on both sides that can tilt momentum one way or the other as these lineups try to battle against the opposing pitcher.

How will the aces fare

Verlander vs. Judge, and Cole vs. Alvarez, need I say more? Although we won't see Justin Verlander go up against Gerrit Cole in the same game in this series (they should go head to head next Thursday, however), they will pitch on back-to-back days, with Houston's ace going Friday night and New York's on Saturday afternoon. Verlander is coming off his worst start of the year, a three and two-thirds inning outing where the White Sox put up seven runs, four earned, against him and knocked him out early to give him his third loss and increased his ERA from 1.94 to 2.30.

The last time he faced the Yankees was in the Bronx in the 2019 playoffs, in ALCS Game 5, where he went seven frames while allowing four runs, all on two homers in the first inning, which is all New York needed to grab the 4-1 victory to make it a 3-2 Houston lead in the series, which the Astros would go on to clinch in Game 6. So, with the double dose of bad taste in his mouth, it will be interesting to see if he can use that as the fuel to get back to the phenomenal form he's had this year or if the Yankees try to jump on him early like they did nearly three years ago.

Cole, meanwhile, is fresh off of two quality starts in a row against the Rays, where he allowed just one run on six hits with nineteen strikeouts over 13.1 innings of work. He's had his share of strife this season, though, including a seven-run shelling by the Twins earlier this month, along with a start in April where he couldn't make it through two innings against the Tigers. He's had success against his former club, most notably a complete-game shutout in Houston last July with twelve K's and holding the Astros to just three hits.

If the series opener was any indication, we are in for the treat of a playoff-caliber matchup, if not a potential ALCS preview that we may see in October. The Yankees showed why they have the best record and are the hottest team in baseball on Thursday night, but the Astros were only a good outing from their closer away from having a relatively lopsided win. The rivalry is real; the competition is close, and we get to enjoy the show.

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