World Cup Recap: Quarterfinals

France and Belgium win to set up semifinal bout

Kylian Mbappe has France in the semis. Courtesy of Nike

The quarterfinals in the 2018 FIFA World Cup kicked off on Friday, with the first two spots in the semifinals secured. Uruguay-France and Brazil-Belgium were arguably the best matchups of the quarterfinals and they both came out of the same side of the bracket.

Uruguay 0-2 France

Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod
Attendance: 43,319

Uruguay and France eliminated the two best players in this tournament - Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi - in the previous round and would look to book a spot in the semifinal. France were counting on a full team that had bested Argentina in a 4-3 thriller. Uruguay, on the other hand, were without star striker Edinson Cavani after he left injured in the 2-1 win over Portugal. The key for Uruguay would be to ride their defense and counter with a dangerous attacking opportunity. La Celeste did exactly that in the opening minutes and were close on two occasions. France, frustrated at first because they didn’t have the ball, would waste an opportunity of their own as their star man Kylian Mbappe headed a ball over the goal while he was unguarded inside the box in the 15th minute. Les Blues took a lead off a free kick in the 40th minute when Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann’s set up Real Madrid defender Raphael Varane. French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris would come up with a crucial save just before the half to keep the scoreline 1-0 France.

France would test Uruguayan keeper Fernando Muslera more in the second half. Griezmann took a shot from distance in the 61st minute that Muslera could not hang on to, bouncing off his gloves and into the net for a 2-0 France lead. Uruguay tried but could never get anything concrete on target. FC Barcelona striker Luis Suarez was neutralized by the French defense as the Europeans move on to the semifinal.

Analysis: Uruguay were always going to have it tough without Cavani and his absence was felt in this encounter. Opting to keeping Suarez in check, France were proven right in that they had no one else to really fear. The blunder by Muslera also dug the South Americans into a deeper hole as a draw was manageable but coming back from 2-0 was a tall task. This loss marks an end of an era for the national team because Suarez and Cavani are both 31 years old, meaning this was probably Uruguay’s last chance to win a World Cup with this generation.

France continue to roll with their talented squad despite not looking as dominant. That was expected against a compact Uruguay team but France had very few instances were they were worried. Griezmann picked up a goal and an assist, showing the versatility of this French roster. On any given day, anyone on this France team can decide a game. France have to be a scary opponent for any of the remaining teams.

Notable stat: The last goal in a France-Uruguay World Cup match was scored at England 1966, 52 years ago.

Brazil 1-2 Belgium

Kazan Arena, Kazan
Attendance: 42,873

Mighty Brazil ran out of luck on Friday at the hand of another talented squad in Belgium. A Brazil opportunity to score off a corner was denied by the post in the eight minute. Just a few minutes later, they would concede the opening goal off a Belgium corner that rebounded off Fernandinho for an own-goal. The Red Devils would continue to press and would get another goal in the 31st minute from a Kevin De Bruyne wonder strike. Goalkeepers Alisson (Brazil) and Thibaut Courtois (Belgium) would both make important saves late in the first half as the score would stay 2-0 Belgium.

Neymar would be the topic of conversation in the second half because of his presence in Brazil’s attacking attempts. He would also be a focal point because of his attempts to sell a foul inside the box, in hopes of getting a penalty. Brazil would find their way into the game in the 76th minute when Philippe Coutinho set up a Renato Augusto header for goal. Brazil cut the deficit down to one. The rest of the match would be Brazil chasing the draw but Belgium saw out the result to reach their second-ever semifinal at a World Cup.

Analysis: Brazil will be disappointed to not have gone through because of their historical pedigree. This will feel like failure because of who they are and the crest they wear. It’s not a failure in the sport sense because Belgium were the better team overall. With all their talent, Brazil was an unknown commodity because they had yet to be tested by another team who boasts as much talent as they do. Neymar will also be judged by not being able to take his team further given his quality.

This is the type of result this generation of Belgium players needed to deliver. Belgium had done little to take advantage of this group of players, bowing out in the quarterfinals of the last World Cup and at Euro 2016. Their task is not done yet. They must overcome France and reach the final. Nothing less than a title is what Belgium citizens expect from this team.

Notable stat: For the first time ever, neither Argentina, Brazil nor Germany will not feature in the last four of the FIFA World Cup.

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, following Saturday’s Russia vs. Croatia match.

Recordings of every show are available on the Soccer Matters podcast, available on iTunes, Google Play Music and PodcastArena.com/SoccerMatters

Remaining Quarterfinal Matches (All Times CT):

Saturday, July 7

9 a.m. - Sweden vs. England (FOX, Telemundo)

1 p.m. - Russia vs. Croatia (FOX, Telemundo)

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The Rockets will select No. 3 overall in the upcoming NBA Draft. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

It was not a good NBA Draft Lottery for the Rockets. Any suggestion otherwise is silly spin. It’s not stunning or catastrophic, but settling for the third pick in next month’s Draft is a definite disappointment. It could have been worse since picking fourth or fifth were possible outcomes, actually more mathematically likely than landing a top three pick. It could have been a heckuva lot better. Last season the Rockets were the worst team in the NBA but drew the second pick. Again this season the Rockets were the worst team in the NBA, this time they fall a spot lower as Orlando and Oklahoma City won the first two selections.

A year ago the Rockets were very happy to get Jalen Green at number two. After an awful first half of his rookie season Green came on like gangbusters. Had the Rockets finished second in Tuesday’s drawing, they were guaranteed to have access to either Auburn forward Jabari Smith or Gonzaga center Chet Holmgren as the second anchor piece of their rebuild. Instead at number three, six foot ten inch Duke freshman Paolo Banchero is the most likely Rocket selection. Nobody knows with any degree of certainty whose career will go how, and hey, maybe the Thunder takes Banchero leaving Smith on the board for the Rockets. But while Banchero is a fine prospect he is an athletic gear below the also six-ten Smith and lacks the unique upside of the seven foot beanpole Holmgren. With the Blue Devils, Banchero was a mediocre three point shooter and a mediocre free throw shooter. Maybe he was poorly coached! Obviously any 19-year-old’s skills can develop, but Banchero’s ceiling at this point is clearly lower than those of Smith and Holmgren.

Provided Holmgren and Green go one-two or two-one, if Banchero is not the pick at three it will be eyebrow raising but mean the Rockets opted to take a flyer on more athleticism. Think Purdue point guard Jaden Ivey, wing Shaedon Sharpe who did not play as a freshman at Kentucky, or least likely six foot eight Iowa forward Keegan Murray.

The Rockets have two picks in Round 1

In addition to the third pick, the Rockets have the 17th selection as the first useable asset (sorry Victor Oladipo) gained from the James Harden to Brooklyn trade. At 17 General Manager Rafael Stone will be chucking a dart at the board hoping to hit at least as well as he did at 16 last summer with Alperen Sengun. Sengun was fun to watch offensively and should be a solid rotation player, but he’ll never be a plus starter without at least a couple of terrific defenders on the floor with him. Sengun is simply too slow, and lacks the quick twitch muscles to ever be more than a mediocre team defender. Good small ball and spacing teams can play Sengun off the court. The Rockets’ defense was garbage this season with very little improvement shown as the season droned on. Either Smith or Holmgren would have been an immediate upgrade on that end over the shall we say, lethargic, Christian Wood.

Rockets outlook

The Rockets are in a challenging spot. They’re staring at a third straight season of NBA irrelevance, and their path to getting very good again is perilous. Jalen Green has the “wow” factor, but exactly nobody (nobody reasonable anyway) would prefer to have him going forward rather than Luka Doncic or Ja Morant. Doncic’s Mavericks and Morant’s Grizzlies are both in the Rockets’ division. So is Zion Williamson and New Orleans, though who knows if Zion will ever sustain good health and conditioning to fulfill his high-end potential. For the second straight season Oklahoma City was second worst in the West. The Thunder is armed with a proven quality GM in Sam Presti and holds much better draft capital than the Rockets in coming years, including getting the Rockets' first round picks in 2024 and 2026 unless they are top four picks.

When a team goes 17-55 and 20-62 in consecutive seasons it needs most things, including some good luck. That describes the Rockets in spades. They are a good bet to be lousy again in 2022-23. Owner Tilman Fertitta has acknowledged as much. A third consecutive losing season is extreeeemely likely. That will come after the Rockets had just three losing seasons total over the prior 36 seasons. If the Rockets’ 2022 lottery ticket doesn't pay off significantly, they’re staring at being NBA dreck for more than half a decade.

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