World Cup Recap: Quarterfinals

France and Belgium win to set up semifinal bout

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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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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