It’s the 1990s all over again. England are one game away from reaching their first World Cup semi-final in 28 years while Sweden are on course to emulate their third-place finish in 1994.
The Swedes’ run to the last eight has been built on a voracious work ethic coupled with a stifling defence. The Three Lions’ back-line is also heavily fortified and up front they have the trusty, and perhaps soon-to-be golden, boot of Harry Kane.
Below we pick out the three most tantalising match-ups ahead of the quarter-final in Samara.
MARCUS BERG v HARRY KANE
This is hardly a favourable comparison for Al Ain striker Marcus Berg considering that he’s drawn a blank and Kane has notched up a tournament-leading six goals.
Berg’s right boot may as well dispense helium given that he’s ballooned many of his shots high and wide – but if accuracy hadn’t deserted him he’d surely be off the mark by now. He also forced Yann Sommer into a spectacular save in the quarter-final versus Switzerland.
Indeed, the 31-year-old has been eluding enough defenders by popping up in dangerous positions and, together with 6ft 2in Ola Toivonen, will present England’s back three with their most physical challenge yet.
In contrast Kane has been at his clinical best – and he’s had to be due to a concerning lack of service from open play. While Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard and Raheem Sterling have shown spurts of inspiration, their link-up play has rarely included the Tottenham striker. He has mustered nine shots in total and three of those were from the spot.
This can also be digested in a more positive light. Tunisia, Panama and Colombia all resorted to rough stuff in the box in order to deal with the Golden Boot hunter’s movement and power – leading to penalties or at the very least good shouts.
Sweden are likely to be every bit as physical as Colombia – though hopefully less cynical – and Kane has not shirked from the challenge. Even when the supply lines were cut off in Moscow on Tuesday night, he came foraging for the ball and won an incredible 11 aerial duels while being fouled nine times.
EMIL FORSBERG v RAHEEM STERLING
No player polarises opinion more in England than Sterling. Whether it is his superb goal-scoring season for Manchester City, an eye-brow raising tattoo or sinister undertones from the tabloids when criticising his perceived lifestyle, there is never a shortage of topics up for discussion.
Despite that joyous end to a nerve-shredding night, one notorious British media outlet stuck the boot in on Sterling’s performance almost as soon as he was substituted in Moscow. It was a horrendous misjudgment of the national mood and hastily rewritten.
There was, however, a kernel of truth to be found when the country stopped bouncing. Sterling, still only 23, has won 41 caps for England and has just two strikes to show for it, the last of which came in October 2015. How such a talented forward – who managed 23 goals for City last season – can have such a dire record is unfathomable.
But he remains so important for the Three Lions. No one can match him for pace and, marry that with his intelligent, darting runs, he visibly keeps defenders in check when off the ball. He just needs to sharpen his accuracy when in possession and clearly that’s no simple task.
Though Sterling remains goalless he had been a more impactful presence then Sweden’s chief source of inspiration, Emil Forsberg, up until the round of 16. The RB Leipzig playmaker had been a disappointment in a team that has done nothing but exceed expectations so far.
According to whoscored.com‘s statistics, Forsberg is not not even averaging one ‘key pass’ a game, which along with his dribbling is his strongest suit. Kieran Trippier, arguably the World Cup’s finest right-back, will be lurking down his flank in Samara to make sure the trend continues.
Some of his deficiencies can be put down to the Swedish gameplan. Head coach Janne Andersson is as pragmatic as they come and in his eyes his star man is valued just as highly for the sacrifices he has made to his natural game.
“Even if he doesn’t succeed in every dribble, in every part of his game he contributes in so many ways and he has those decisive moments,” said Andersson after Forsberg’s deflected winner against Switzerland.
ANDREAS GRANQVIST v HARRY MAGUIRE
Some English fans may have faint memories of Andreas Granqvist’s miserable loan spell under Paul Jewell’s Wigan a decade ago. Ironically he has developed into one of the few modern-day footballers who could cope with the blood-and-thunder British football of the 70s and 80s – an old-fashioned defender who plays with as many frills as he asks from his barber.
The 33-year-old is a totemic leader, as was Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but in so many different ways. Where Ibrahimovic led with his ego, Granqvist has as an even bigger heart. Nicknamed ‘the Christmas Tree’ in his homeland, the festive season will start early should Sweden keep a clean sheet for a third time in four games.
He and Manchester United centre-back Victor Lindelof do not have a thick layer of protective coating in Sweden’s dogmatic 4-4-2 set-up, yet the pair have been the picture of serenity – as far as blocks and headers can be made to seem, anyway – which should force England to play with more width. Oh ,and Granqvist wouldn’t be bad in a penalty shootout, too …
Leicester’s Harry Maguire is the only first-choice England outfield player who belongs to a Premier League club outside of last season’s top four but has performed like he is born for the big stage.
Wherever the ball was, his head followed against Colombia and it was to his great misfortune that Yerry Mina had the run on him for the equalising goal that eventually forced England into eradicating their penalty shootout curse at a World Cup.
Maguire has played half a game less than Granqvist but has won 11 more aerial duels and many of those have come in the opposition box. There is no team left that poses such a danger from set-pieces and Maguire is a key reason for that.
As England operate with a back three, Maguire has been allowed to show off his competency at bringing the ball out and helping the Three Lions transition into attack.
The 25-year-old may not receive quite as much space for marauding if the Swedish front two close down, but between him and John Stones, England are likely to keep the lion’s share of possession and help support lone pivot Jordan Henderson dissect the midfield.
When every other mention of Paul Pogba isn’t attached to a quip over his latest haircut, a new social media post or yet another reminder of his price tag, he must be doing something right.
On or off the pitch, the French midfielder is the kind of individual who automatically stands out and that’s not always to his benefit. Given his immense talent and natural ability, anything short of an excellent display from Pogba renders him an easy target for critics and many column inches have already been dedicated to the disparagement of some of his more disappointing performances.
Despite a subdued start during France’s World Cup opener, Pogba’s influence on France’s gameplay has grown and unmistakably came to the fore in a thrilling 4-3 win over Argentina.
However, his importance to Les Bleus was obvious even before that stellar display as France supporters pined for the often derided individual when a rather flat midfield could conjure little of note during a drab 0-0 draw in their final group game against Denmark – still the only goalless draw of this World Cup.
The lack of ingenuity in midfield was alarming and didn’t put Deschamps’ tactics in the best light, even if there was little to play for in that encounter. Pogba’s presence doesn’t seamlessly compensate for his side’s shortcomings in terms of their approach but certainly bridges the gap and makes for a more fluid process.
Even at Manchester United, Jose Mourinho’s approach leaves much to be desired and often sees Pogba bear the brunt of the blame. Not all of it is unwarranted.
When the Premier League giants struggle to release the handbrake, the Frenchman does have a tendency to take it upon himself to make something happen and while that is an admirable attitude, he often winds up dwelling on the ball or attempting to beat one defender too many.
With France though, he has far more flair and attacking verve around him to feed off. Les Bleus boast an embarrassment of riches in forward areas and although many of those exciting talents are bound by the restraints of Deschamps’ instruction, they are still there for Pogba to cleverly tap into.
His incredible vision and sublime execution came to the fore against Argentina as he played numerous balls into space for the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann to devour. It’s that ability to unlock his side’s true attacking potential that will be absolutely key when they face Uruguay in the quarter-finals.
With Atletico Madrid duo Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez laying a solid foundation in central defence, the South Americans have been compact and disciplined as a unit, unsurprisingly boasting the best defensive record at the World Cup having conceded just once in the tournament so far.
Pogba will have to be patient and precise with his probing in his efforts to break their stubborn resistance. It will be a test of his mental resolve as much as his footballing capabilities and will demand a level of maturity that he has scarcely portrayed with United.
However, recent outings will inspire confidence among the French contingent in their midfield maestro. His masterclass against Argentina could be a sign of things to come and a testament to his temperament. Or was it only another glimpse of the player he may never fully grow into?
Questions are waiting to be answered at the Nizhny Novogorod Stadium.
One team has attacking football written into the DNA while the other is currently enjoying a generation that, while yet to be proven golden, continues to express a love of goals.
Five-time World Cup winners Brazil have been efficient if not breathlessly exciting so far but turned up the heat in a stifling Samara when they needed to in the round of 16 against Mexico.
Belgium, meanwhile, pulled their World Cup hopes out of the fire as substitutes Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli sparked a nerve-shredding 3-2 win over Japan.
It’s hard to imagine the ball will stay out of the net. But who are the players likely to place it there? We look at some of the key battles below.
Histrionics aside, the boy who would be King has elevated his game with each match as he continues to shake off the ring-rust that saw him sidelined with a foot injury back in February.
Against Mexico he looked more relaxed and was happy to trust his stellar supporting cast with more of the ball rather than taking on the world himself.
Indeed, he only completed two dribbles against El Tri while making five key passes, including the cheeky back-heel to Willian which led to the PSG superstar’s opener.
If Belgium roll out the green carpet in between midfield and defence like they did against Japan, it’ll be easy pickings for Neymar.
He’s been fouled nearly six times per game so far and roughly dispossessed the same amount. Whatever happens – he’ll make himself the centre of attention.
Eden Hazard has been less conspicuous than Neymar but that is through no fault of his own, as the statistics suggest he has been every bit as good as his Brazilian counterpart so far.
The Chelsea forward was the only player that consistently troubled Japan, first half and second, as defenders didn’t know whether to back off due to his pace or get touch-tight with his dribbling.
It was both that did for the Japanese in the end, as his twist and burst of pace on the left opened up the space for him to pick out Marouane Fellaini for the equaliser.
With Casemiro banned, Brazil have lost a crucial layer of defensive coating ahead of Miranda and Thiago Silva. It is likely Fernandinho who will be asked to perform mop-up duties but right-back Fagner also needs to have the game of his life against the drifting dribbler.
PHILIPPE COUTINHO v KEVIN DE BRUYNE
Both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi came to inglorious ends swiftly in the knockouts. If they had a Phillipe Coutinho to dovetail with then most likely their storybooks wouldn’t have slammed shut in the round of 16.
Indeed Neymar is lucky to have a player that so effortlessly unearths space between the lines and treats the ball with the utmost care – all while having the daring to pick out a pass and launch long-range howitzers.
His pass success rate so far at the World Cup is 90 per cent, which is quite remarkable for a player tasked to move the needle in the attacking third.
Belgium likely underestimated Japan’s efficacy in those areas, so lackadaisical were they in cutting off space in Rostov, and while Coutinho will be afforded more respect the Barcelona midfielder will like what he will have seen.
Takashi Inui’s superb strike is almost meat and drink to Coutinho, who averages 4.3 shots per game and already has a similar effort for his World Cup portfolio from the game against Switzerland.
Kevin De Bruyne is of the same silky ilk but sits deeper with Belgium than he does for Manchester City and that has curbed some of his effectiveness.
The wonderful counter-attack he sparked to set up Belgium’s late, late winner versus Japan was the first time we’ve truly seen a trademark De Bruyne moment in Russia.
When he plays alongside a safe but limited Axel Witsel in a midfield two, he has more responsibility to sit back – particularly with how recklessly attacking Belgium can be under Roberto Martinez.
De Bruyne might have some more freedom in which to operate against Brazil, with Casemiro out and the Canarinho’s own tendencies to pour forward, but a shrewd Tite is bound to have a plan to keep the shackles on Belgium’s chief playmaker.
MARCELO v YANNICK CARRASCO
Marcelo was not risked in the sapping heat in Samara as Tite treats his back injury with kid gloves, but he’ll be relishing the prospect of exploiting Belgium’s open flanks.
Though he started the game admirably, 20-year-old Mexico full-back Edson Alvarez was eventually taken to school by Neymar and that was without the usual support of the marauding Marcelo.
Thomas Meunier, a defender by trade, should be fairly well-equipped to tackle that particular challenge but worryingly he’s conceded fouls at a rate more than any other Belgian – an average of 2.7 per game.
If Marcelo is fit enough to replace a solid but unspectacular Filipe Luis, and he, Neymar and Coutinho start weaving triangles, then it’s difficult to see how the Red Devils will be able to keep the Canarinho at bay.
On the other side Yannick Carrasco’s place on the left for Belgium is under threat after going walkabouts defensively for much of the game against Japan.
At times he could barely be seen on screen as Japan were given the freedom of Rostov down that side – with left-sided centre-back Jan Vertonghen crying out for help. The ruthlessly direct Willian is sure to cut a repeat performance to ribbons
Given that Nacer Chadli came on in his stead and scored the winning goal at the death, there is no guarantee he will get a second chance.
Carrasco and Chadli have both had their moments up the other end of the pitch, however, and while Fagner has been quietly effective for Brazil this will most certainly be his acid test.