The World Cup quarter-finals saw another tournament favourite in Brazil bow out and featured plenty of outstanding performances.
Hosts Russia saw their dream run come to an end in a penalty-shootout defeat to Croatia. Meanwhile, England and France got their jobs done expertly with convincing 2-0 victories over Sweden and Uruguay respectively.
Brazil’s elimination at the hands of Belgium delivered the game of the tournament as a pulsating encounter from start to finish ended with the Red Devils clinching a famous 2-1 win.
A trio of Manchester United players headline our key individual performers from the last eight while there’s a strong Belgian presence as well.
GK: Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
The Chelsea number one produced his best performance of the tournament – and arguably of his international career – as he was his side’s last line of defence against a second-half onslaught from the Brazilians. He made a total of nine saves to limit Selecao to just the one goal. His efforts to deny Philippe Coutinho and then Neymar from range stood out in particular.
CB: Raphael Varane (France)
The defender has looked suspect at times for Real Madrid but France’s conservative approach certainly suits him. He was dominant in the air against Uruguay and comfortable in possession as well. His reading of the game meant he never had to indulge in desperate defending. His eye-catching glancing header from a free-kick sent France on their way.
CB: Domagoj Vida (Croatia)
The Besiktas centre-back has enjoyed a fine tournament so far and put in another battling display against Russia. He didn’t put a foot wrong in defence and was good on the ball. However, his standout moment was undoubtedly his header from a corner in extra-time. He made no mistake from the spot during the shootout as well.
CB: Harry Maguire (England)
The Leicester City centre-back has arguably been England’s best and most consistent performer of the tournament. He’s been a colossus in defence, an absolute man mountain. Again, he brought the ball out of defence against Sweden with confidence and purpose. His 10 aerial duels won was a game-high as he scored superbly from a corner for the opener.
RM: Jesse Lingard (England)
He was England’s busiest player in the final third. Against Sweden’s low block, the Three Lions needed players to zip around and drag defenders around to create openings and he did that well. His passing was among the best on the pitch as well and an excellent cross to the far post for Dele Alli to nod home for the second goal, effectively sealing their semi-final berth.
CM: Kevin De Bruyne (Belgium)
The shackles were off as Roberto Martinez deployed the Manchester City playmaker in a more advanced role. He linked up with Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard to devastating effect, creating several chances and scoring a superb second goal for Belgium on the counter-attack with a rocket of a shot into the far corner from the edge of the box.
CM: Paul Pogba (France)
Much criticised at United, Paul Pogba has only grown in confidence and influence for France at this World Cup. He was in sync with Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann, creating the bulk of the teams chances. Equally impressive were his defensive contributions – no one won more headers while his five clearances helped his side see out the result.
14 - Paul Pogba won 14 duels against Uruguay 🇺🇾, highest tally for a French 🇫🇷 player in a knockout game of the World Cup 🏆 since Bixente Lizarazu in July 1998 v Croatia (14). Leader.#URUFRA #WorldCup pic.twitter.com/mFgcQTVQQE— OptaJean (@OptaJean) July 6, 2018
LM: Denis Cheryshev (Russia)
We wondered who would be this World Cup’s James Rodriguez – a lesser-known youngster scoring spectacular goals as his side went further than anticipated. At 27 and with a failed stint at Real Madrid behind him, the Villarreal man doesn’t fit the description but another phenomenal strike, this time against Croatia, will see him go down as one of the stars of the tournament.
RW: Antoine Griezmann (France)
The Atletico Madrid star is starting to find his feet in this tournament. His display against Uruguay was his best yet, scoring his side’s second with a strike from range – although he received a helping hand from Fernando Muslera in goal. He also worked some good openings but a rather surprising contribution was his game-high five tackles.
ST: Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)
Playing largely from the right, he was an outstanding outlet for his team and gave a formidable defender in Miranda the run-around a few times. The striker did a lot of great work through the middle as well in the transition, holding up play and then driving at defenders. His control, powerful run and fine assist for De Bruyne’s goal was a treat to watch.
LW: Eden Hazard (Belgium)
One of his best performances in a Belgium shirt and certainly the most important. He led by example, creating openings in the final third but also ran his socks off. His dribbling was on another level as he completed nine on the night, upstaging Neymar in that department (three) among others. A display befitting the armband and strengthened his claim to join the elite in world football.
Russia made an improbable run to the quarter-finals of the World Cup before being knocked out by Croatia.
That didn’t make their demise any less painful for their fans as they saw the hosts fall in heartbreaking fashion, losing in penalties with a berth in the semi-final on the line.
Russian supporters expressed how proud they were of their team, while also showing their sadness in falling short.
Check out the reaction from the fans in the video below.
Gareth Southgate believes togetherness and drive has been a winning combination for his eager squad, with even the Euro 2016 humiliation providing a platform as England reached the World Cup semi-finals.
Roy Hodgson’s men were humbled by Iceland two years ago, sending the national game into a tailspin that only worsened when new boss Sam Allardyce abruptly exited.
Yet there could be no safer pair of hands than Southgate, whose quiet revolution has been as rapid as it has been remarkable.
Just 21 months after taking the hotseat, initially on a temporary basis, England will face Croatia for a place in the World Cup final having beaten surprise package Sweden 2-0 in the quarter-finals in Samara.
“We are a team who are still improving” Southgate said. “We know where we are.
“We are having success because everybody is working so hard, everybody is working hard on the field.
“We are in this position because guys that are in the squad like (Gary) Cahill, (Phil) Jones, (Danny) Welbeck, (Nick) Pope, (Jack) Butland, (Danny) Rose, the older ones, have been exceptional in their mentality, their attitude to support the team, to train every day.
“Even though they’ve not had as much game-time as they would have liked, they are as much of a reason why we are where we are.
“I think that collective has been key. All of the support staff, all of the players are really tight. We’ve built that and to get through the two games we’ve had this week needed all of that because we’re not the finished article.
“We don’t have renowned world-class players yet, but lots of good young players who are showing on a world stage that they’re prepared to be brave with the ball, try to play the right way, have shown some mental resilience as well over the last few weeks.
“We know that in years to come, they are going to be stronger. But today was a huge opportunity for us and it was not something we wanted to miss out on.”
This group is tighter than previous generations in Southgate’s opinion, thanks to bonding in the development teams and an ability to put club rivalries aside.
Then there is the improved big-game experience, with the England boss thankful to predecessor Hodgson for being bold enough to give young talent a chance at Euro 2016.
“They didn’t have big-match experience and under pressure they suffered,” Southgate said.
“I think Roy took a lot of criticism for that, but he was brave enough to put a lot of these young players in – and without that experience, we wouldn’t have had a day like today because they’ve learned from that.
“With young players, you’re going to suffer at times. You’re going to have days when they’re not able to cope with things or adjust to things.
“And there’s no doubt that the experiences of two years ago have got a lot of these lads today – Dele (Alli), Eric (Dier), Harry (Kane), (Kyle) Walker – all on the pitch (in a better place).
“So they’re two years further on and we’ve benefited from that as well.”
It put England in good stead in Russia and the long term, too, albeit there are still hurdles to overcome.
Few know the pathways better than the Football Association’s former head of elite development and Under-21s manager, with Southgate believing better technical players are tempering the fact just 33 per cent of Premier League players are English.
“We’re in a World Cup semi-final – whether we’re in the top four in the world is something we would still have to prove, I think,” he said. “But, you know, we are progressing really well.
“We do have some good players, and they need opportunities to play.
“We’ve played some players – not just in this tournament but prior to that – who are very tender years in their careers, but we believe in them and we believe that they can play at a higher level.
“And hopefully with what our junior teams have been doing at international level as well, it will be a sign to all clubs that, whether it’s in England or abroad, that English players can play. That we have got players with super technique.
“I don’t think we would have seen the likes of (John) Stones and (Harry) Maguire playing in the way that they did in the past. English centre-backs bringing the ball out and playing with the composure from the back that they have.
“That for me is quite symbolic and why I joined the England FA five years ago because I believed that was possible.”