EIGHT teams standing…ONE great prize

Don’t let nostalgia cloud your judgement (I often do)…this has been an excellent World Cup.

Judged purely in footballing terms (as opposed to revisiting the scandalous decision to stage the tournament in Qatar), World Cup 2022 has been entertaining and memorable.

The group stages have been widely hailed as amongst the most exciting ever. There were some very good games, with lots of late drama.

While many of the established teams made it through to the last 16, there were shock exits and surprise breakthroughs. For those of us of a certain age, the idea of the business end of the World Cup not featuring Germany is bizarre. But they went out early. So too did Belgium, who never got out of first gear. Ultimately, a star-sprinkled team met that most formidable of opponents: Father Time.

One of the big early talking points of the tournament was the remarkably long stoppage time periods. This is a welcome development, FIFA having insisted that referees add on all time ‘lost’ on goal celebrations, delays at throw-ins, slow substitutions, etc. The extra-long added time periods – often running to ten minutes or more per half – punish gamesmanship, are by definition fair…and add a great sense of drama.

The ‘Round of 16’ began last weekend, and has never been less than entertaining and intriguing. At times, it has been absolutely gripping: Argentina v Australia was a thriller. Japan took Croatia to a penalty shootout, Morocco stunned Spain, Portugal hit six against Switzerland. France, led by their gifted man of destiny, Kylian Mbappé, are in great shape as they bid to win back-to-back World Cups. Brazil also turned on the style, and both England and the Netherlands are going along nicely.

Quarter-finals this weekend

Croatia v Brazil: Croatia have considerable pedigree, having reached the final in 2018, and Brazil could have an off-day, but the expectation is that the dancing Brazilians will shimmy into the semi-finals.

Netherlands v Argentina: Louis van Gaal is well capable of successfully plotting an upset, and I have doubts about Argentina, but my heart – and my head, just about – says Messi can lead Argentina into the last four.

Morocco v Portugal: Morocco, notwithstanding that they’ve been on a great run over the past couple of years, are the surprise quarter-finalists, having beaten Spain on penalties. Normally you’d give them every chance against Portugal, but if this is an open game, the Portuguese – who are buoyed after hitting six against Switzerland – will progress.

England v France: A mouth-watering game in prospect. England have a chance. If they can close down Kylian Mbappé, they could knock the favourites out, either via their own flair, or on penalties. But the safer bet is on the defending world champions winning. After all, can Mbappé – the player of the tournament so far – actually be curtailed?