After 21 days of almost wall to wall football, countless early mornings and some of the most unpredictable score lines the World Cup finals has ever seen, we are left with just four teams still in with a chance to claim the trophy.
The last seven days have seen the hopes of Brazilian, Spanish, Dutch and English fans all extinguished, often in the most heartbreaking of ways – penalties. Here are five things we’ve learned from week three in Qatar.
Morocco proving African nations can defend
The biggest story of this tournament to date has been the remarkable progress of Morocco, with the North Africans becoming the first team from their continent to reach a World Cup semi-final.
The traditional stereotypes of African football – a cavalier approach, attacking in numbers going forward and little thought for defending – have been cast aside by the Moroccans in the last seven days.
The Atlas Lions have conceded just one goal in their five matches, the lowest number of goals conceded of all the semi-finalists.
While Paris Saint Germain right back Achraf Hakimi and Seville goalkeeper Yassine Bounou have rightly been lauded for their outstanding displays, it’s been the Moroccans’ ability to defend as a unit that has been the real revelation in Qatar.
Coach Walid Regragui, who only took charge of the national team in August this year, has produced a highly disciplined team who defend from the front and counterattack at speed.
It’s been a formula that has worked for many unheralded teams at this World Cup, but none have done it so effectively as Morocco.
Brazil flatter to deceive
For forty five minutes against South Korea last week, it seemed like the Brazil of old was back.
Watching Vinicius Jnr, Richarlison and Neymar destroy the Koreans in the early hours of Tuesday morning was a joy to most football fans outside of Seoul, and many felt this Brazilian team were destined for greater things.
How wrong they were. Despite outplaying Croatia for much of their Quarter Final tie just three days later, the free-flowing samba football was seldom seen.
Much credit should go to the Croatians, who set up to frustrate the South Americans and achieved just that until Neymar broke the deadlock with a wonder goal.
The Brazilians couldn’t hang on however, with Croatia’s late equaliser forcing a penalty shoot-out that saw both Rodrygo and Marquinhos miss to send the favourites home.
Another generation of Brazilian footballers has failed to live up to the standards set by their illustrious predecessors, and the wait for a first World Cup title since 2002 will be extended for another four years.
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Argentina play the bad guys
It may yet be Messi’s World Cup, but his teammates embarrassed themselves with their unsporting reaction to beating the Dutch on penalties.
The bad blood was instigated by a cynical Argentinian tackle midway through the second half, which was compounded by a second Argentinian player firing the loose ball at the onlooking Dutch substitute bench.
Understandably the Dutch reacted, storming the pitch to confront their South American opponents. By the time this feisty encounter reached a penalty shoot-out, a combined 18 yellow cards had been issued, creating a World Cup record that neither side will cherish.
What followed, with Argentinian players taunting their Dutch counterparts immediately after Lautaro Martinez’s winning penalty, showed the dark side of Lionel Scaloni’s squad.
The pressure of winning the World Cup for their retiring captain Messi is clearly getting to the players, but their actions created an ugly stain on their reputation. They may well have lost a number of neutral fans as a result.
England still haunted by penalties
Coming into the week on the back of an impressive victory over Senegal in the round of 16, this England team were starting to enter the equation as potential winners.
If they could get past France in the quarter finals, their route to the final was perhaps less taxing than the other side of the draw, which had Brazil, Argentina and their 2018 nemesis Croatia within it. This was shaping as England’s best chance since 1990 to bury the curse.
Yet, in the early hours on Sunday morning (AEDT) the Three Lions’ dream fell apart, and it was penalties (again) that proved their downfall.
Captain Harry Kane was the guilty party on this occasion, sending his second spot kick of the night high into the Doha sky, having comfortably dispatched an earlier effort to bring his team level with France.
Although few will blame Kane after his sterling efforts throughout the tournament – he had three assists as well as two goals in the five matches – English fans will have nightmares about their nation’s penalty curse for at least another four years.
Expect the unexpected
If there is one thing this first Arabian World Cup has taught us, it’s not to be surprised when an unheralded team defeat one that is expected to prevail, whatever the odds against them.
After the shocks of Saudi Arabia’s victory over Argentina and Germany’s loss to Japan in the group stages, this week’s headlines have been written by Croatia and Morocco.
Croatia may have reached the final in Russia four years ago, but very few expected them to defeat tournament favourites Brazil.
While they may have only triumphed on spot kicks against the Brazilians, just as they did against Japan in the previous round, the resolve they showed to equalise with just 4 minutes remaining to force the penalty shoot-out showed the belief of this Croatian squad.
Add to that the exploits of minnows Morocco, and it’s clear that the beauty of this tournament to date has been its unpredictability.
Much like the 2002 edition, when Turkey and co-hosts South Korea reached semi-finals against all the odds, it seems that this World Cup has re-enforced the notion that tournaments outside the traditional footballing continents of Europe and South America are providing more unpredictability.
The next seven days will see the latest winner crowned, and while it’s still possible that we will have a first African winner, history suggests that upsets at the final stage are less likely.
Only eight nations have lifted the famous trophy in the World Cup’s 92 year history, and two of those – Argentina and France – will be heavy favourites to square off in the final in the early hours on Monday morning (AEDT).
Yet it in this most unpredictable of World Cups, we wouldn’t bet on it…
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