Today with Brazil v Belgium and Portugal v Croatia, we analyze and predict the second two quarterfinals matches of World Cup 2022.
If you have followed Papa’s analyses and predictions, you will note that the eight teams chosen to progress from the Round of 16 are paired up as follows: England v Argentina, Senegal v France, Croatia v Portugal, and Brazil v Belgium.
As of this writing, these are the squads officially heading to Qatar and from which lineups will be chosen for the two matches analyzed:
Goalkeepers: Alisson, Ederson, Weverton. Defenders: Dani Alves, Danilo, Alex Sandro, Alex Telles, Bremer, Eder Militao, Marquinhos, Thiago Silva. Midfielders: Bruno Guimaraes, Casemiro, Everton Ribeiro, Fabinho, Fred, Lucas Paqueta. Attackers: Antony, Gabriel Jesus, Gabriel Martinelli, Neymar, Pedro, Raphinha, Richarlison, Rodrygo, Vinicius Junior.
Goalkeepers: Thibaut Courtois, Simon Mignolet, Koen Casteels Defenders: Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Zeno Debast, Leander Dendoncker, Wout Faes, Arthur Theate. Midfielders: Thomas Meunier, Timothy Castagne, Thorgan Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Axel Witsel, Youri Tielemans, Amadou Onana, Hans Vanaken, Yannick Carrasco Forwards: Eden Hazard, Leandro Trossard, Romelu Lukaku, Michy Batshuayi, Charles De Ketelaere, Lois Openda, Jeremy Doku, Dries Mertens
Goalkeepers: Jose Sa, Rui Patricio, Diogo Costa. Defenders: Joao Cancelo, Diogo Dalot, Pepe, Ruben Dias, Danilo Pereira, Antonio Silva, Nuno Mendes, Raphael Guerreiro. Midfielders: William, Ruben Neves, Joao Palhinha, Bruno Fernandes, Vitinha, Otavio, Matheus Nunes, Bernardo Silva, Joao Mario. Forwards: Cristiano Ronaldo, Joao Felix, Rafael Leao, Ricardo Horta, Andre Silva, Goncalo Ramos.
Goalkeepers: Dominik Livakovi?, Ivica Ivuši?, Ivo Grbi? Defenders: Domagoj Vida, Dejan Lovren, Borna Bariši?, Josip Juranovi?, Joško Gvardiol, Borna Sosa, Josip Staniši? Martin Erli?, Josip Šutalo Midfielders: Luka Modri?, Mateo Kova?i?, Marcelo Brozovi?, Mario Pašali?, Nikola Vlaši?, Lovro Majer, Kristijan Jaki?, Luka Su?i? Forwards: Ivan Periši?, Andrej Kramari?, Bruno Petkovi?, Mislav Orši?, Ante Budimir, Marko Livaja.
Brazil v Belgium
The Belgians are smiling internally at having to meet Brazil. It is not that they are unaware of the South American team’s capabilities but that they feel 2018 has given them the psychological edge against their quarterfinal opponent. Coach Roberto Martinez developed a strategy to play the Brazilians in 2018 that has become the mainstay lineup and formation (3-4-3) for his golden generation of charges since. He feels they do not need to change a thing as their roster matches up well against the Brazilians and he has already studied them and prepared his charges for this challenge before.
The Brazilians are also relishing this matchup. They feel their European opponents, though good, were fortunate in 2018 and the Selecao is looking forward to playing a return leg at World Cup 2022. Tite’s studies of the old continent’s playing tendencies were geared toward a day like this, and he feels more than prepared to both counter any surprises Martinez might spring and start the match with a winning lineup and formation (what could be called a lopsided-toward- the-left 4-2-2-2). That left, of course, is where the very fit and very in-form Neymar works. Tite has been looking forward to seeing Belgium try to deal with his star when healthy and is convinced that as was the case with Uruguay the key is patience and belief in their system.
Belgium and Brazil are both healthy and in form for this match and it is billed as the biggest clash of the tourney so far, Brazil the number one FIFA-ranked team in the world against Belgium the number two FIFA-ranked team on the planet. This is the type of match players and coaches alike, not to mention top referees, television announcers, and commentators, news media pundits, and fans, dream about.
The Belgians plan to come out with the same lineup that worked against Germany, while the Brazilians use nearly the same lineup that worked against Uruguay. Both teams are comfortable in their own skin and anxious for the ball to roll. Martinez’s only concern is not allowing Neymar to get the ball near the Belgian box while Tite’s major worry is allowing de Bruyne to set camp up on the Brazilian half of the pitch.
Both teams plan on pressing high and using their wingmen to complement their offensive forays. For this match, Tite makes one sub, he places Dani Alves on the right instead of Danilo. He is banking on Alves’ offensive punch to provide an extra destabilizing offensive option. When Martinez realizes the change made, he warns Castagne to play a bit further back and Vertonghen to cheat a bit further up to ensure Alves has to get by the two of them to do any damage.
The game begins with a bang as both teams know what they are about and feel they know their opponent well enough not to have to feel them out. Belgium get out of the blocks faster and a pretty Hazard combination with Lukaku forces Allison to make a superb save from the get-go. The Belgians are happy with their opening feeling they almost scored and that they have put the Brazilians where they want them.
Tite’s guys are taken aback by the ferocity of the Belgian’s opening and sit back to contemplate how best to counter it. In the meanwhile, the Red Devils keep the pressure on which has two effects, it builds the Belgian’s confidence that they can take the game to the Brazilians while it allows the Canarinha to absorb the best their opponents have to offer before countering with their best.
Half-way through the first half, the Belgians have had most of the possession and they finally turn that into an advantage when de Bruyne sends a chip pass over a marauding Alves and angled away from Marquinhos which forces the center back out of position to cover. Lukaku muscles the Brazilian defender off, gets to the end line, and waits the millisecond necessary for the perfect moment to open up and for Hazard to latch on to the expected but unstoppable cross. When Hazard reaches the cross all he needs to do is redirect it, slotting home the game’s first goal.
Intriguingly the score does not phase the Brazilians who seem to act as if the pressure is over for they have seen the best Belgium has to offer. Over the next fifteen minutes, the Selecao plays the best soccer on display at the cup, upstaging all previous performances at Qatar’s show. Neymar dribbles past Tielemans and Meunier and cuts in toward the Belgian goal then, before Alderweireld can close him off he sends a long, fast-paced diagonal pass across the Belgian penalty area to the far post where Raphinha taps in for the tying goal.
Before the Belgians can react, Vinicius Jr. breaks away on his own and dribbles into the Belgian box forcing club-mate Courtois to come out and cut off his angle. But the striker has actually thought this one out and as the tall keeper makes himself large while also crouching to cut off the low, wide shot, Vinny passes laterally to the incoming Paqueta who blasts in from between the penalty box line and the penalty spot. Brazil 2-1.
The Belgians don’t allow a third as they immediately coalesce into a defensive shell and play for possession, choosing not to attack much, trying instead to regain their composure and reach the halftime whistle without further damage. But Tite sees this as the moment for Brazil and he tells his charges to go all out for the score in the what are the last eight minutes of the half.
Eventually, Tite’s gamble with his veteran pays off. Alves intercepts a Castagne attempt to play a Vertonghen forward pass along to Hazard. The Brazilian wingback races down the right flank outrunning his marker and cuts in from right to left. At the far side, Vinicius makes a run that both defenders on his side have to cover and this allows Richarlison to place himself centrally and receive a pass that goes between Fred’s legs, the perfect dummy. He traps and wheels in a continuous motion and fires from just outside the box. The shot is inch-perfect as Courtois just grazes it on the way into the bottom left corner of the net. Brazil 3-1.
The rest last few minutes of the half are a stuttering staccato of Belgian offensive attempts and Brazilian interceptions wherein Paqueta, Casemiro, Fred, and Alves seem to be everywhere to stymie the Red Devils. When the whistle blows for halftime, the teams are on opposite ends of a very wide spectrum. The Brazilians are walking off the pitch with their heads held high, knowing they have likely dealt their opponents a fatal blow while the Belgians leave knowing they cannot betray their true level of concern, or they might as well wave a white flag. So, they walk off stone-faced but with chins held up.
The second half begins with the Belgians back on the attack and the Brazilians defending but without much worry as the Red Devils’ attacks seem to fizzle in deep midfield. The Brazilians have pulled Raphinha and Richarlison substituting them with Antony and Pedro while Alves is given the rest he has earned with Danilo taking his place. This latter substitution is ill-advised as the wingback is not the Selecao’s quickest study and will prove to be their Achilles heel down the line.
After having played to such a high level in the first half, the Brazilians on the pitch, post-substitutions, are not able to replicate that performance while the Belgians, who did not make any substitutions, raise their game. The match becomes a series of Belgian attacks which increasingly become more dangerous, and the Brazilian’s bouts of possession seem too short to break the Europeans’ rhythm. At the 35th-minute mark, de Bruyne gets past Danilo’s would-be defensive spot, with the wingback caught high up the field and his cover, Fred, out of position. De Bruyne gets to within his sizeable shooting range and unleashes a curler that surprises and fools Allison, crashing into the Brazilian goal off the far post. Brazil 3-2.
Neymar takes the affront personally and for the remainder of the half, he is fouled repeatedly because he decides to run the clock out on his own. But there is a method to his madness, and as stoppage time reaches its second minute of the five given, the Brazilian striker gets fouled in the perfect spot for a free kick. The Belgian wall is placed under the assumption Neymar will try to curl from left to right to reach the far post and Courtois places himself on an angle cheating toward his back post. But no one notices Casemiro has been standing next to Neymar all along.
When the whistle blows Neymar fakes a shot and runs over the ball, but the Belgian wall jumps and Casemiro, who ran at the ball right after Neymar, strikes hard and low as the wall reaches its apex. The ball explodes inside the Belgian goal pushing the net upward and over the crossbar with the power of the shot. Brazil 4-2.
The match comes to an end soon thereafter with Neymar and company ecstatic they have gotten their revenge for 2018 and Tite pumping his fists at having out-coached Martinez. The Belgians are too wiped out emotionally to do anything but drop to the pitch and contemplate the end of their golden run.
Portugal v Croatia
This is a classic battle between teams whose players know each other well from regular European club play at some of the best club teams in the world. La Liga’s Carvalho, Budimir, and Modric meet up with ex-Spanish domestic play sensation Ronaldo, while Premier League players Kovacic and Perisic talk to domestic play peers Silva and Pahlinha.
The Portuguese and Croatians thus know each other well enough to know their respective strengths and weaknesses, their key players, and their weak links. Croatian Coach Dalic doesn’t have an abundance of personnel choices but is grateful his top players are all in shape and in decent form. So he plays the cards he has in the formation he knows will be the most beneficial to his guys. Meanwhile, Santos is at his wit’s end as he knows Ronaldo wants to play but the coach thinks it would be best to bring him off the bench if needed. In the end, the coach gets his wish and CR7 actually acquiesces to the team’s needs allowing Santos to put out a 4-4-2 formation with Joao Felix and Rafael Leao as the strikers. Dalic has gone with his customary 4-1-4-1 with Brozovic the defensive “one” and Krameric the offensive.
Portugal are aware that Croatia are about as tough an opponent as they could have gotten, despite not having the flair or ranking of the likes of Belgium, France, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, or Spain. The Croatians have gravitas and in Modric, they have an uber midfield maestro who can play circles around most others most days and dance around them when he is on. So, Santos’ one order is to tell his midfield that whoever is nearest Modric has to mark him no matter where the ball is and that if Modric does get the ball he must be double-teamed.
Croatia are very confident in their starting eleven and feel that regardless of the opposition they are ready and able to compete so they have not gotten special instructions from Dalic. This team knows how to break tough defenses down and how to mount a spirited wall around their own goal when needed. So as the match arrives both sides have prepared and had time to take advantage of their camp’s options for relaxation, and neither side is much for changes of mind, lineup, formation, or expectations.
The match begins much like a club game might, with each side inhabiting their favored positions on the pitch. The opponents pass the ball around in turn looking to see where today’s chink may be, but the back-and-forth possessions seem more like tennis players warming each other up before their match begins. The Iberians take the first real stab and a Bernardo Silva shot nicks the Croatian post on its way out. Modric is seen giving his midfield peers the “no sweat” sign as a long-shot goal from anyone on the Portuguese side of the pitch at the moment will not be a likely occurrence. But, worrisome for the Croats, the Portuguese have much more possession of the ball and thus a greater number of chances as the half evolves.
The Croatians, though, surprisingly take the lead against the run of play, two-thirds of the way into the half, when a long trivela pass from Modric finds Krameric cutting in perfectly behind the Portuguese defense, to receive and volley on the run—a “best goal” of the tourney contender. Croatia 1—0 Portugal.
Portugal takes control for the remaining fifteen minutes and at the 85th Felix begins to lay claim to his international legacy with a nifty dribble past his marker and the next defender that comes at him, he then fakes a third by pretending to open up his hips and pass to an open Leao only to quickly turn and shoot at goal surprising Ivusic and bringing the sides even. Portugal 1-1 Croatia.
The half ends with the sides tied and neither feels like there is anything for it but to start all over again in the second half.
When the whistle blows for action to resume, we are treated to a back-and-forth match with the Croats again pulling ahead through a Modric assist, this time to Perisic on the wing who does his customary cut inside and shot at the far post for the score. But the lead lasts single-digit minutes when Felix is again the scorer. This time it is a beautiful Ruben Neves—Bruno Fernandes interplay that releases the young Portuguese striker down the wing but at an angle toward a one-on-one with Ivusic that does not materialize. Felix shoots low and to the far post as the keeper is beginning to come out, wrong-footing him and in essence nailing him to the pitch, unable to react. Portugal 2-1 Croatia.
The half is reaching the last five minutes when Kovacic dribbles into the box and is brought down for a penalty. Modric scores and the sides end the match tied. Extra time is broken into two very different halves.
In the first, the Croats pull ahead with a Brozovic header off a broken play following a Croatian corner. The extra time half ends with Modric’s side ahead. But in the second half, Silva and Fernandes both score off of pretty plays with Leao and Felix providing the assists. As the game’s end nears with the Portuguese 4-3 ahead, the exhausted teams are having a hard time mounting anything resembling a play when the final whistle mercifully blows.
Modric bows out of the World Cup at the quarterfinals stage but having played a great final match and the Croats leave the field to an ovation for all they have gifted the sport. The Portuguese live to fight another day and now have a very fresh and motivated Ronaldo chomping at the bit to play in the next game. Santos meanwhile is cognizant of Dalic’s pain knowing he could just as easily have been the loser in this match and he knows how painful it would be to close the books on the quadrennial careers of CR7’s and the current veterans of their great generation.
Photo: Joao Felix, Shutterstock ID 1683872674, by Christian Bertrand.