The last eight teams at the FIFA World Cup will fight for four coveted spots in the semifinals this weekend. The action kicks off tomorrow with two showdowns between elite teams. Here’s what to watch for from a tactical perspective, as well as predictions for who will move on.
Uruguay vs. France (10 a.m. on FS1)
This matchup features two of the tournament’s most consistent performers. Both teams avoided the upset plague that knocked out many of their fellow powerhouses. Uruguay’s key to success has been their balance. Coach Oscar Tabarez sets his side up in a back-to-basics 4-4-2, and the simplicity of his game plan has worked to perfection.
The center back tandem of Diego Godín and José Giménez has been rock solid, anchoring a defense that has allowed just one goal in four games. They don’t have a star player in midfield, instead relying on a collective strategy of cutting off the opponent’s passing lanes and being patient in possession once they win it. Uruguay’s best two players are their strikers, Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani. Both are lethal in front of goal, and a nightmare for any defense.
But Uruguay have yet to come up against an attack as dangerous as France’s. The French exploded for four goals in their Round of 16 win over Argentina, with precocious 19-year-old winger Kylian Mbappé leading the charge. For those in soccer circles, Mbappé has been a known commodity since his stellar Champions League campaign with Monaco two seasons ago, and he’s on his way to becoming a household name with his performance at the World Cup.
Despite initially favoring a front three, French coach Didier Deschamps has switched to a formation that deploys Olivier Giroud as a lone striker. Giroud’s size and strength have made him effective as a hold-up forward, receiving the ball with his back to goal and creating space for Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann to make runs in behind the opposing defense.
The result of this match will come down to tactics. France must avoid getting frustrated by Uruguay’s methodical pace of play. Uruguay will try to bait France into pressing too high, then break forward quickly. But with Cavani likely out injured, Uruguay look less threatening, and France have shown that they’re capable of succeeding in a slow game.
Prediction: France, 1-0
Brazil vs. Belgium (2 p.m. on FS1)
Another heavyweight battle pits two of the world’s top three teams against each other. Belgium were on the brink of a shocking loss to Japan in the Round of 16 before a late rally helped them escape with a 3-2 win. They’ll need to improve dramatically if they hope to get past Brazil.
Belgium are at their best when they move the ball quickly, freeing up time and space for their excellent creative players to operate. They can’t allow themselves to settle into a complacent rhythm. Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens need to roam and wreak havoc with their speed. When big target striker Romelu Lukaku gets service in the middle, he’s been brilliant this tournament. Thomas Meunier had a superb game at right wing back against Japan, consistently getting up the field and putting dangerous crosses into the box (including the assist for Nacer Chadli’s last-minute winner).
Belgium’s linchpin is Kevin De Bruyne. The midfield pivot that manager Roberto Martinez favors is most effective when De Bruyne is allowed to get on the ball in advanced positions, from which he can utilize his pinpoint passing ability to pick apart opposing defenses.
He can only do so when fellow central midfielder Axel Witsel drops in front of the back three and provides adequate cover. That may prove too tall of a task in this match, though. Against Brazil’s midfield trio of Casemiro, Paulinho and Philippe Coutinho, Witsel by himself won’t be enough.
Brazil have really found their form, winning each of their last three matches by a score of 2-0. Brazilian teams are usually loaded with exciting attackers and averse to the concept of defending, but this squad is far stronger at the back than its predecessors. They’ve conceded just one goal at the tournament despite injury problems at both fullback positions. Their third-choice right back and second-choice left back started against Mexico, and they still won with relative ease.
The team seems to have bought in to manager Tite’s system. They play a hybrid 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 that allows them to seamlessly shift between attacking and defending. Neymar gets a lot of credit when Brazil do well, and deservedly so, but Willian has been equally terrifying on the other wing. He’s an absolute handful when he runs at defenders. The midfield has executed the game plan with precision, as Coutinho has license to get forward knowing he has excellent ball winners in Casemiro and Paulinho behind him.
Both teams have world-class talent all over the pitch, so whoever controls the midfield will win this match. I give the slight edge to Brazil because they’re better coached. I also picked them to win it all at the start of the tournament and they haven’t given me a reason to jump ship. Neutrals can only hope the game will be as entertaining as it looks on paper.
Prediction: Brazil, 2-1 (after extra time)