The Seleção are in full flight and, as you may have heard, enjoying themselves in the process. Their first-half evisceration of South Korea felt like a throwback, moments such as Richarlison’s seal impression offering reminders of those days when nobody could rival Brazil for sheer fun. Even without Gabriel Jesus they retain a depth of attacking talent few can match, partly thanks to Neymar’s Lazarus-like recovery from injury. Keep this up and a first World Cup since 2002 should be theirs, although there are caveats: they squeaked past Switzerland, the only practised tournament side they have faced, and Croatia should offer an even sterner test on Friday. Alisson Becker was also worked harder than he may have liked on Monday night, although he demonstrated the value of a top-class keeper in the process. Can anyone stop them?
Sometimes it feels France’s plan is to send possession Kylian Mbappé’s way and say “you do the rest”. The problem for their opponents is that it tends to work. Anyone who can halt Mbappé may be able to stop Les Bleus but he is in virtually unplayable form and already looks a safe bet for the Golden Boot. Didier Deschamps will also be encouraged that the supporting cast is showing signs of life, and France, who have scored nine goals across the three games in which he has selected a first-choice side, may be clicking at the right time. The evergreen Olivier Giroud adds a valuable balance, while Aurélien Tchouaméni has taken to life as their midfield linchpin. Further injuries would give Deschamps a headache but the core look in lean shape.
That wasn’t so difficult, was it? Now that Fernando Santos has, perhaps terminally, cut the cord with Cristiano Ronaldo the tournament seems alive with possibility for Portugal. They were devastating against Switzerland, a rejuvenated frontline slicing their unusually loose opponents open at will, and Gonçalo Ramos coming from nowhere to become a potential star of this winter. Beating decent Ghana and Uruguay sides in the group stage was further evidence of the weapons Santos has in his armoury, which include a potent substitute in Rafael Leão. They will not be devastated at facing Morocco on Saturday, who spent 120 minutes on a highly rewarding but hugely exacting task in defeating Spain. Could Ronaldo’s much-sought World Cup be won from the sidelines?
Gareth Southgate’s players will find France a clear step-up from several lower-key assignments but it would not take an over-active imagination to see them pull through on Saturday. There were rocky moments early on against Senegal but England have some of the best young players in the tournament – Jude Bellingham has announced himself as an essential pick – and are a gripping proposition when on the front foot. When they are denied space,much of their possession can appear sterile: France will know that and may be content to utilise their own speed through counterattacks. But Harry Kane has opened his account, the midfield looks well-balanced and defensive bloopers have been minimised: could it be coming home for Christmas?
Every Argentina match in Doha feels like appointment viewing, if not for the fare produced by Lionel Scaloni’s team then for the jaw-dropping support that turns stadiums into pulsating places of worship. La Albiceleste have only shone in flashes but have done well to banish that remarkable defeat by Saudi Arabia, and one thing is clear: Lionel Messi is already enjoying his best World Cup, scoring three times and operating on a different level to everyone else. There are signs his younger teammates are raising theirs: Julián Álvarez is showing why Manchester City brought him to the Etihad and the Benfica midfielder Enzo Fernández looks an outstanding talent. They still need to put it together against the best but with supporters that make it feel like they have home advantage, Argentina have a chance.
There is a sense Louis van Gaal’s team has flown beneath the radar so far but, like others, they are stirring at a convenient point. Critics accused them of boring football during an unremarkable group stage but Memphis Depay and Cody Gakpo – the latter was certainly exempt from criticism in earlier games – shone against the USA, and Denzel Dumfries was outstanding at right wing-back. Frenkie de Jong was also back to his best, and their tie with Argentina, a reprise of previous classics, looks finely poised. The Netherlands are unbeaten in 19 games since Van Gaal’s return, and while he would still like greater control in possession, can be rapier-like in the transition. If Messi is to land the biggest prize he has a stiff hurdle to overcome on Friday.
Morocco showed in the group stage that they are a serious team and everyone is awake to that now after they dumped Spain out. Walid Regragui oversees a tough, clever unit with extraordinary tactical discipline and an attack capable of the unexpected. The only goal they have conceded was a consolation in the win over Canada and that is some achievement given they have played Croatia, Belgium and Spain. Shutting out Portugal on Saturday would top the lot and Morocco have a chance. In Achraf Hakimi they possess a genuine star, while Luis Enrique can testify to the qualities of the midfield whirlwind Azzedine Ounahi. And nobody can discount a flash of genius from Hakim Ziyech. Africa has never had a representative in the last four and Morocco are a win away from making history.
You know the old saying: never write off the Croatians. In all seriousness, Zlatko Dalic’s team have a whiff of past Germany sides about them: they never know when they are beaten, and while they are creaking in some departments few know their way around a tournament more adeptly. They were on the ropes against a sparky Japan but pulled through; Ivan Perisic’s equaliser was a reminder that half this squad still boasts several World Cup finalists and that counts for plenty when fine margins need navigating. Whether they can handle Brazil’s attacking tempo remains to be seen but it would be foolhardy to rule them out on Friday. One way or another, Croatia have a habit of making you play on their terms.