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The Joys and Heartaches of the Knockout Stage

December 12th, 2022

The quarterfinals of this wondrous tournament have come and gone and produced some glorious action. The excitement and heart-pumping thrills and dramatics have been nothing short of amazing. I am, once again, extremely grateful to be able to witness such. There is a magic produced by these games that is unparalleled in the world of sport. There isn’t anything quite like playing for the badge and the flag in such pressure filled, incredible occasions. There isn’t anything quite like watching it, either!

            Argentina came into the Netherlands game feeling confident, flying high off the back of Messi’s first goal beyond the group stage of a World Cup. The Dutch were likewise inspired by their own successes so far in the tournament. Despite a stout display by the men in orange, they found themselves down by two goals and in trouble. Leaving the controversy to the those more interested in drama than sport, we’ll leave my opinions of the referee at the door although it has to be said that any Argentine complaints over the man’s performance are farcical at best, bordering hypocritical at worst. There was definite World Cup magic in the air, however, as the Dutch stormed back late on. Their first goal certainly shook the Albiceleste and led to their being bamboozled with the last kick of regulation. We’ve seen a fair few set pieces of a tactical and unusual nature but none more effective than the cheeky pass just inside the wall. The finish was cool and instinctive and stunned everyone, including me. I stood up in my living room as the Spanish commentator emptied his lungs screaming “gooooooooooooool” for who knows how long. It was a wonderful moment, an astounding moment, an unforgettable come back to live long in World Cup memory. However, the dream finish to a dramatic story was not to be. The unimaginable pressure of a World Cup penalty shootout is a litmus test that sorts out the champions from the pretenders.

            Would be champions Brazil learned this lesson in painful fashion against the men from the small nation of Croatia. This competition has yet another wonderful feature of colliding contrasting styles of this wonderful game we all love. Clearly on display in the Brazil v Croatia match, I found this one an absolute joy to watch. It surprised me. The Croatian tenacity surprised me just as much as it did the Brazilians. I thought that quite apart from the team defending and tactics; the individual defending in one v one situations was superb from the Europeans. I am of the opinion that the greatest of teams can approach the game with a “we’re here and we’re gonna win” attitude such that they can respond to anything against the ball and simply do their own thing with it and no one can stop them. This is how France approach the game, this is how Argentina approach the game, its how Brazil themselves approach the match…and its how Croatia approach the game as well. The endurance men know they can outlast anyone, they can defend against anyone and when their backline is breached, they have the next gear to go into to handle business. Give a goal in overtime? No problem, we’ll pull one back and win the shootout! The experience of Brozovic, Kovacic, and of course Modric in the center of this team is invaluable. This is no more evidenced by the fact that Modric stepped up for the first penalty in clear contrast with Neymar, who wanted to shoot last. Was this because he wanted to be the hero where Modric wanted to be the example? Or was it a simpler tactical decision to have the best anchoring the line? Regardless, it was a damning decision from the Brazilians and the endurance men roll on to their next marathon.

            Morocco! Morocco! Morocco! Everyone loves an underdog story, especially one making history as Morocco become the first ever African nation to compete in a World Cup semifinal! Not unlike their Croatian counterparts, this Cinderella story has been built on superb defending and being calm under pressure. Yes, Spain’s penalties were worse than my beer league team but the victory over Portugal dispelled any notions that Morocco don’t deserve everything they’ve achieved. I knew going into this one that Portugal would be frustrated but I didn’t think they would resort to flopping and diving and their best con artistry so early in this match. Morocco were comfortable for the entire first half with the Portuguese tactics of trying to spread the game out to find the space. Simple. Keep the ball in front of you, that’s really all it was. They upped the pressure in the second half sure, but I felt that Ronaldo was less than impactful in the second and most of the men in white were more focused on tumbling to the ground than trying to win the game fairly. To say I was disgusted by the Iberian team is the understatement of the tournament but I’d rather focus on the Moroccan dream!!! Love to see this run and the pure bliss there are enjoying at the moment and its even more of a bonus that they are 100 percent value for everything they have achieved at this tournament off the back of a defense that has only been breached by one of their own and no one else!!!!!

            France v England. Two absolute powerhouses of history and tradition. That’s to say nothing of their prowess at the World Cup! This one lived up to the hype and more! The English defense surprised me the most in this matchup as I thought it would take lots and lots of goals to defeat the French. However, the chance was there to be had due, once again, to the stoutness of the British defense. I thought that they approached the game tactically brave but it was necessary if they were to go toe to toe with Mbappe and co. I knew the French had goals but what a strike from the most unexpected source! Touchmeni with an absolute laser beam!!!! It goes without saying the Oliver Giroud is a machine and a legend. A wise coach of mine once said (just the once!): “near post runs score goals!” and I imagine that Giroud took this to heart. A true out and out striker’s striker and a champion to boot. His counterpart in the other penalty box, however, will be wishing he channeled some of that champion spirit. Life is about moments, the World Cup comes down to moments, entire careers………Something in the back of my mind told me that Kane might not convert again. I posed the question of who was the most sure penalty taker left in the tournament during the last podcast and this man was my answer. The shot that’s still sailing high over Lloris’ bar shocked me, shocked him, shocked everyone in the stadium, in the world. The Arsenal fan in me shouted with glee but it was sad to see England go out in such a manner. They never looked like recovering from the gut punch of missing a sure thing but it did prove to me that France just have too much. Even if Kane scores there, I expect the result would be the same. The trophy is theirs for a reason; its still theirs to lose for that very same reason…

            The semis are set!!! The endurance men vs the GOAT and the juggernaut vs the upstarts!!!! Even with so little of the tournament yet to be played, I know there is still plenty more wonder and magic in store for those who love this beautiful game!

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