World Cup: France, Brazil, Uruguay, Belgium battle for semi-final spots
The World Cup bursts back into life on Friday as tournament favourites Brazil take on a Belgium side brimming with talent while a young France team face battle-hardened Uruguay.
The first match Uruguay-France, will take place at 3pm Nigerian time and the second at 7pm.
Neymar’s Brazil are aiming to win a record-extending sixth World Cup at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on July 15.
But first, the world’s most expensive player and his star-studded supporting cast have to get past Belgium, who boast an array of their firepower, to reach the semi-finals.
In a Kazan Arena expected to be dominated by yellow-clad Brazil fans, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne have a chance to prove they can cut it at the highest international level.
They will have to be wary of attacking threats coming at them from every direction.
“Individually, Brazil are the strongest team in this World Cup,” said vastly experienced Belgium defender Vincent Kompany.
“But it doesn’t affect our chances against them. None of us are going to sleep at night thinking ‘We have already lost to Brazil’.
“We are going to look them in the eye. But if we make this a match of individuals, then we’ll lose,” he said.
Brazil coach Tite said he was desperate to win the match without resorting to the “horror” of penalties after three of the last-16 ties were settled by spot-kicks.
“A football match should never be settled with the horror of penalties. I don’t see that as a valid result,” Tite told a packed press conference on Thursday. “For me, there has to be another way.”
Brazil made a slow start in Russia but hit their stride with an impressive performance to shut down Mexico in the last round, even though Neymar was roundly criticised for once again play-acting at the merest contact from an opponent.
“If I seem more relaxed, it’s because the players have put me in this position by playing better,” said Tite.
France overran Argentina in a last-16 match that appeared to signal the passing of a torch to a new generation of superstars, as 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe scored twice to outshine Lionel Messi and dump the 2014 finalists out of the competition.
Yet nobody in the French camp is under any illusions that Uruguay will give them the acres of space they enjoyed against the disorganised Argentinian defence.
“Uruguay have so many assets, so many qualities,” said France coach Didier Deschamps. “They defend as a unit, they play together and they love to do that.”
Uruguay are crossing their fingers that prolific striker Edinson Cavani will recover from the calf injury he sustained in his impressive two-goal performance that ended the hopes of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal.
Cavani was back in training on Thursday and France are acutely aware of the threat posed by the man who plays his club football for Paris Saint-Germain.
“I am preparing my team for if Cavani plays,” Deschamps said, although he suggested Uruguay were keeping their cards close to their chest: “If he plays or not, I will only know 90 minutes before the game.”
In England, World Cup fever is building as hopes rise that Gareth Southgate’s young team can beat Sweden on Saturday and reach the semi-finals for the first time since 1990.
Even Bank of England governor Mark Carney is getting swept up in the excitement, saying that if the Three Lions were to win the tournament for the first time since 1966, “it would be an unalloyed, unadulterated, absolute good”.
Coach Gareth Southgate has urged his young squad to seize their chance.
“It’s a great opportunity, and although our team will be individually better in two years, we might not have this opportunity again,” Southgate told the BBC.
In Saturday’s other quarter-final, host nation Russia will hope to keep their rollercoaster ride through the finals going when they face Croatia.
Written off as no-hopers before the tournament, Russia are now within reach of their first semi-final since 1966.