The 2022 World Cup quarterfinals are here. After a thrilling group stage and roller-coaster round of 16, we’re into the business end of the tournament with eight teams remaining. There’s plenty of star power, great matchups and top players who all have their eyes set on hoisting the trophy on Dec. 18.
The action begins Dec. 9 with Croatia and Brazil kicking off. But before the games begin, preview each team with key things to watch, players to know and predictions from our ESPN writers.
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Friday, Dec. 9
Croatia vs. Brazil
Education City Stadium, Al Rayyan; 10 a.m. ET
Have they met recently? This is their third meeting at a World Cup, though it’s their first encounter in the knockout rounds. Brazil won both prior meetings (1-0 in 2006, 3-1 in 2014).
Odds (via Caesars Sportsbook): CRO +750, BRA -295
One thing to know about Croatia
Leave it to coach Zlatko Dalic to best sum up Croatia’s prospects against Brazil: “The depth [Brazil] have in their squad is terrifying and they’re the best team at this World Cup. But I’ll also say they had better be prepared when they face us, because we have nothing to fear. I’m not saying it’s a 50-50 game, but we aren’t outsiders either. When I look at Brazil, I think they might struggle to endure prolonged possession by their opponent, for example.”
Dalic knows he has a midfield trio — Marcelo Brozovic, Mateo Kovacic and Luka Modric — that is long on experience and the sort of technical ability required to play keep-away and make the opponents chase you. He’s right too that none of Brazil’s opponents thus far have tried to play possession football against them.
It’s one path to victory, however difficult, and, of course, you’d want to combine it with the other: the chest-thumping grit that has defined this Croatian team for a long time and especially under Dalic. Just one of Croatia’s last eight major tournament appearances has failed to go to extra time or penalties (that was the World Cup final against France in 2018). They may not always beat you, but they are likely to take you to the very limit: physically, mentally and emotionally.
Dalic’s current side includes the veterans who knocked out Denmark, hosts Russia (both on penalties) and England (in extra time) at the last World Cup, plus a sprinkling of newcomers led by the impressive masked defender Josko Gvardiol. As often happens with Croatia, the next generation is schooled in the lore of those who came before, so the newbies slot in seamlessly.
If Dalic is right, you won’t see much celebratory dancing from Brazil. — Gabriele Marcotti
One thing to know about Brazil
Brazil entered the tournament as favorites to take their record sixth trophy and with three games to go, they’re still carrying that weight. Not that it has seemed to bother them much — whether they’re dancing after goals or ripping apart an opponent so easily that they felt comfortable giving their third-choice goalkeeper a chance to play in a knockout match, this tournament hasn’t brought much stress.
Some of that is down to a kind draw — remember, France are playing England in another quarterfinal — but much of it is due to Brazil’s incredible depth. Tite, Brazil’s coach, knows how fortunate he is to have so much offensive talent available. His tenure with Brazil has been marked by a sense of unease over his pragmatism (as opposed to the jogo bonito Brazil is known for) but at this tournament we’ve seen a good bit of both. Before the final group stage game with Cameroon — in which Tite rotated nearly his entire team since the result was meaningless — Brazil hadn’t faced a single shot on goal, while in the round-of-16 match with South Korea, Brazil’s attacking stars showed off their firepower with four early goals that ended the game after little more than half an hour.
The names are staggering: Neymar, Richarlison, Vinicius Jr., Casemiro, Raphinha — the list goes on. If there’s been a problem for Brazil, it’s injuries, though with Neymar back and Alex Sandro likely to return on Friday, Brazil are fairly healthy heading into the quarterfinals against a Croatia squad that (gulp) went 120 minutes plus penalties in their first knockout game. — Sam Borden
One Croatia player to know: Marcelo Brozovic
Brozovic combines two of the characteristics most prized in a central midfielder — quantity and quality — plus he has the stats to back them up. Against Japan in the round of 16, he covered 16.7 kilometers — more than 10 miles — breaking the record for distance covered in a World Cup game set by… Brozovic himself, against England, four years ago.
Most teams have a player who can run all day in the middle of the park the way he does. But it’s not always the case they’re also the team’s deep-lying playmaker, a role Brozovic fills for both Croatia and his club side, Inter Milan. Like a point guard in basketball, other than the odd counterattack or transition, virtually every attacking move passes through him at some point. Indeed, just two midfielders left in the tournament — France’s Aurelien Tchouameni and Argentina’s Rodrigo De Paul — have made more passes in open play than Brozovic.
It helps to be playing alongside two quality midfielders like Kovacic and Modric — guys you know are likely to get open, control the ball and, if need be, get it back to you — but the fact that Brozovic will also likely need to be a defensive shield against Brazil makes his job all the more important. On paper, Neymar, tucked in behind the centre-forward, will be in his zone a lot of the time and that’s not a fun ride for anyone. Then there are Lucas Paqueta’s runs from deeper, plus the possibility that Richarlison may drop into space or one of the centre-backs might advance.
In other words, Brozovic will be at the center of the action off the ball. And, on the ball, he’ll need to quarterback this team. Sound like a lot of work? Not for somebody who doesn’t mind covering 10 miles every game. — Marcotti
One Brazil player to know: Richarlison
The easy answer here is Neymar, but since pretty much everyone already knows him, let’s go with Richarlison, who is 25 years old, plays for Tottenham Hotspur and has been one of the fascinations of this tournament, because of both his prowess around the goal and his pigeon-dance celebration. (If you haven’t seen Richarlison bring coach Tite into the routine, find that video right now.)
As young Brazilian prospects go, Richarlison wasn’t especially heralded, but he famously forced his way onto Tite’s radar with some unexpectedly strong performances following the disappointing 2018 World Cup, and he has stayed there ever since.
What distinguishes Richarlison, though, isn’t his skill on the ball, but rather his finishing. Brazil have plenty of players who are artists, who can dribble it on a string or play the perfect pass; Richarlison is more of a poacher, a true striker. Look for him in front of the goal. Or dancing after he’s put the ball in the net. — Borden
Brazil 2-1 Croatia (after extra time): Modric & Co. have the guile and grit to make the Selecao suffer, but quality should win out.
Brazil 2-1 Croatia: In a tournament where upsets are starting to feel like the norm, it’s tempting to think Croatia might be able to pull this off and yet… I don’t think they will. Brazil are in form at just the right time, Croatia will have some fatigue to battle and the Selecao keep on rolling here. — Borden
Netherlands vs. Argentina
Lusail Iconic Stadium, Lusail; 2 p.m. ET
Have they met recently? This is their sixth meeting at the World Cup and only Germany (7 times) have faced Argentina more in this tournament. Argentina have won three (1974 group stage, 1978 final, 2014 semifinals) and the Dutch have won once (2-1 in the 1998 quarterfinal), with a 0-0 draw in the 2006 group stage.
Odds (via Caesars Sportsbook): NED +250, ARG +119
One thing to know about Argentina
This is all about Lionel Messi. In football terms, Messi’s pursuit of World Cup glory with Argentina is as close as you’ll get to replicating Michael Jordan’s “Last Dance” with the Chicago Bulls. The 35-year-old has won everything the game has to offer — multiple league titles in Spain and France with Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, four Champions Leagues and the Copa America with Argentina last year. But without the World Cup, Messi’s roll of honour will always seem like it’s missing something.
Some might argue that Messi’s pursuit of the World Cup is no different to Cristiano Ronaldo’s with Portugal. Ronaldo has also won everything bar the World Cup, but there is a difference with Messi in that Argentina expect to win the World Cup. They are a giant of world football in a way that Portugal never have been, and likely never will be, given the size of each nation.
And with Messi and Argentina, the shadow of Diego Maradona always looms large. Maradona was the genius who virtually single-handedly carried Argentina to World Cup glory in 1986 and Messi has always been expected to do the same. At 35, can Messi still do what Maradona did at the age of 25 at Mexico ’86?
So far in Qatar, Messi has delivered, scoring three goals and inspiring Lionel Scaloni’s team into the quarterfinals, but at each stage, the pressure intensifies. This Argentina squad lacks the depth of talent of its predecessors, but with Messi and the team’s incredible supporters, the dream of a third World Cup remains alive. — Mark Ogden
One thing to know about Netherlands
Right from the outset, manager Louis van Gaal, 71, has talked about winning the World Cup. He’s doing it his way — and he doesn’t care what others think about him. He has faced criticism back in the Netherlands as the team’s style of football is pragmatic, but he values tournament progress over popularism. He’s rigid in his 3-5-2 formation and the team’s style has been criticised as the Dutch are used to playing expansive, flowing Total Football. But it’s working. Van Gaal has been a clever manager since he took charge of the Netherlands for the third time back in August 2021, and they are 19 matches unbeaten under him.
They are defensively astute — expect their back three and Frenkie de Jong to try and nullify Messi. They attack by funnelling the ball to the wings, using their two attacking full-backs Denzel Dumfries and Daley Blind to give them width. The midfielders fan out to draw the defenders away, and they aim to get low crosses into the box for their two attackers to follow up on — take the first goal against the US; it was a masterclass.
In any Van Gaal team, there are three “creative” players and eight “loyal” players. It’s the football credo he has lived and died by over his 36-year managerial career, and he hopes it’ll be enough to take them all the way here in Qatar. — Tom Hamilton
One Argentina player to know: Julian Alvarez
Messi can’t carry Argentina on his own — even Maradona had help from world-class teammates in 1986. Julian Alvarez is arguably the most important member of the team after Messi, because the Manchester City forward is the one player who can be relied upon to score goals. The 22-year-old has scored twice at this World Cup and his pace and movement make him a more likely starter against the Netherlands than Inter Milan’s Lautaro Martinez, who has struggled to make an impression so far during the tournament.
With the Dutch expected to try to contain Argentina and then hit them on the break, Scaloni’s team will need Alvarez to take advantage of any opportunities that come his way. His goal threat means that the Netherlands cannot just focus on stopping Messi. — Ogden
One Netherlands player to know: Frenkie de Jong
Cody Gakpo is getting plenty of headlines here with three goals in four games and has been linked with a January move to Manchester United, while Memphis Depay is worth keeping an eye on as their key striker. But if the Netherlands are to beat Argentina, they need defensive midfielder Frenkie de Jong on song.
He controls the tempo of the team and is key in their transitional play. He’s the conduit between the team’s defence and the attacking third, but he will also need to keep an eye on Messi and cut down the passing lanes to Argentina’s star player. He will feature in the Netherlands’ midfield trio — likely alongside Davy Klaassen and Marten de Roon.
Expect De Jong to play as a No. 6 — just in front of the defence — but to also have license to drift forward, with De Roon covering him. He has the ability to take an innocuous-looking position on the field and suddenly turn it into a scoring opportunity with one key ball. — Hamilton
Netherlands 1, Argentina 2 (after extra time): Unless Argentina score early, this threatens to be a cagey game, with Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal happy for his players to try to win the game with a patient passing game and potentially by man-marking Messi. But Argentina possess the better attacking players — though it might not be settled until extra time. — Ogden
Netherlands 1, Argentina 0 (after extra time): I can see Netherlands winning this. It may eventually be on penalties, but I think Van Gaal’s plan has worked so far, and very few teams are going to have the nous and ability to break them down. Argentina haven’t lived up to their status as one of the pre-tournament favourites, and if the Dutch can successfully get this match goalless to about the 70-minute mark, they will see it out. — Hamilton
Saturday, Dec. 10
Morocco vs. Portugal
Al Thumama Stadium, Doha; 10 a.m. ET
Have they met recently? The two sides have met twice before in World Cup play, both times coming during the group stage. Morocco won 3-1 when they clashed in 1986, while Portugal edged their 2018 meeting 1-0.
Odds (via Caesars Sportsbook): MOR +440, POR -150
One thing to know about Morocco
After becoming the first African nation to advance to the World Cup round of 16 in 1986, the Atlas Lions are again on the verge of history. A win against Portugal would make them the first African team to reach the semifinals, after Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010) all lost in the quarterfinals. Each of the other seven remaining teams has reached the semifinals since 2006, and all but Portugal advanced that far in either 2014 or 2018.
If the Cinderella story continues, it will be because coach Walid Regragui has installed an effective defend-and-counter style that none of their opponents — Croatia, Belgium, Canada and Spain — have come close to solving. The only goal they’ve given up in those four matches was an own goal against Canada, which came when Morocco had a two-goal cushion. Spain wasn’t even able to beat goalkeeper Yassine Bounou in penalties.
It’s a markedly different style than that of the other remaining teams. Morocco’s 32.8% possession in the tournament is by far the lowest of the eight teams left (the Netherlands are next at 53.4%). Even though that isn’t necessarily a barrier to success, it is a contributing factor in Morocco’s inability to create much of an attack.
Morocco’s goals (4), xG (3.08), shots (30), shots on goal (10), shots on target percentage (33.3) and minutes per goal (97.5) all rank last among the quarterfinalists. But it’s not like conceding all that possession has put Bounou into much action, either — only Argentina have allowed fewer shots on goal. What’s happened is that Morocco games have been played away from the penalty areas. — Kyle Bonagura
One thing to know about Portugal
Portugal have injected real purpose into their World Cup campaign with the 6-1 win over Switzerland in the last 16 and it’s mostly down to coach Fernando Santos. The 68-year-old, in charge since 2014, has largely exhausted the credit earned for winning the European Championships in 2016 but just when the Portuguese public were predicting a meek end to their tournament in Qatar, Santos made a couple of huge decisions and suddenly, his team look like contenders again.
Cristiano Ronaldo was benched and replaced with 21-year-old Benfica striker Goncalo Ramos, while Manchester City full-back Joao Cancelo and Wolves midfielder Ruben Neves — ever-present in Qatar up until that point — were also left out.
The result was an emphatic win over a team which had only conceded two goals in eight qualifying games to finish ahead of Italy, prompting a renewed wave of optimism in the lead-up to what is being viewed at home as a very winnable quarterfinal against Morocco.
Ramos, who only had 33 minutes of international football under his belt before being thrown in against Switzerland, is the man of the moment after scoring a hat-trick but Santos has also shown he still has the appetite to make big decisions — even if it means risking his close relationship with Ronaldo.
Portugal lost in the last 16 in 2010 and 2018 but there’s hope now that — with a formidable attacking force led by Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes and Joao Felix — they can match their run to the semifinals in 2006 and possibly get even further. Their campaign has already been a roller coaster, but it could still finish on a high. — Rob Dawson
One Morocco player to know: Azzedine Ounahi
In Spain coach Luis Enrique’s words, PSG right-back Achraf Hakimi and Chelsea winger Hakim Ziyech are “obvious.” Same with Sevilla forward Youssef En-Nesyri and Fiorentina’s Sofyan Amrabat. But the player who unexpectedly caught Enrique’s attention in the round of 16 was Azzedine Ounahi, the 22-year-old Angers midfielder.
“He plays really well,” Enrique said. “I was very surprised.” According to data supplied by FIFA, no one has covered more ground in a match this tournament (Morocco-Spain is one of just two that went to extra time) than Ounahi against Spain, covering 14,715 meters — the equivalent of about 9.1 miles. He might not be the flashiest player on the roster, but his role winning the ball in midfield is central to what has allowed Morocco to progress this far. — Bonagura
One Portugal player to know: Bruno Fernandes
Most of the noise around Portugal since they arrived in Qatar has focused on Ronaldo but quietly, Bruno Fernandes has been in fine form. Usually deployed in a central role for Manchester United, he has been used on the right of the front three at the World Cup and it has paid off.
Fernandes has got two goals and three assists in four games with opposing teams finding it difficult to pick up the 28-year-old as he drifts inside off the right flank. Santos has also started Diogo Dalot at right-back in the last two games and his raiding runs forward have led to assists against South Korea and Switzerland.
If Morocco can nullify Portugal’s right side they will have a good chance of progressing. But that’s easier said than done. The movement of Fernandes, Felix, Bernardo and Ramos caused Switzerland — usually solid defensively — massive problems and on another night they could have conceded 10 rather than just six. — Dawson
Morocco 0, Portugal 2: As good as Morocco have been defensively, it feels like a bit much to ask for another clean sheet against Portugal, in light of their 6-1 thumping of Switzerland. The offensive shortcomings are bound to catch up to them at some point. — Bonagura
Morocco 1, Portugal 2 (after extra time): Morocco have only conceded once in Qatar and Portugal will find them more stubborn than Switzerland, but with so many goals in the team, they will find a way through eventually. It might take extra time and you wouldn’t put it past Ronaldo to have a big impact off the bench in his last World Cup. — Dawson
England vs. France
Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor; 2 p.m. ET
Have they met recently? This will be the third time they face each other in the World Cup. England won the previous two meetings: 3-1 in 1982 and 2-0 in 1966, both during the group stages.
Odds (via Caesars Sportsbook): ENG +215, FRA +130
One thing to know about England
How brave do England feel? Gareth Southgate’s success over the past six years has been built on breaking down barriers that have inhibited them at past tournaments: feeling the pressure, individual errors and substandard retention of possession.
Consequently, England’s approach has been laced with pragmatism or, Southgate’s critics would argue, caution, which it is suggested this young and dynamic group do not require to be seen at their best. Nobody is expecting England to launch all-out attack against the World Cup holders, but the demand on Southgate is to let one of the best collections of attacking players at this World Cup express themselves. A key indicator will be visible before kick-off.
Generally speaking, Southgate has opted for a 3-4-3/3-5-2 shape against teams that he feels are better than England, effectively adding an insurance policy into his line-up. So far in Qatar, England have lined up 4-3-3 and scored 12 goals, more than any other team this tournament. After a slow start in three of their four matches, England moved through the gears and found a rhythm. Can they be similarly progressive against a French team likely to command more of the ball?
As ever with Southgate, involved in his seventh tournament for England as a player and a coach, history will be a factor in his mind. England have simply never beaten an elite nation in a tournament knockout game away from Wembley in modern times. They were excellent in defeating Germany at last summer’s delayed Euro 2020 round-of-16 stage, yet they had the backing of a partisan home crowd in London and Hansi Flick’s side exiting at the group stage here confirms this is not exactly a golden period of German football.
Beating this hugely talented French side, even with multiple injuries, would be different — a statement victory that would make a first trophy since 1966 a tangible possibility. — James Olley
One thing to know about France
Didier Deschamps is reinventing Antoine Griezmann in this World Cup and it is fascinating to see. Around two years ago, as a joke one morning at breakfast, Deschamps told the Atletico de Madrid forward: “You know, you would be a great holding midfielder. You have everything to be a great No. 6!” They both laughed it off and that was it. Until Qatar.
After all the injuries in midfield (Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante) and the players who have disappeared since the triumph in Russia in 2018 (Blaise Matuidi, Corentin Tolisso), the France head coach had to find a new plan and a new structure. Adrien Rabiot and Tchouameni fitted well, but Deschamps needed something else, someone else to play as an eight. A player with flair, intelligence, grit, work rate, heart and vision. Griezmann was this player.
He has gone from strength to strength in this World Cup. He started slowly against Australia before taking charge of the game. He was outstanding against Denmark and his second half against Poland was world-class. He runs a lot (over 12 km per game on average), he brings fluidity, he creates space for others and chances (nine in three starts) and he recovers the ball (20 in three starts).
He has been a revelation in this new position and at 31, you wonder how far he can go and if this will give ideas to Diego Simeone at Madrid. When France arrived in Qatar three weeks ago, their team was a big jigsaw that Deschamps was trying to put together. At the heart of it was Antoine Griezmann. The France No. 7 has managed to stick all the pieces around him together. — Julien Laurens
One England player to know: Harry Kane
The 29-year-old won the Golden Boot at the last World Cup but scored five of his six goals in Russia during the group stage. He has since modified his approach to tournament football, aiming to peak in the knockout rounds, and his first goal in Qatar during England’s last-16 win over Senegal was an encouraging start.
However, Kane has also been playing slightly differently, dropping deeper more often to help overload opponents in midfield and link play. The Tottenham striker has three assists to his name and has been quietly effective throughout the tournament, aside from the 0-0 draw against the USMNT (when England collectively were poor).
There will inevitably be plenty of focus on Kylian Mbappe from a defensive point of view, but Kane has always wanted to be judged alongside the very best in the world: playing a defining role in a World Cup quarterfinal against top opposition would be one of the biggest moments in his career. Kane is also just one goal short of equalling Wayne Rooney’s all-time England scoring record (53). — Olley
One player to know: Kylian Mbappe
There could be only one here. Kylian Mbappe is the best player in the world right now. There is no debate. He has been unstoppable, unplayable so far in this tournament with five goals and two assists in four games. And in one of these games, against Tunisia, he only came on for the last 27 minutes. Matty Cash, the Poland right-back, had a decent game against Mbappe and France in the round of 16. Yet the Paris-born forward scored twice to seal the game and assisted once to open the scoring.
There is a sense of responsibility from Mbappe at this World Cup as well as a sense of territory. For this tournament to be remembered as the Mbappe World Cup, he needs to finish the job. — Laurens
England 2, France 3: England have not been tested defensively in this tournament and France will likely expose their vulnerabilities. They can cause France problems of their own, however, and this could be a titanic clash settled by fine margins. — Olley
England 1, France 0: Despite Kylian, France will show their current limitations, especially defensively. England have more depth in their squad, they are strong on set pieces where the French are vulnerable and their front line is spectacular. — Laurens