Just because the World Cup took a break doesn’t mean we are! With two days of no games ahead of the quarterfinals, there’s plenty to look ahead before the last eight teams still in contention kick off business end of the tournament on Friday.
Be sure to check in with ESPN throughout the tournament as we bring you the latest from Qatar. Here’s what you might have missed from Wednesday’s World Cup happenings, and a look ahead to what’s coming later in the week.
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World Cup quarterfinals: 1 big thing for each 8 teams
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 on Dec. 9 with Croatia and Brazil kicking off, followed by the Netherlands battling Argentina.
On Dec. 10, Morocco face off against Portugal before England vs. France wrap up the weekend’s action.
Before the games begin, ESPN takes a look at each team with key things to watch and players to know.
Click HERE to get the full breakdown, including our predictions of which teams will advance.
– World Cup bracket: Last eight teams feature four previous winners
Croatia vs. Brazil
Friday, Dec. 9, 10 a.m. ET
Note on Croatia: As manager, Zlatko 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.
Note on Brazil: You know about Neymar, but keep tabs on Richarlison, who is 25 years old, plays for Tottenham Hotspur and has been one of the fascinations of this tournament both because of his prowess around the goal and also his pigeon-dance celebration. Look for him in front of the goal. Or dancing after he’s put the ball in the net.
Netherlands vs. Argentina
Friday, Dec. 9, 2 p.m. ET
Note on Argentina: This is all about Lionel Messi. In football terms, his pursuit of World Cup glory is as close as you’ll get to replicating Michael Jordan’s “Last Dance” with the Chicago Bulls. 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 squad lacks the depth of talent of its predecessors but the dream of Argentina’s first title since 1986 is alive.
Note on Netherlands: 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 win, they need defensive midfielder Frenkie de Jong to be on the top of his game.
Morocco vs. Portugal
Saturday, Dec. 10, 10 a.m. ET
Note on 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.
Note on Portugal: Most of the noise around Portugal since they arrived in Qatar has focused on Cristiano 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’s paid off. And with 37-year-old Ronaldo now benched in favor of 21-year-old Benfica striker Gonçalo Ramos, it could be a changing of the guard.
England vs. France
Saturday, Dec. 10, 2 p.m. ET
Note on England: Squad captain Harry Kane won the Golden Boot at the last World Cup but scored five of his six goals in Russia during the group stage. The 29-year-old has since modified his approach to tournament football aiming to peak in the knockout rounds and his first goal in Qatar during England’s round of 16 win over Senegal was an encouraging start.
Note on France: Kylian Mbappe is the best player in the world right now. He has been unstoppable and unplayable so far in this tournament with five goals and two assists in four games. It was okay to think that France would have a drop in form due to the pre-tourney injuries, but as long as Mbappe is on the pitch, Les Bleus will remain on course to repeat as champions.
USA latest: Berhalter set to run it back?
The latest from ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle is that USA men’s team manager Gregg Berhalter is set to begin discussions on a new contract with the U.S. Soccer Federation.
One source acknowledged it’s still very early in the process, and other sources have indicated that Berhalter is interested in exploring European club options.
While Berhalter earned a passing grade in Qatar, there is little doubt that USA fans were left wanting more. So, with a few days to decompress and analyze this team and its tournament, ESPN’s writers sat down to discuss what this team did right, what they didn’t, and where they go from here. Check it out HERE.
And as a reminder, we are less than four years away from the next World Cup (co-hosted with Mexico and Canada). While tons will change between now and then, ESPN gives you a way-too-early assessment on how the USA’s roster could look, with plenty of familiar faces but other players to keep an eye on. Give a look HERE.
Today’s top reads
Your ultimate guide to penalty shootouts: best takers, keeper stats, more
The chances of a game being decided from the spot increase exponentially. Breaking down the numbers on how to win a penalty shootout.
World Cup Best XIs: Putting together the best dream teams so far
England’s Jude Bellingham is one of the consensus picks among ESPN’s writers in Qatar, but who else makes it in our World Cup Best XI lists so far?
Looking at Portugal’s Ramos, the man who replaced Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo was dropped for 21-year-old Gonçalo Ramos against Switzerland, who then scored a hat trick for Portugal. He’s also a future star.
News and notes
Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag has said the club is “looking to the future” following Cristiano Ronaldo’s acrimonious departure last month. Ronaldo is a free agent after he mutually agreed to terminate his contract with United in November following a controversial interview before the World Cup. When asked about Ronaldo’s exit for the first time, Ten Hag told the club’s official website: “He’s gone and it’s the past. We are now looking forward and we’re looking to the future.”
Netherlands captain Virgil van Dijk was adamant that the Netherlands’ World Cup quarterfinal against Argentina on Friday wasn’t a battle of him against Lionel Messi, but added his team would be cautious in their approach. The Dutch also face the possibility of the majority of the 80,000-odd crowd at Lusail Stadium cheering on Argentina as a surprisingly small number of orange-clad Netherlands supporters have travelled.
The German football federation (DFB) maintained its trust in Hansi Flick as Germany men’s national team coach on Wednesday despite the disappointing World Cup performance. DFB president Bernd Neuendorf said the body has “full confidence” in Flick to lead the team through the 2024 European Championship, which Germany is scheduled to host. Since winning the 2014 World Cup title under manager Joachim Low, the Germans have bowed out of the group stage in 2018 (under Low) and now 2022.