This World Cup is one of the most extraordinary ever.
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After an incredibly dramatic and emotionally draining Round of 16, the World Cup now reaches the quarter-final stage. Eight teams are left in the tournament, but if we’ve learnt anything up to now it’s that there are no ‘sure things’- and none of the surviving teams should be written off.
Four of the 'dark horses' who I identified in my Sputnik preview piece of 11th June, have made it through, including generally unconsidered 150-1 shots Sweden, 66-1 shots Russia and 45-1 shots Croatia.
Brazil is one name you'd expect to see in the last eight, but other 'Usual Suspects' are missing from the octet. There's no Spain, Germany, Argentina or Portugal. Because of the draw we know that one out of Russia, Croatia, England and Sweden will be in the final in Moscow on 15th July. That in itself will be something of a novelty as only one of those sides, England, is a previous winner, and that was over 50 years ago.
Sweden did reach a World Cup final, but that was way back in the 1950s. If Belgium make it through from the top half of the draw and England fail to reach the final, then we would have two teams in the final who had never won the World Cup before.
What a contrast that would be to 2014, when Germany and Argentina — with five previous wins between them, were meeting in the final for the third time since 1986.
Now let's take a close look at the quarter-final ties.
FRANCE v URUGUAY
Friday 6th July 3pm (BST)
Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
Having just done enough- but no more- to top their group, Les Bleus finally hit top gear in their thrilling 4-3 victory over Argentina in the last 16. They're the favourites to win this, but it won't be easy against a tough and talented Uruguayan side who have only conceded one goal in the entire competition. It's also worth pointing out that France have failed to beat their South American opponents in six previous encounters and in fact haven't scored against them for 52 years. However, a lot could depend on injuries: France are likely to be at full strength, but in-form striker Edinson Cavani, who scored twice for Uruguay against Portugal, is a doubtful starter.
Match odds: France 11-10; Uruguay 15-4; Draw (after 90 mins): 11-5.
To win tournament outright: France 7-2; Uruguay 14-1.
BRAZIL v BELGIUM
Friday 6th July 7pm (BST)
If there was one predictable scoreline in the last 16, it was Brazil 2 Mexico 0. It was the seventh World Cup in the row when the Mexicans have exited at the first knock-out round and Brazil, by contrast, hadn't lost at this stage since 1990. The Samba Kings have made it through competently enough without really hitting top gear, but they will probably need to against a vibrant Belgian side who are currently the tournament's top scorers with 12 goals from four matches. The Red Devils came from 2-0 down to beat a gloriously attack-minded Japan in the last round, so they won't press the 'Panic' button if they fall behind here. Without a doubt this is going to be Brazil's biggest test yet, and with the attacking talent on show we could (hopefully) be in for a classic encounter.
Match odds: Brazil 11-10; Belgium 5-2; Draw 12-5.
To win tournament outright: Brazil 11-4; Belgium 13-2.
SWEDEN v ENGLAND
Saturday 7th July 3pm (BST)
It's England's first World Cup quarter-final since 2006 and Sweden's first since 1994. The Swedes used to be England's bogey team- the Three Lions failed to beat the Scandinavians in twelve encounters between 1979-2011, but the last time they met at a major tournament, in the 2012 European Championships, England won 3-2. While England are the bookies odds-on favourites, and will be greatly buoyed by overcoming their penalty-shoot out hoodoo v Colombia, the tactically astute and well-drilled Swedes, who showed great resilience to bounce back from a cruel last-gasp defeat against Germany, will be no pushovers. It would be no great surprise to see this one- like England's game with Colombia, go the distance.
Match odds: Sweden 7-2; England 10-11; Draw 23-10.
To win tournament outright: Sweden 25-1; England 9-2.
RUSSIA v CROATIA
Saturday 7th July 7pm (BST)
Fisht Olympic Stadium, Sochi.
Can Russia's 'Impossible Dream' live on after Saturday? Croatia pose a very different test to Spain, who played into Russia's hands by overdoing the sideways passing when they were 1-0 up. Russia will have to attack more than they did last Sunday, but they'll have to be wary of Croatia's strength on the counter. Three previous encounters have resulted in two goalless draws and a 3-1 win for Croatia in a friendly. The head says that this where the World Cup hosts will bow out, to a technically superior team who have one of the best midfields in the world. The heart says that if Russia play with the same determination they showed against Spain, there might be one more chapter to a great story.
Match odds: Russia 11-4; Croatia 6-5; Draw 2-1. To win tournament outright: Russia 20-1; Croatia 13-2.
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