The Red Mist Descends

Qatar 2022 World Cup Quarter-Finals


Saturday - MOROCCO v PORTUGAL 15:00, ENGLAND v FRANCE 19:00

Cristiano Ronaldo.
Cristiano Ronaldo was benched against Switzerland

Oh to have been in Cristiano Ronaldo's head on Tuesday - firstly when Portugal manager Fernando Santos told him he would not be starting against Switzerland and secondly when the team playing without him put five in the Swiss net.

Having burnt his bridges with Manchester United pre-tournament, it appears he risked doing so with his national team since reacting angrily to being substituted against South Korea. It is not easy to have CR7's ego and pedigree and then be told there are younger players better than you over 90 minutes. We all get old and have to exit the stage at some point.

It is no wonder there is a global tidal wave of emotion behind Lionel Messi's final World Cup quest but detached admiration behind Ronaldo's final stretch for the ultimate prize. The fact the world's best two players of the last 15 years have made it to the last eight adds luster to Qatar 2022. Should Argentina play Portugal in the final, there is no question about what the subtext will be.

There is also a sense that the best teams have made it through the field of 32 qualifiers, leaving four heavyweight bouts. England v France and Argentina v Netherlands are worthy of the final alone.

Either Messi or Louis Van Gaal will see their World Cup dream disappear tomorrow night, such are the stakes. In theory it should be a classic. Here is hoping we might see another Dennis Bergkamp wonder goal or another piece of Messi magic while his flame still flickers.

The Atlas Lions are the surprise package of the last eight

The exception to the clash of the titans of course is Morocco, who are in the Robin Hood role with most of Africa and the Middle East four square behind them. The Atlas Lions have never reached the quarter-finals before and are well aware no African team has reached the last four yet. Coping with this enormous expectation while defeating a Portugal eleven who were in free flow in their 6-1 Round of 16 win looks a tall order, though not insurmountable.

Spain were Morocco's victims in the Round of 16, but also the Spanish passing game, which now looks outdated. Spain's phenomenal possession statistics are as nothing if they cannot find the net or even produce shots on goal. It was an extraordinary fact that Japan had only 16% of the ball when they beat Spain 2-1 in the group stage, proof of the need to do more than boss the ball.

The Spanish recipe was world-beating in 2010 and helped them win Euro 2008 and 2012 but it is now a decade without silverware. It had all seemed to rosy when La Roja kicked off Qatar 2022 with a 7-0 thrashing of Costa Rica but three games later everyone is saying how poor Spain was overall. Such is the World Cup.

Luis Enrique, schooled in F.C. Barcelona, continued the passing tradition which worked so well for Luis Aragones and Vicente del Bosque, but today handed in his notice.

Spain need to evolve their style, whose limitations Japan and Morocco, two unheralded powers, laid bare. La Roja need alternative threats - real strikers again, tricky wingers, penetrative midfielders or the ability to counter-attack with a cutting edge for example, not just ball-hoggers. Pass-enaccio indeed. Wolves' raider Adama Traore would terrorise most defences but the 26 year-old has only been given eight caps by Spain and was left out of their World Cup squad.

Evolution is possible - la furia roja who never won anything became world-beating tiki-taka after all, and England's miserable failure to qualify for Euro 2008 turned into a World Cup semi-final appearance a decade later, courtesy of the England DNA plan.

Like Italy, Germany and Belgium, Spain have a lot of rebuilding work to do, while Portugal have to derail the Moroccan bandwagon.

France have Kylian Mbappe so should just have enough to pip England to the last four, but Gareth Southgate has an arsenal of attackers at his disposal and an excellent tournament record.

Brazil still look the most likely to lift the trophy but must overcome the wily Croats first.

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(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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