World Cup Big Guns Primed For Quarter-final Battles

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Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford was England’s hero in the penalty shootout/Photo credit: AFP

The World Cup hit the pause button on Wednesday as the eight remaining teams geared up for the quarter-finals after England became the final side to qualify following a penalty shootout win against Colombia.

Neymar’s Brazil are the favourites to win a record-extending sixth World Cup at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on July 15 but France, Belgium and Uruguay are all in their side of the draw.

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Gareth Southgate’s England are the only former winners in the bottom half of the draw, along with host nation Russia, Croatia and Sweden.

England’s victory against Colombia on Tuesday takes Gareth Southgate’s team into what looks like a winnable match against the Swedes, who edged out Switzerland 1-0 in the last 16.

On a dramatic night in Moscow’s Spartak Stadium, goalkeeper Jordan Pickford made a key save from Carlos Bacca before Eric Dier’s spot-kick gave England their first-ever win on penalties at a World Cup at the fourth attempt — ending a jinx that has dogged them for so long.

The Sun tabloid coined his save the “Hand of Jord”, harking back to Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” incident in 1986, when the Argentine used his hand to put the ball into the net against England.

“It’s the headline we have waited a lifetime to write… England win on penalties (Yes really!),” the paper said.

Neymar’s World Cup theatrics have been criticised by pundits and fans alike/Photo credit: AFP

The largest British audience for a live sporting event since the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics watched the shootout — 23.6 million viewers tuned in.

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Southgate said he was already looking forward to Saturday’s quarter-final against Sweden in Samara, with a last-four clash against either Croatia or Russia up for grabs.

“This was special but I want us to go on,” said Southgate, whose own penalty miss saw England lose to Germany in the semi-finals of Euro 96 at Wembley.

“Sweden is another team we have a poor record against. We have underestimated them for years. They have created their own story and made history. I don’t want to go home yet.”

England captain Harry Kane leads the goalscoring charts in Russia with six strikes, two clear of Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku.

Janne Andersson’s Sweden have recovered well from a heartbreaking group-stage defeat by Germany, edging out Switzerland 1-0 in the last 16 thanks to a goal from RB Leipzig midfielder Emil Forsberg.

In the other match in England’s half of the draw, host nation Russia — riding a wave of euphoria after their shock win against 2010 winners Spain — face a Croatia side inspired by Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric in Sochi on Saturday.

– Neymar scrutiny –

For all the drama around England, the winner of the tournament is more likely to come from the top half of the draw, where the teams can boast a combined eight tournament wins.

Favourites Brazil will come up against Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ in Kazan on Friday while an exciting young France side spearheaded by the lightning-quick Kylian Mbappe take on a shrewd Uruguay outfit in Nizhny Novgorod.

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Much of the focus surrounding Brazil’s challenge has inevitably been on Neymar.

But the world’s most expensive player has hit the headlines as much for his perceived play-acting as for the on-pitch performances that have helped his side ease into the last eight without ever being seriously troubled.

Kylian Mbappe scored twice as France beat Argentina 4-3 in the World Cup last 16/Photo credit: AFP

Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio said the stoppages caused by Neymar’s antics stalled his team during their 2-0 last-16 loss to Brazil, claiming the Paris Saint-Germain forward’s reaction to Miguel Layun stepping on his leg was a “shame for football”.

Belgium’s Eden Hazard, Lukaku, Dries Mertens and Kevin De Bruyne are likely to give Brazil’s defence the biggest test of their campaign so far, although the South Americans have only conceded once in four matches.

“This is the sort of game you dream about as a little boy and we can enjoy it from the first second,” said Belgium coach Roberto Martinez.

France never got out of first gear in easing through the group stage, but turned on the style as Mbappe dazzled in a classic 4-3 victory over Argentina to set up the clash with Uruguay.

Uruguay’s success has been built on a solid defence led by Atletico Madrid pair Jose Gimenez and Diego Godin, with Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani doing the damage at the other end with five goals between them.

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