The 2022 World Cup will take its first day of rest on Wednesday, after 17 days of intense group stage action and the last 16 of the tournament.
Morocco and Portugal are the last two sides to reach the quarter-finals, knocking out Spain and Switzerland respectively in rather different circumstances. However, there are plenty of stories to discuss from each match, with Cristiano Ronaldo sitting on the bench for Portugal and Morocco becoming the first African nation in three tournaments to reach the last eight.
So, with that being said, here are the top five takeaways Four Four Two has learned over the course of another great day of World Cup action.
Will Morocco become the first-ever African semi-finalist?
Morocco was undoubtedly the surprise package of Qatar 2022. The Atlas Lions showed a good picture of what they all stand for by taking seven points en route to winning a group that also included 2018 Croatia as runners-up. a slick Spanish side in the last 16. They are only the fourth African country – and the first North African – to reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup.
But can they succeed where Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010) failed and make it to the semi-finals? Portugal – who dropped Cristiano Ronaldo from their starting eleven and swept Switzerland 5-1 aside in the last 16 – represented a stern test in the last eight, but Walid Regragui’s team – with national superstars such as Achraf Hakimi and Hakim Ziyech, and people like Sofyan Amrabat, who has really made a name for himself in this tournament, will certainly not be discouraged.
Don’t bet against Morocco to take another Iberian opponent all the way to the penalty shootout – and we’ve already seen what they’re made of when it comes to that ultimate crunch.
Are we any closer to knowing who will win the whole thing?
Whatever the reasons, for the first time since the 1994 World Cup, no team won three out of three games, but in the last 16 of Qatar 2022, multiple contenders shifted gears. The quarterfinals look very tasty indeed.
England and, to a greater extent, Brazil have both blown away less opposition in Senegal and South Korea respectively – but if you can only beat what’s ahead you might as well do it comprehensively.
France didn’t look quite convincing beating Poland 3-1, but Kylian Mbappé certainly did, and it goes without saying that stopping him will be one of England’s top priorities when the two former winners face each other on Saturday night stand.
The Netherlands and Argentina have a long history of World Cup clashes, and their latest seems intriguingly done. Will it be Louis van Gaal’s functional Orange or – for the romantics – Lionel Messi-inspired Lionel Scaloni’s Alibceleste through to the semi-finals?
And then there’s Portugal, who stumbled somewhat through the group stage – then well and truly pulled the handbrake after dropping Cristiano Ronaldo, destroying a previously robust-looking Swiss side 6-1 in the last 16. Ronaldo should not start a new match this tournament – but it would be naive to rule out the possibility that he will still have a decisive influence.
Portugal is better without Cristiano Ronaldo
Portugal manager Fernando Santos made the bold decision to omit Cristiano Ronaldo – along with Joao Cancelo and Ruben Neves – for the last-16 game against Switzerland, choosing Benfica striker Goncalo Ramos instead of the established 37-year-old.
It was not clear whether Santos had done this because of Ronaldo’s displeasure with his substitution during Portugal’s final group stage match against South Korea – but what was clear was that Portugal looked much better without starting him. Ramos, aged just 21, made a deep impression against Switzerland, blasting one past Yann Sommer from a seemingly impossible angle in the early stages of the match.
He grabbed two more in the game, giving him a hat-trick and undoubtedly earning his spot in the squad for Portugal’s quarter-final against Morocco.
Ramos provided speed up front and a certain agility that allowed the players behind him such as Joao Felix, Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva to flourish. Indeed, that trio ran the game, with Ramos excelling in the lead. All his goals were also different. His first, the aforementioned smash from a tight angle; his second, a poacher’s goal over the front post; the third, a delicate chip as he runs into the box.
Spain are a team for the future – their penalty loss to Morocco could serve them well
After reaching the semi-finals at Euro 2020 and starting the 2022 World Cup with a 7-0 win against Costa Rica, Spain looked strong and certainly a contender to go all the way in Qatar.
However, they came loose against Morocco and penalties again proved their nemesis. While this is a bitterly disappointing way to end their campaign, it could provide their young players with an essential learning experience for the future when they will be even better.
With the likes of Pedri, Gavi, Rodri and Ferran Torres all waiting to reach their prime, Spain has a promising future whatever the outcome. Admittedly, they will probably have to say goodbye to Sergio Busquets, but this could allow Rodri to move into midfield and dominate games from there.
If Luis Enrique sticks around for another cycle, Spain is in good shape. Admittedly they should have reached the quarter-finals at the very least, and not being top of the group sucks, but there are plenty of positives for Spain to take home.
This is certainly not the end of this Spanish side – there is still plenty of promise left.
Are players trying to be too smart in penalty kicks?
Of the seven penalties taken between Spain and Morocco in their shootout, only three were scored: Pablo Sarabia, Sergio Busquets and Carlos Soler all missed for Spain, while Badr Benoun failed to find the net with his.
Sure, Achraf Hakimi’s incredible Panenka showed nerves of steel and was executed to perfection, but the missed penalties all seemed somewhat avoidable. With the new technique of penalty takers targeting the goalkeeper perhaps this gives a reason why more are missed.
After all, there is reluctance for an old-fashioned power drive, which almost seems like the better option. Some players have the ability to pull off slow runs and confidently place the ball in the opposite corner to where the keeper is moving – ala Neymar – but others seem unsure of themselves to do so.
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