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England among the flawed contenders as World Cup gets to the serious business
We look ahead to the World Cup knockout games, which begin later today.

GIANNI INFANTINO’S I Have a Fever Dream speech set the terms of engagement for this World Cup: it’s the West against the Rest.

That looks like being the final battle too. 

Okay, let’s admit that predictions are the ultimate in foolish pursuits, but it looks likely that the final of this fraught World Cup will pit the best of South America against the Best of Europe. 

Only eight European sides have made it through to the knockout stages and six of them are corralled on the same side of the draw, meaning the Netherlands and Croatia are the only European sides in a bracket loomed over by the giant shadows of Brazil and Argentina. 

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Meanwhile, among the other eight sides you’ll find England, France, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland and Poland who, let’s be honest, should feel lucky to be here. 

Europe has carved up the World Cup since Brazil last won it 20 years ago and all four semi-finalists four years ago were European, so some variety is no bad thing. But nor is this necessarily some kind of tale of European decline: the 2014 World Cup, won by Germany, had only six European teams in the last-16. 

Many European sides have flopped – Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Wales and Serbia to varying degrees- but the way the draw has now fallen, many of Europe’s best remaining sides will cannabilise each other en route to the final. 

By contrast, Brazil’s route to the final four looks relatively serene. South Korea’s astonishing late win against a second-string Portugal does not disguise the fact they are a pretty weak team, and in Marquinhos and Eder Militao Brazil have the defensive pace to deal with their quick breaks. They should make the quarter-finals, where they would meet either Japan or Croatia. 

cameroon-v-brazil-fifa-world-cup-2022-group-g-lusail-stadium PA Neymar: Brazil hope he will be fit for the knockout phase. PA

It wouldn’t really be a surprise if Brazil faced Japan, who in the group phase perfected the art of rope-a-dope against European sides who hog the ball but whose defensive legs are suspect. Having already taken care of Germany and Spain, Croatia seem right in their wheelhouse. The 2018 runners-up were fortunate to progress ahead of Belgium, having to rely on Romelu Lukaku’s bizarre series of misses and the defensive brilliance of Josko Gvardiol. Their issue is that there is only one Gvardiol: his partner is still Dejan Lovren and their goalkeeper is still jittery.

The draw is such that Brazil and Argentina would meet in the semi-finals, but first Argentina would have to hold their nerve against Australia and then beat either the Netherlands or the USA. Australia shouldn’t hold much fear for Argentina, but they have had shamefully little prep time – their final group game finished in the early hours of Thursday and yet they play again tonight – while Australia are gritty, organised, and have already sparred with Kylian Mbappe and France.

While they are very limited in many ways, Australia deserved to progress ahead of Denmark, having scored a trio of excellent goals in the group while genuinely making a case that Stoke’s Harry Souttar was the best defender across all group games. Obviously it will be neither wet, windy, nor actually in Stoke, but at least Bein Sport’s Andy Gray will be watching to see if Lionel Messi can get the better of Souttar. 

If Argentina do win, they will face either the Dutch or the USA in the last-eight, which is a rather tricky game to call. Louis van Gaal’s side are favourites but the States will have more energy than them and, whisper it, perhaps a better midfield: the trio of Tyler Adams, Yunus Musah, and Weston McKennie have been exceptional thus far. The USA are on the cusp of being a very good team, perhaps lacking quality at centre-back but undoubtedly at left-back and centre-forward. The Dutch have been thoroughly unconvincing thus far and while van Gaal has complained of excessive negativity in the Dutch press, their very fair riposte would be that they are merely realistic. 

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On the other side of the draw, everything points to a fascinating showdown between England and France in the quarter-finals. Brazil aside, these two have been the tournament’s least flawed teams, though England’s defence has yet to be tested. They might not be fully tested tomorrow either, as they are fortunate to run into a Senegal team without both Sadio Mane and the suspended Idrissa Gueye. 

France played a third-string team against Tunisia but were impressive against Australia and Denmark. Switching Mbappe to the left flank and bringing back Olivier Giroud has given them a lovely attacking balance, even though injury has left them lacking depth in most positions aside from centre-back. Mbappe, though, can compensate for all of that: having won the tournament in 2018,  he genuinely has a chance of becoming the most effective player across multiple World Cups since Pele if he maintains his group-stage form into the knockout games. 

world-cup-2022-tunisia-france DPA / PA Images Kylian Mbappe. DPA / PA Images / PA Images

Spain, meanwhile, must hope that Japan exposed complacency rather than fundamental flaws: they may have initially sighed in relief at dropping into the non-Brazil half of the draw, Morocco are the exact kind of preppy, pacy underdogs that are their kryptonite. Portugal/Switzerland is intriguing: Portugal have looked pretty good thus far though the Swiss have neatly evolved under Murat Yakin, with the wonderful Breel Embolo hitting some of the best form of his career. 

This World Cup intrigues as it is a collection of flawed contenders. Brazil’s path to the semi-final looks relatively benign and thus a place in the final looks a good bet but who from Europe will emerge as their biggest rival? France are the obvious choice but there is a sleeping, quietly in-form contender vying on their side of the draw. 

You may have had to argue with your conscience over whether to watch a World Cup in Qatar. If you have won that argument and tuned in, then prepare your better nature to be assailed with another deep, complex question.  

Are you ready for England: World Champions? 

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