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World Cup quarter-finals: Messi or Van Gaal's last stand, England to find out if they are the real deal
We preview the last-eight games in Qatar, which are rich with storylines.

LAST UPDATE | Dec 8th 2022, 8:02 PM

THERE IS AN emptiness palpable around Doha, the streets yesterday clickclacking to the sound of dragged suitcases. Of 32 teams, only eight remain standing at the World Cup and, come Saturday night, they will have been further winnowed to four. 

As Louis Van Gaal said at the start of a press conference that today veered from fun to fascinating to tense to baffling: “The tournament is starting tomorrow for real.” 

Van Gaal’s Dutch are the latest bogeyman to confront Lionel Messi’s brilliant, brittle World Cup dream. Argentina and the Netherlands are two fine but flawed sides, which makes their quarter-final all the more intriguing. 

Argentina are, of course, set up to serve Messi, though Lionel Scaloni has stumbled across a better supporting cast as the tournament has progressed, Enzo Fernandez adding a better passing range in midfield and the hard running of Julian Alvarez and Rodrigo de Paul going a long way to compensating for Messi’s regal trot. 

There is still something unconvincing about Argentina and while they are well-matched with the Netherlands, they will have to beat two teams better than them if they are going to win the World Cup and give glory to Messi’s valedictory appearance on the world’s stage.

Thus Messi will have to elevate the team with the kind of individual performances unseen at this tournament since Diego Maradona in 1986, who picked the quarter-finals to pass into myth. Regardless of the World Cup’s outcome, there is no question that Messi somehow exists in Maradona’s shadow in Argentina.

No, he is his direct descendant in a lineage of greats. You’ll have heard the mesmeric, looping song sung unstintingly by Argentine fans in this World Cup, which speaks of Maradona looking down at Messi from upon high. 

Sebastian Quadrelli / YouTube

The same song references shaking off the pain of the 2014 World Cup, though that is more relevant to Netherlands tonight, as it was they whom Argentina knocked out on penalties in the semi-finals. Louis van Gaal was in charge then and he’s back in 2022, sparring on gloriously blunt terms with his national press. One journalist – who claimed to have found Van Gaal’s phone in a toilet on Wednesday – asked crassly of Memphis Depay whether he considers Van Gaal “the uncle who he ashamed of at parties”, to which Memphis cooly responded by saying he might have thought of a better question. 

The truth is that Van Gaal has emerged as among the most lovable characters of this competition, and his players evidently hold him in high regard. His story is remarkable, having kept from his players the fact he underwent cancer treatment during the qualification campaign, quietly leaving camp to undergo chemotherapy. 

netherlands-conference-fifa-world-cup-2022-main-media-centre-thursday-8th-december PA Louis Van Gaal jokes with Memphis Depay during his press conference. PA

Van Gaal is nonetheless being criticised by Dutch television’s revolving cast of ex-players laden with medals and opinions: Marco van Basten stopped just short of tossing his pen across the desk Dunphy-style in deriding the style of the last-16 win against the USA. It’s true that this is no longer Total Football, but Total Pragmatism, a counter-attacking 3-4-1-2 replacing the ball-hogging 4-3-3. 

It may not satisfy the ideologues of Amsterdam but this set-up may be kryptonite to an Argentina side who combine a hogging of the ball with a lack of athletic ability: nobody ran less than them in the group phase. As to how Argentina will set up in response will be fascinating, and it was instructive to see Lionel Scaloni switch to a back three for the second half of the last-16 win against Australia. Tomorrow he may choose to fight fire with fire. 

Van Gaal spoke for many in suggesting Brazil will be the winners’ semi-final opponents. This tournament is beautifully balanced as there is no truly great, invulnerable side, but Brazil have looked its best thus far. Croatia had to go to penalties to see off Japan though it’s difficult to think of a side more often written off as Probably Fatigued before major World Cup games. Less of an issue than tiredness is a lack of quality up front, where they are too reliant on Andrej Kramaric. 

Tite’s only true conundrum is the balance of his midfield. Does he retain the ultra-attacking selection that scythed through South Korea, or does he adjust for a better opponent? The answer will be seen in whether Lucas Paqueta or Fred is picked in midfield. 

The other side of the draw is Morocco versus Europe. 

spqatar-lusail-2022-world-cup-round-of-16-por-vs-sui Xinhua News Agency / PA Images Cristiano Ronaldo: the world's most famous substitute. Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

First they took Spain and now Walid Regragui’s side face Portugal, whose manager Fernando Santos made the call nobody expected in dropping Cristiano Ronaldo for the last-16 tie against Switzerland. What followed was stunning validation: a 6-1 win, gilded by a hat-trick for Ronaldo’s replacement Goncalo Ramos with Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva and Joao Felix playing as if liberated from some kind of oppressive regime. 

The Portuguese FA insist Ronaldo didn’t threaten to quit the World Cup in a huff at being dropped but he does appear to be in a state of denial about his new status. Per AFP, Ronaldo yesterday did not train with the other substitutes on the day after the game with Switzerland, instead taking part in a gym session alongside those who started the game. 

The irony is that Ronaldo might yet have an integral role to play as an impact substitute. He has become ineffective everywhere but in the opponent’s six-yard box, but it is there Portugal will need to be decisive against Morocco, the last side standing outside of Europe and South America and happy to represent Africa and the Arab world. 

Morocco are superbly organised and Spain simply could not play through their compact 4-5-1 in the previous round, but Portugal have more variety in attack. Plus, if the game is still in the balance in the closing stages, who better to turn to when slinging crosses into the box than Ronaldo? And, for his many faults, Ronaldo will have no issue in confronting the sheer intensity of the atmosphere that will be created by the Moroccan supporters. The same can’t be guaranteed of all of his team-mates.

The fact, however, remains: Portugal cannot win the World Cup with Ronaldo as their focal point but they can do it if he accepts a fringe role. This establishes a fascinating theatre around Ronaldo. He now has a genuine chance of winning the only prize that can separate him from Messi – the World Cup is the one crown neither have worn – but he can only win it by accepting he is Just Another Player, and thus foregoing that incorrigible, selfish side to his character that has made him one of the game’s truly great players. 

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The best of the quarter-finals has been saved for last: England versus France. The dominant theme of the build-up is how England can possibly repel Kylian Mbappe, who goes into this game with a genuine shot at becoming the most influential player across multiple World Cups since Pele. 

Gareth Southgate may entrust the role to Kyle Walker or he may swap to a back three and have Walker share the job with Kieran Tripper. But might England lose too much offensively by straying from the 4-3-3 that has served them well thus far?

Mbappe brings a classic double-edge. While he is lethal going forward, he simple does not defend. France are suspect down Mbappe’s flank, where Theo Hernandez is not as strong at defending as he is attacking. Didier Deschamps is like Southgate – defensively-inclined – and only injury to Lucas has installed the more attack-minded Hernandez brother at left-back. 

spqatar-doha-2022-world-cup-round-of-16-fra-vs-pol Xinhua News Agency / PA Images Kylian Mbappe. Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

Mbappe has been France’s star but Antoine Griezmann has been their most important player, retooled as an advanced midfielder tasked with creating along with stopping counter-attacks. Declan Rice’s duel with Griezmann may define the game. England have other worries – how on Earth will Harry Maguire deal with Ousmane Dembele running at him? – but they should also have plenty of reason to hope. Injury has denuded France and now England have the better options off the bench, which might be the decisive factor to swing a game of razor-thin margins.

This improvised team has been also become rather UnDeschamps like: they are scoring plenty of goals but they are leaking them too, yet to keep a clean sheet in the tournament. Adrien Rabiot will face a midfield featuring Jude Bellingham while shouldering a lot of defensive burden behind Mbappe, while Dembele’s curious positioning – he stands right out on the touchline – offers space into which Luke Shaw can attack. 

The key to all of this is that England must be brave, something they have yet to prove under Southgate.  There is also another imponderable England must face: they have yet to beat a truly great side in a knockout game under Southgate. Yes, they knocked Germany out of the Euros, but that team was Germany in name only.

France, by contrast, have done it all before. 

The final stands of Messi and Van Gaal; the prospect of seeing for the first time in two decades a Brazil side that can meet their own myths; Morocco carrying the support of a continent while Ronaldo wars with himself; Kylian Mbappe’s audacious shot at an era-defining legacy as England finally discover whether theirs is the stuff of reality or mere mirage.

Four fascinating quarter-finals await. 

For the latest news coverage on the Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022, see here >

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