World Cup Viewer’s Guide: Quarterfinalists bid for title

World Cup
France’s Olivier Giroud celebrates with France’s Kylian Mbappe, after scoring the opening goal during the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between France and Poland, at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022.
AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi

By JAMES ROBSON AP Soccer Writer

After non-stop soccer for the past two weeks, the World Cup is taking a small break.

There will be two days of rest before the quarterfinals start in Qatar with at least one surprising team still in contention to win soccer’s biggest prize.

Morocco produced the latest upset in a tournament that has had its share of them, beating Spain in the round of 16 on Tuesday to become the first Arab nation to reach the World Cup quarterfinals. The Moroccans, who also became only the fourth African team to reach this stage, beat the 2010 champions in a penalty shootout.

In the group stage, Saudi Arabia caused one of the biggest upsets in tournament history by beating Argentina in its opening match. Japan beat both Germany and Spain. The Germans and 2018 semifinalist Belgium both were eliminated before the knockout rounds.

Argentina, with Lionel Messi still looking to win a World Cup title, still made it through and then beat Australia to get into the last eight. Brazil, which had Neymar back in the lineup after an ankle injury, is there as well.

And so is defending champion France, with Kylian Mbappe seemingly unstoppable, England, Croatia, the Netherlands and, of course, Portugal — with or without Cristiano Ronaldo in the starting lineup.

CROATIA vs. BRAZIL (Friday, Education City Stadium)

Five-time champion Brazil looks ready to go deep at this year’s World Cup, with Neymar recovered from an ankle injury and the country’s greatest player, Pele, an inspiration as he watches from his hospital bed.

The 82-year-old soccer great is receiving treatment in Sao Paulo as he recovers from a respiratory infection that was aggravated by COVID-19, but his presence can be felt among Brazil’s players and fans, with banners, flags and T-shirts bearing his image.

On the field, Neymar and Co. are serious contenders, beating South Korea 4-1 in the round of 16.

Croatia is an aging team but has the knowhow at the World Cup after reaching the semifinals four years ago.

NETHERLANDS vs. ARGENTINA (Friday, Lusail Stadium)

Argentina has recovered from one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history and now faces the Netherlands for a place in the semifinals.

For Argentina to win its third World Cup, expect Messi to provide the magic.

The problem is, however, Messi is no longer at his peak — even if his country remains as reliant on him as ever and he has managed to score three goals so far in Qatar.

The Netherlands has been quietly effective in reaching the quarterfinals, winning Group A and then beating the United States 3-1 in the round of 16.

MOROCCO vs. PORTUGAL (Saturday, Al Thumama Stadium)

Portugal has shown what it can do without Ronaldo after the five-time Ballon d’Or winner was benched in the 6-1 rout of Switzerland in the round of 16.

His replacement, Goncalo Ramos, scored the first hat trick of this year’s World Cup.

It’s not clear if Ronaldo will be recalled for the quarterfinal match against Morocco or if he will be asked to accept a reduced role.

“I will use what I believe is the right strategy, as I have done my entire life,” Portugal coach Fernando Santos said.

That doesn’t bode well for Ronaldo, given the fluidity the team showed against Switzerland without him on the field.

Standing in Portugal’s way is the surprise team of the World Cup, Morocco.

ENGLAND vs. FRANCE (Saturday, Al Bayt Stadium)

Two of the best strikers in the world go head-to-head in the last of the four quarterfinal matches.

Harry Kane, the leading scorer at the last World Cup, finally got off the mark in England’s 3-0 win over Senegal. But he has some catching to do if he wants to get close to Mbappe, who has scored five goals in the tournament.

England has been getting its goals from a variety of places. Eight different England players have scored for the team in Qatar so far.

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