5 on-pitch takeaways heading into World Cup quarterfinals
One of the most thrilling men’s World Cups in recent memory – arguably the most for some – approaches its final stages and so it’s time to look back on the week that was.
It was one filled with extremes in emotion, with some realizing the finality of their experience and others the unbridled joy of surviving to fight another day.
Here are CTVNews.ca’s biggest takeaways:
GROUP STAGE FINAL ROUND TO REMEMBER
The drama that came with the final round of group matches seemed unparalleled.
Many have lauded this men’s World Cup to have the greatest group stage ever and it’s hard to argue.
There were matches that presented straight do-or-die scenarios like Iran vs. U.S.A. and Senegal vs. Ecuador, major upsets like Japan beating Spain, Cameroon defeating Brazil, Tunisia beating France, and Australia getting past Denmark, and a stoppage-time winner for South Korea against Portugal to clinch a spot in the next round.
Adding to the drama were tie-breaking scenarios that saw Uruguay’s Luis Suarez brought to tears and Mexico missing out on the Round of 16 for the first time since 1990 when the team missed the tournament entirely due to a ban.
Not to be forgotten, Canada came within inches of its first men’s World Cup point as Atiba Hutchinson’s header off a corner cannoned down onto the line but not over but victory for Morocco meant the Atlas Lions finished top of the group.
Romelu Lukaku had two guilt-edged opportunities and another half-chance to win the match for Belgium against Croatia and help his team advance but stunningly failed to do so.
All of it had viewers on the edge of their seats.
JAPAN CAN’T BREAK THEIR R16 JINX
There can be no mistaking it, finishing first in a group that included Spain and Germany was a major accomplishment for Japan.
Head coach Hajime Moriyasu’s tactical adjustments against both powerhouse teams were brilliant and Ritsu Doan is a name that will be remembered for the way he impacted those matches after coming on as a substitute.
Unfortunately, it was a familiar story in the Round of 16 as Japan crashed out at this stage for the third time in the last four men’s World Cups and fourth time in the last six.
After deservedly taking the lead just before the end of the first half, Japan steadily faded and seemed comfortable with going to a shootout. When the situation presented itself, though, it was anything but. Their penalties were timid and suggested they weren’t ready for the pressure of the moment.
Playing at home in 2002, it was a narrow 1-0 loss to Turkey while 2010 was a devastating penalty shootout defeat against Paraguay.
2018 was arguably the worst of all, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory by conceding three goals in the final 20 minutes after taking a 2-0 lead against Belgium, including a 94th-minute counter-attacking winner by Belgium off a Japanese corner.
It’ll be another three-and-a-half years before Japan can dream of a men’s World Cup quarterfinal again.
DEFENCE GOES FAR AT TOURNAMENTS
Morocco is the unlikeliest quarterfinalist of the eight teams involved but anything is possible when you play great defence.
Through four matches and 390-plus minutes now, Morocco has conceded just one goal and even that was an own goal.
Croatia’s goal scoring prowess has been sorely lacking outside of four goals against Canada, managing just one goal in the other 300-plus minutes. How do you overcome that? By also conceding just once in that same span.
England has scored plenty but also hasn’t conceded in its last three matches, Argentina have conceded just once in the last three, and the two goals Brazil have conceded through four matches have come in meaningless scenarios.
The Netherlands have also only conceded just twice through four matches.
France and Portugal are the exceptions, making up for the nine goals conceded combined with 21 goals scored between them.
CR7 AND THE R IS FOR RESERVE
Enough can’t be said of how big a decision it was for head coach Fernando Santos to leave superstar and captain Cristiano Ronaldo out of the starting XI for Portugal’s Round of 16 encounter against Switzerland.
If Portugal were to have lost, not only would the loss be blamed on that decision, but he’d be out of a job and possibly Enemy No. 1 in his own country.
Ronaldo disrespected his coach in the previous match, but it’s hard to believe this decision was only made for disciplinary reasons. A 6-1 final score, a hat trick for Goncalo Ramos, and a much more free flowing Joao Felix among others spoke for itself.
The emphatic victory also means that outsiders won’t doubt Santos if he does it again.
Six of the seven continents were represented in the Round of 16 for the first time ever, Antarctica being the lone exception.
While there was the usual representation from Europe with eight teams, there were two from South America, two from Asia, two from Africa, one from North America, and Australia.
Seeing the representatives that have yet to win a men’s World Cup pull off big wins against European and South American teams shows that the world’s top sport is improving its global quality and the expanded 48-team World Cup in 2026 may actually be worth the while.
The highlight, undoubtedly, has been Morocco becoming the first Arab team to make the men's World Cup quarterfinals as well as the fourth African team to do so.
Beyond the usual stars we’re accustomed to witnessing, it’s been great to see players like Morocco’s Sofiane Boufal, Japan’s Ritsu Doan, and South Korea’s Cho Gue-Sung make the most of this grand stage.
Canada impressed enough beyond the final score line to have both Alistair Johnston and Ismael Kone make moves to European clubs, the former to Scotland’s Celtic and the latter to England’s Watford.