Dubai: So now we know our final eight, but the path to the final showdown in Moscow on July 15 is still as unclear and sure to have many twists to come.
England became the last team to qualify for the quarter-finals after a dramatic penalty shoot-out win over Colombia on Tuesday night.
Gareth Southgate’s side are in a much more favourable half of the draw, with Sweden up next and — should they win — will face either the event’s lowest-ranked team, hosts and shock troops Russia or Luka Modric’s Croatia.
Sweden showed their solidity in breaking down an equally stubborn Switzerland to book their place alongside the English, the Croats and the hosts. But one thing is sure — one of these teams will be in the final and that will be a remarkable achievement.
Modric and England’s Harry Kane are arguably the only global household names in that half of the draw, but the top half is littered with superstars and men who would be the next king.
Despite the absence of Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina’s Lionel Messi, the teamsheets in the two matches — France v Uruguay and Belgium v Brazil — will still read like a who’s who of the cream of European football.
Brazil have a stellar cast in Thiago Silva, Philippe Coutinho, Gabriel Jesus, Roberto Firmino and, of course the tumultuous Neymar upfront and never far away from headlines both good and bad.
It all depends on which Neymar turns up for Brazil that will be their success or undoing. He has been widely criticised for his play acting and tears so far in Russia, and defended in equal measure by his adoring fans and coach Tite.
Trying to stop ‘the Selecao’ will be Belgium’s latest ‘golden generation’. Another role call of stars — Thibaut Courtois, Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Marouane Fellaini, Vincent Kompany — yet Belgium have yet to truly achieve their potential. They will need to all pull together if they want to emulate the Belgian team of Eric Gerets, Enzo Scifo et al that reached the semi-finals back in 1986.
The key man on paper for Uruguay is that other superstar from La Liga, Barcelona’s Luis Suarez, his partnership up front with Edinson Cavani already having yielded five goals this tournament. At the back Jose Gimenez and Diego Godin are the solid spine of the defensive backbone.
Up against the two-time winners are 1998 champs France. They have a great chance to go all the way now as their team has settled after a less-than-convincing start to the tournament. At their disposal are Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud, Samuel Umtiti, Paul Pogba and the young upstart many are tipping to take over from Messi and Ronaldo as the best in the world, Kylian Mbappe.
Will England come up short again? Will Neymar finally implode? Will the pressure be too much for 19-year-old Mbappe? Can Belgium finally show their class on the biggest stage?
We will find out on Friday and Saturday as the participants left standing are whittled down from eight to four.