Nizhniy Novgorod: The wait is finally over as France prepare to take on Uruguay and Brazil face Belgium in the first two of the World Cup quarter-finals on Friday.
The build-up to the clash between the French and the South Americans has been dominated by individuals, but it may be the South Americans’ almost unbreachable four-man defence which decides the result.
While Uruguay sweat on the fitness of striker Edinson Cavani, it should be remembered that La Celeste’s progress in Russia has been built upon their defence as much as their A-list attack.
And while France pin their hopes on Kylian Mbappe, it is unlikely that the teenage superstar has encountered a defence quite like Uruguay’s.
The mouth-watering last-eight tie in Nizhny Novgorod is likely to be decided by a battle between Uruguay’s stifling backline and the speed of Mbappe, 19.
Led by captain Diego Godin, and including Jose Gimenez, Martin Caceres and Diego Laxalt, along with goalkeeper Fernando Muslera, Uruguay’s defence have the joint-best record at the World Cup.
They passed through the group stage without conceding a goal, and the only player to score against Uruguay was Portugal’s Pepe in the last 16, and that was ultimately in vain.
Brazil are the only other team to have conceded just the solitary goal so far.
Uruguay have conceded three fewer goals than France. Both teams have scored seven times.
Between them, the experienced defence have over 350 international caps between them. They are supremely well-organised and have already served notice that Mbappe will not have the same kind of freedom he enjoyed against Argentina.
“If you let France have space it will be very difficult,” Uruguay’s coach Oscar Tabarez said.
And he has also insisted that he is happy to cede possession to France in a bid to make the last four.
France’s conundrum against Uruguay is knowing best how to utilise Mbappe and his fellow attacking danger, Antoine Griezmann.
The French limped through their group stage but burst to life in their exhilarating 4-3 last-16 win over Argentina, inspired by Paris Saint-Germain’s $220 million Mbappe.
Didier Deschamps, France’s coach, has already indicated that he is expecting a different kind of game from “solid” Uruguay from the seven-goal thriller in Kazan.
In Friday’s second match Belgium coach Roberto Martinez has admitted he has no secrets as he plots to end Brazil’s bid for a record-extending sixth World Cup.
But the nation’s “Golden Generation” have been reminded that the match against the favourites could represent the last chance for them to shine on the world stage.
“There won’t be many secrets to the game,” Martinez said. We have to defend as well as we can and then punish them when we have the ball.
“It’s that simple, and this team is ready for that.”
On paper, a Belgium side containing the talents of Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City and Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku have the potential to cause a World Cup upset.
But despite sailing through the group stage, Martinez’s ambitious Red Devils have their work cut out if they are to go all the way to the July 15 final in Moscow.
Despite scoring 12 times in wins over Panama (3-0), Tunisia (5-2) and England (1-0) and Japan (3-2), Belgium will have to lift their game significantly to beat a well-drilled Brazil side increasingly dancing to the tune of star forward Neymar.
Neymar signalled he had well and truly put a recent injury layoff behind him with an incisive performance in a 2-0 win over Mexico in Samara, where he scored the opener and set up Roberto Firmino for his maiden World Cup goal.
Even more is expected from Neymar, whose pace, technique and all-round vision allied to Willian’s slick movement gave Brazil another dimension.
For all Brazil’s attacking riches, Belgium’s biggest problem could be piercing a robust defence that has conceded just once, in their 1-1 opening draw with Switzerland.
Brazil centre-back pairing Joao Miranda and Thiago Silva have been solid and will aim to keep it that way as the five-time champions target a place in the semi-finals and a match with either France or Uruguay.
“We’re progressing, that’s evident,” Silva said. “We are solid at the back.”