World Cup quarterfinals: Who's in and the storylines to watch
The 2022 World Cup is down to eight teams. And, my oh my, soccer fans are in for a treat as the quarterfinals begin Friday in Qatar.
Soccer royalty headlines the four matches - along with one Cinderella. Five-time winner Brazil. Defending champion France. 2018 finalist Croatia. Argentina and their star Lionel Messi. England, the Netherlands and Portugal. Morocco joins the party, making its first-ever appearance in the quarterfinals.
On Friday, it's a clash of soccer greatness. In the first quarterfinal game, Brazil takes on Croatia. And that's followed by Argentina and the Netherlands.
The marquee game on Saturday is England and France just before the intriguing Morocco and Portugal match.
The winner punches their ticket to the semifinals. The loser heads home.
A look at each game in the quarterfinals
Brazil v. Croatia (Friday, Dec. 9, 10:00 a.m. ET): Brazil is stocked with one-name wonders like Neymar (who returned against South Korea after missing two games to an ankle injury), Richarlison (can anyone stop talking about that scintillating sideways scissor-kick goal against Serbia?), and their sensational goalkeeper Alisson.
Top-ranked and five-time champion Brazil has lived up to its pedigree and expectations so far this tournament - and perhaps no finer than its round of 16 game against South Korea going up 4-0 in the first 36 minutes.
Croatia will have its hands full - even though it made the finals of the 2018 World Cup. They haven't looked as strong or sharp in this tournament. But just like four years ago, they've found a way to keep winning and moving on to the next round. Team captain Luka Modrić will need to carry his team, backed up by goalkeeper Dominik Livaković who stopped three Japanese penalty kicks in the round of 16.
Argentina v. Netherlands (Friday, Dec. 9, 2:00 p.m. ET): Argentina. Need we say more? The other South American powerhouse is hungry to give its star captain Lionel Messi his first-ever World Cup title. At 35 this is probably his last chance. Messi is one of the best to ever play the game and he wants to add that one missing trophy to his résumé.
Argentina started the tournament with a shocking loss to Saudi Arabia but turned it around to defeat Mexico and Poland to win the group and then beat Australia in the round of 16.
The Netherlands are the best team to have never won a World Cup. The Dutch have made it to three World Cup finals (1974, 1978 and 2010). The Netherlands weren't their best in the group stage at the 2022 tournament but showed their strength against the United States in the round of 16 with a signature 3-1 win guided by their longtime manager Louis van Gaal.
The Netherlands will rely on Memphis Depay who scored the opening goal against the U.S., and Denzel Dumfries who had two assists and a goal of his own. The Dutch defense looked shaky at times against the Americans. While the U.S. didn't manage to take advantage of the miscues, that probably won't be the case for Argentina.
Morocco v. Portugal (Saturday, Dec. 10, 10:00 a.m. ET): This quarterfinal match was the result of two soccer surprises in the round of 16. Morocco dispatched former champion Spain with 90-minutes of scoreless play, 30-minutes of extra time and a stunning penalty kick shootout which saw Moroccan goalkeeper Yassine Bounou (known as Bono) block two shots and a third bounced off the goalpost. In fact, not a single opponent has scored against Morocco in this World Cup - not Croatia, not Belgium, not Spain (the goal credited to Canada in the group stage was an own goal by Morocco). Few teams in the history of the World Cup can boast defensive dominance like that.
Morocco is the first Arab country to go this deep into a World Cup and the first African country to reach the quarterfinals since Ghana in 2010. Moroccan fans throughout the Arab world have descended upon Doha and packed the stands at each of these games in Qatar making them sound like home contests. Besides the team's strong play on both sides of the field, this may be one of their biggest assets.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the round of 16 was that Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo was on the bench for the opening kickoff against Switzerland. The decision stunned the soccer world. The last time Ronaldo didn't start for Portugal at a World Cup was in 2006. The decision to sit one of the world's most famous athletes turned out to be a good one. His replacement, Gonçalo Ramos, scored not one, not two but three goals in Portugal's 6-1 romp.
Ronaldo did play but long after the Switzerland game had been decided. The shakeup signals a potential new era for Portugal which seemed to do just fine with his absence.
England v. France (Saturday, Dec. 10, 2:00 p.m. ET): France came into this World Cup as the reigning champion and the star of the 2018 tournament picked up where he left off. Striker Kylian Mbappé has scored five goals - the most of any player. His unbelievable speed and ballhandling continue to dazzle opponents and teammates alike. He scored two goals and had an assist in France's 3-1 round of 16 win over Poland.
The 23-year-old Mbappé is not the only star on the French team. Antoine Griezmann has played 71 straight games for his country. He's stepped it up in Qatar after several key players were injured ahead of this tournament which led to a restructuring of the team. He was moved to the midfield - and has sparkled. Olivier Giroud has shined as well. He scored his 52nd goal for France against Poland - becoming his country's all-time leading scorer. France is stocked.
If there's one team that knows how to play under weighty expectations it's England. The Three Lions have just a single World Cup title from 1966. Yet, the English players (and fans) expect to be in the mix every four years and 2022 is no different. Captain Harry Kane has excelled for club and country and is leading his squad forward. Perhaps the most important man on the pitch for England will be Kyle Walker. He'll likely be the defender tasked with trying to to slow Mbappé.
England has been solid in Qatar with three victories and a draw (a 0-0 result against the United States in group play). Look for Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka to be in the mix. They each have scored three goals for England in the World Cup.
Buckle up friends. The World Cup quarterfinals are set to begin and the next couple of days should be thrilling.
In the U.S. all games are broadcast on Fox or Telemundo.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.