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Top 5 storylines — 2018 World Cup quarterfinals

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We’re less than 24 hours from the start of the quarterfinals at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Captivating storylines have been plentiful through the first 20 days of the tournament. Here’s five to keep an eye on when the eight remaining teams return to action on Friday and Saturday.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ]

Is it really coming home?

When England let Belgium beat them lost to Belgium on the final day of the group stage, it sent the Three Lions to the “easier” side of the knockout bracket — while the Red Devils headed to the side featuring France and Brazil — and, oh boy, has it worked like a charm for England. Spain, the only true giant of the eight, went out in the round of 16 to Russia, thus leaving England a potential path to the final featuring Sweden and Croatia. The objective is clear for England: don’t mess this up, because you’ll almost certainly never get another chance like this. Also of note regarding England: Harry Kane could just about lock up the Golden Boot with another goal (or two), to pad his current 6-4 lead on Romelu Lukaku.

[ MORE: Spurs place $58-million bid for USMNT’s Christian Pulisic ]

Brazil vs. Belgium — meeting of the most impressive sides so far?

No one thrashed through their respective group quite like Belgium did — won all three games and finished with a +7 goal differential — and no one knocked off their round-of-16 foe quite as soundly as Brazil did — the Selecao beat Mexico by a score of 2-0, the only game of the eight to finish with a multiple-goal margin of victory. In that sense, it would be fair to say Brazil and Belgium have been the most impressive teams through their first four games. So, naturally, they’re set to face one another in the second quarterfinal on Friday. It’s a small feather in the cap of those who believe the World Cup should be re-seeded at the conclusion of the group stage.

[ MORE: Key battles in each World Cup quarterfinal match ]

Uruguay face France, without Cavani

Edinson Cavani scored both goals for Uruguay in their 2-1 victory over Portugal in the round of 16, but will now pay a steep price for doing so: Cavani, who alongside Luis Suarez forms arguably the best forward partnership at this World Cup, is expected to miss Friday’s quarterfinal clash with France on Friday. Cavani suffered a calf injury during the second half of the game against Portugal. Cavani (45) has scored more goals during his Uruguay career than anyone not named Suarez (53).

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(When) will the “upsets” stop?

While Belgium beating Brazil would only constitute a mild upset (compared to everything we’ve seen thus far), it would still signal the elimination of the next-to-last remaining pre-tournament favorite. The same goes for Uruguay versus France, though most would see that as more of a shocker than an upset. It’s possible that we could end up with a World Cup final featuring not a single team from outside the top 10 of the current FIFA rankings (Uruguay versus anyone from the other half), but more likely that we’ll see a final without a top-six side (France, who are currently ranked seventh).

[ MORE: World Cup quarterfinal predictions ]

What if the upsets don’t stop?

Speaking of upsets, Uruguay versus Belgium, and Russia versus Sweden — that’s a very possible final-four field, should anyone expect to waltz through their matchup on Friday or Saturday. While everyone is penciling in an England versus Croatia semifinal, and hoping to put England through to the final, if we have learned anything from this tournament, it’s that it would be very stupid to look past Russia and Sweden. Would it be the star-studded semifinal showdown everyone projected, or get excited for, before the tournament started three weeks ago? Certainly not, but it feels like an ending perfectly befitting this particularly crazy World Cup.

Struggling Atleti in unfamiliar territory under Simeone

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MADRID — This is uncharted territory for many Atletico Madrid fans.

Few other times in recent years have they seen their team struggle so much under Diego Simeone.

[ VIDEO: Haaland has played 59 minutes, scored 5 goals for Dortmund ]

Few other times have they seen their coach fail so often while trying to put the team back on track.

Atletico hit a new low under Simeone on Thursday when it was eliminated by third-division club Cultural Leonesa in the round of 32 of the Copa del Rey. The 2-1 loss in extra time was the team’s worst result in the cup competition since losing to third-tier club Albacete at the same stage in 2011-12.

Two days after that loss in 2011, Atletico hired the then-mostly unknown Simeone to replace Gregorio Manzano, a move that kick-started one of the club’s most successful eras and led to a Spanish league title, two Europa League trophies and two Champions League final appearances.

Atletico did go through difficult moments under Simeone, including when the team failed to advance past the group stage of the Champions League a couple of seasons ago.

“There were always complicated moments in past seasons, maybe after we didn’t make it in the Champions League, or when we lost in the Champions League finals,” Simeone said. “After being at the club for so long, things like this can happen, although they shouldn’t happen.”

There is a greater sense of urgency about the team’s struggles this time.

In addition to Wednesday’s embarrassing Copa del Rey elimination, Atletico lost the Spanish Super Cup final to Real Madrid on Jan. 12, and already is eight points off the Spanish league lead after 20 matches.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

Before, there used to be a notion that Simeone would quickly turn things around and put the team back on track, but this time there aren’t many signs things will improve again soon.

Atletico has yet to impress since undergoing its biggest squad revamp under Simeone at the end of last season, when it lost Antoine Griezmann and other veteran players such as Filipe Luis and Diego Godin. Young Portugal forward Joao Felix, who arrived to replace Griezmann after a transfer from Benfica worth more than 120 million euros ($133 million), has yet to meet expectations.

More concerning, Atletico is not being nearly as effective as it used to be, when it always seemed to find a way to win matches despite not playing well.

The team remains solid defensively — it has the second-best defense in the Spanish league with 14 goals conceded — but it hasn’t been able to do much in attack recently.

“Everything is harder when you can’t score,” Simeone said.

Only seven teams have scored fewer goals than Atletico’s 22 in the 20-team standings.

Diego Costa has been mostly out injured, and Victor “Vitolo” Machin and Alvaro Morata haven’t done much in attack. Morata is the team’s leading scorer with 10 goals in all competitions, and no one else has more than five.

“We have to be humble enough to be self-critical,” Simeone said. “We need to keep working to try to be ready for the challenges that we have ahead of us. We have a very good squad and I’m sure that the results that we want will start arriving soon.”

Atletico biggest chance to rebound will come next month against European champion Liverpool in the last 16 of the Champions League. The first leg will be on Feb. 18 in Spain.

Mourinho in favor of PL’s winter break, but says timing all wrong

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Jose Mourinho seems to be quite happy that the Premier League will implement its first-ever winter break next month, allowing players a bit of rest and recovery time during a marathon campaign, but says its timing makes the break almost worthless for clubs competing in European competitions.

[ VIDEO: Haaland has played 59 minutes, scored 5 goals for Dortmund ]

The next four weeks will play out as follows for Tottenham Hotspur: FA Cup against Southampton this weekend; PL fixture against Manchester City next weekend; the following weekend off which results in two weeks without a game; PL fixture against Aston Villa the following weekend; Champions League first leg against RB Leipzig three days later.

In Mourinho’s perfect world, that first round of PL fixtures following the break would be held a week earlier, leaving the seven English clubs competing in the Champions League and Europa League with a week and a half between games before setting out once again to chase European glory. Instead, Tottenham, Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea will all have a quick turnaround from PL action to UCL competition — quotes from the Guardian:

“It is what it is. I’m not happy that the break comes in the wrong moment. The break should be before the Champions League and, in the end, before the Champions League we don’t have the break. We have to play Aston Villa on the Sunday, playing [RB Leipzig three] days later. So we don’t really care about the break, honestly.”

Mourinho’s point is a solid one: if the winter break is going to exist — and it should — then why shouldn’t its benefits be maximized? Non-European sides — typically those with smaller squads — would still have the full two weeks between games, while those in Europe are able to better leverage their slightly larger squads with only 10 or 11 days between games — still a lengthy break relative to the rest of the season.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

It’s only the first year of the winter break in the PL, so perhaps hopefully they’ll receive Mourinho’s criticism — and that of any other managers — constructively.

Serie A: AC Milan extends unbeaten run since Zlatan’s arrival

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BRESCIA, Italy (AP) Ante Rebic scored his third goal in two matches, goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma was superb and AC Milan won 1-0 at relegation-threatened Brescia on Friday to climb into the Europa League places in Serie A.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

Rebic, who scored twice in a win over Udinese last weekend, pounced on a loose ball directly in front of the goal following a cross from Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the 71st minute.

Since Ibrahimovic’s return to Milan over the holiday break, Milan is unbeaten with four wins and a draw across all competitions.

Donnarumma produced several difficult saves to deny Dimitri Bisoli and Ernesto Torregrossa.

Also, Milan fullback Theo Hernandez hit the crossbar in the closing minutes.

The Rossoneri moved up to sixth place, four points behind fifth-place Atalanta.

[ MORE: Solskjaer’s transfer update; positive on rebuild ]

“Our goal is to qualify for Europe,” Donnarumma said. “We’ve got to continue like this and not rest for a moment. There’s another big Italian Cup match coming up with Torino midweek and we want to reach the semifinals.

“We’ll take it one game at a time and try to keep this momentum going.”

Brescia was without Mario Balotelli, who was suspended for two matches after protesting a booking last weekend that ended up with the striker being sent off.

Brescia remained one point above last-place Genoa.

FA Cup: Sheffield Wednesday into 5th round; Derby headed for replay

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Sheffield Wednesday became the first club to reach the fifth round of the 2019-20 FA Cup by beating Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road on Friday.

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The Owls took a 1-0 lead into halftime after Morgan Fox squeezed his shot past the goalkeeper from a tight angle, and Sam Winnall put the EFL Championship side 2-0 up by slotting the ball home just before full-time. QPR pulled a goal back through Nahki Wells just moments later, but it wasn’t enough and the game finished 2-1.

It’s the second time in three seasons that Wednesday has reached the fifth round after doing so just twice in their previous 17 seasons.

[ MORE: Solskjaer’s transfer update; positive on rebuild ]

Elsewhere, fellow Championship side Derby County, featuring Wayne Rooney who played all 90 minutes, couldn’t see off League Two side Northampton Town and will be forced into the dreaded replay after struggling to a scoreless draw away from home.

The draw for the fifth round will be held on Monday at 2:20 p.m. ET, prior to kickoff of Bournemouth v. Arsenal.