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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.

Report: Cavani expected to miss France clash

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Uruguay has gone about its business with a perfect record thus far in Russia, but the South American side could be dealt a huge blow prior to Friday’s quarterfinal meeting with France.

[ MORE: Key battles in each quarterfinals match ]

ESPN FC is reporting that striker Edinson Cavani could very well miss their World Cup clash with Les Bleus after picking up a calf injury during the second half of Uruguay’s Round of 16 match against Portugal.

Cavani has missed training three consecutive days, leaving the Paris Saint-Germain star little time to get back on the practice field prior to Friday’s final-eight meeting.

ESPN has also reported that if Cavani cannot play, Girona’s Christian Stuani would be the most likely to slot in up front next to Luis Suarez.

The 31-year-old Cavani is currently Uruguay’s leading goalscorer at this World Cup with three finishes, while Stuani made his World Cup debut in the Portugal match after Cavani went down injured.

Key battles in each World Cup quarterfinal match

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The World Cup has reached the quarterfinal stage – the point in the competition where no slouches are left, all the pretenders have packed their bags, and only the truly cohesive squads remain. We’ve seen some barnburners, some defensive grinders, and plenty of exciting moments.

With just eight teams left, there will be plenty of key matchups in each game for pundits to dissect, white boards to draw, and coaches to highlight. Here are a few of those battles that each team must work around.

Uruguay vs. France – Edinson Cavani vs. Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane

France will get its opportunities to score goals, of that there is no doubt. Diego Godin leads one of the most gritty back lines remaining in the big dance, but Kylian Mbappe has already shredded enough defensive units to know that he will provide France chance to take.

With that in mind, the true test will come on the other end of the pitch. France’s defensive unit has been shaky, while Uruguay’s attack is banged up. Cavani came off injured in the dying minutes of the 2-1 Round of 16 victory over Portugal, while Luis Suarez was reportedly injured in Uruguay training. Can they test the French central defenders enough to keep up with the high-powered France attack? They may be forced to play in from the flanks, where France is the weakest. Lucas Hernandez has been surprisingly solid, but aside from scoring a wonder goal against Argentina, young Benjamin Pavard has been mediocre at best. That may be Uruguay’s best chance to score.

Brazil vs. Belgium – Philippe Coutinho and Willian vs. Belgium midfield

Brazil defensive midfielder Casemiro is out thanks to picking up his second yellow card of the tournament in the previous match, so that may very well leave his midfield partner Paulinho on an island.

[ MORE: Tite’s biggest tactical test comes in Casemiro’s absence ]

That’s not where we’re focused on here. No, we’re looking in the other direction. With Brazil likely to maintain a significant portion of the possession, They will look to build their attack through the midfield where Japan exposed a serious weakness in the Belgian setup. In the first half of their Round of 16 matchup, Japan ran the ball straight down Belgium’s throat, with only Axel Witsel covering the back line. It worked. After halftime, Roberto Martinez brought on Marouane Fellaini to shore up the midfield, plus Nacer Chadli to help give the Japanese something else to think about, and it shifted the tide of the match.

So who will Roberto Martinez start in midfield against Brazil? If Witsel and Fellaini are paired from the opening whistle, it may nullify Coutinho’s influence and put pressure on Willian, who has had an underrated tournament thus far. If Witsel is by himself, Coutinho may have a field day.

Sweden vs. England – Emil Forsberg vs. Kyle Walker

Emil Forsberg could give England problems on Sweden’s left wing (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images).

Is this a matchup we could see in the Premier League this coming season? Emil Forsberg has seen one of the tournament’s biggest breakout performances, and he could be on the radar for a summer switch. He plays on the left wing, the same side as Walker’s assignment as part of the back three.

Walker has been impressive in his center-back role, but has slipped up at times. It hasn’t cost England dearly yet, but could Forsberg make Gareth Southgate pay for his experimentation on the biggest stage? Sweden’s shape and structure have been incredibly impressive so far in Russia, and if they can keep Harry Kane and company at bay, one goal may decide the match, and Forsberg’s movement and creativity will be critical for Sweden.

Russia vs. Croatia – Roman Zobnin and Daler Kuzyaev vs. Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic

Croatia’s midfield is being hailed as the best of the remaining World Cup teams, and they have carved up defensive shape after defensive shape. Croatia has beaten Nigeria, Argentina, Iceland, and Denmark so far, all teams known for their ability to lock down the center of the pitch.

Luka Modric has deserved the Golden Ball noise he’s getting to this point, but Ivan Rakitic has been the secret weapon, pairing with Modric flawlessly moving forward. If Russia is going to win this match, they won’t be able to just bunker in and earn a 0-0 draw. They will have to open up to score, and that means keeping Modric and Rakitic locked down despite the additional space. Zobnin and Kuzyaev performed fabulously against Spain, but were aided by Fernando Hierro’s static tactics. Can the inexperienced duo – just 26 caps between the 24- and 25-year-old pair – repeat the performance against the tournament’s best midfield tandem?

Uruguay: Cavani injury a ‘worry’; France ‘won’t be easy’

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Edinson Cavani was the star of Uruguay’s 2-1 victory over Portugal in the round of 16 at the 2018 World Cup on Saturday, but his two goals didn’t come without a price — a hamstring injury suffered late in the second half.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ]

Cristiano Ronaldo offered Cavani a bit of assistance — largely in the essence of time — as he left the field with his side ahead in the 74th minute. According to head coach Oscar Tabarez, it is yet unknown how severe the injury is — and whether or not it will keep him out of Friday’s quarterfinal clash with France — but “[they] are worried.” — quotes from the BBC:

“Yes, he was injured and he felt pain. I haven’t spoken to the medical team because the match has only just finished. We don’t have a lot of time to recover. Right now, we are only worried, but we don’t know how serious the injury really is.

As for the rest of Saturday’s game, the 71-year-old was extremely pleased by yet another of his side’s resolute, organized defensive performances. Portugal had 67 percent of possession and created 20 shots (to Uruguay’s five), but the quality of chances allowed was patently, and characteristically, low.

“It was difficult, Portugal were constantly in our area. Today it was a mistake that led to the equalizer, but we have a very strong team. We have had to sustain an injury and see how that resolves.”

“We were not that far away from a very different result. Up to yesterday people were saying, ‘Well, we won the group phase but the group was easy.’ I don’t think Portugal was easy and what lies ahead won’t be easy.”

Cavani scores twice, Uruguay top Portugal to reach QF

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Edinson Cavani’s time to be the star — whether for club or country — has been a long time coming and finally arrived on Saturday, as his two goals propelled Uruguay past Portugal and into the quarterfinals, for the second time in three tournaments, at the 2018 World Cup.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ]

Having been overshadowed by the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Neymar at Paris Saint-Germain, and long played second fiddle to Luis Suarez for Uruguay, Cavani’s brace went a long way toward dispelling notion that he’s not a “big-game player” — for one day, at least.

It was Cavani and Suarez who threatened the Portuguese defense all day long, and it was Cavani and Suarez (and Cavani, in that order) who combined brilliantly for the game’s opening goal in the 7th minute.

Cavani played a 55-yard diagonal ball to Suarez, near the top of the penalty area, and — here’s the important part — continued his run afterwards. As if he’d been forgotten about since he took up a wide midfield spot on the field, the Paris Saint-German man was allowed to drift centrally and into the box before peeling away from the nearest defender just as Suarez dropped his cross on a dime, and the header was elementary.

Suarez forced Rui Patricio into a diving save in the 21 minute. After winning the free kick 30 yards from goal, Suarez drilled the dead-ball restart low, bouncing it through the wall and just inside Patricio’s left-hand post, but the Wolverhampton Wanderers man (signed this summer) came saw it the whole way.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

Either side of Suarez’s chance, it was all Portugal — from possession, to meaningful possession and scoring chances — and finally, after trailing for nearly 50 minutes, they were level after 55 minutes, thanks to Pepe’s unmarked header from Raphael Guerreiro’s corner kick.

The 1-1 scoreline wouldn’t last long, though, as Cavani scored his second of the day in stunning fashion — a perfectly placed curler from the edge of the penalty area to restore Uruguay’s lead just seven minutes later. Fernando Muslera played the ball long, it fell to Rodrigo Bentancur, and Bentancur slotted a deftly weighted ball to Cavani on the left. His finish, exquisite as could be, snuck inside the far post. It was a direct passage of play, but it was decisive and deadly.

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Up next for Uruguay will be a quarterfinals clash with France, one of the tournament’s most popular favorites. Les Bleus knocked off Argentina, in a 4-3 thriller, in the day’s first round-of-16 fixture.