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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?

2018 World Cup Best XI (so far)

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With 48 of 64 games played at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, a look at the brightest stars of the group stage…

[ MORE: Predicting the round of 16 ]

GK — Cho Hyun-woo — Only Guillermo Ochoa (17) made more saves than Cho (12), who made six in South Korea’s 2-0 victory over Germany — the majority in spectacular fashion — and three each in disappointing defeats to Mexico and Sweden. The Taegeuk Warriors weren’t knocked out due to any shortcomings in goal.

DF — Andreas Granqvist — Sweden conceded just two goals in three games against Germany, Mexico and South Korea, and their 33-year-old captain has been a massive part of the why and the how.

DF — Yerry Mina — Mina’s been solid in defense for Colombia, but he’s done the majority of his damage at the other end of the field. Two goals in two games played, and they were both game-winners.

DF — Jose Gimenez — No one has more interceptions (11) and only seven players have won more tackles (6) than the 23-year-old Uruguayan, who just edges out his steady-as-ever partner — for club and country — Diego Godin.

[ MORE: 10 best goals of the group stage ]

MF — Viktor Claesson — Two assists and six key passes in 254 minutes of work. For all the talk about the tough-nosed, dogged defense — and rightly so — Claesson has been at the center of everything going forward.

MF — Luka Modric — He’s been one of the three best midfielders in the world for a half-decade now, and he’s finally getting due credit after playing a massive part in Real Madrid winning three straight Champions League titles, while Croatia are a rare instance of a national team’s personnel fitting together in every way imaginable.

MF — Philippe Coutinho — With Neymar still working back toward his absolute best — and returning to his diving ways — Coutinho picked up the slack in the goal-scoring and -creating (2 goals, 1 assist) and playmaking departments (10 key passes in three games) during group play.

MF — Kevin De Bruyne — While it felt like De Bruyne didn’t quite put his stamp on Belgium’s dominant victories over Panama and Tunisia — the only games in which he played — the Manchester City man still racked up nine key passes in 180 minutes. His outside-of-the-foot ball to Romelu Lukaku is a strong contender for the pass of the tournament.

[ MORE: The five knockout round games we most want to see ]

FW — Harry Kane — Five goals in 153 minutes — even if two of them were from the penalty spot — is a pretty impressive haul for a 24-year-old making his World Cup debut. England will go as far as Kane’s goals can take them.

FW — Romelu Lukaku — Pretty clearly the most destructive and dominant performer we’ve seen thus far, Lukaku racked up four goals (in just 149 minutes) before suffering a minor ankle injury and sitting out the final group game against England.

FW — Cristiano Ronaldo — Portugal’s leading man opened the tournament with a hat trick in the 3-3 draw with Spain, then followed it up with the only goal of the game in a 1-0 win over Morocco.His free kick — the 88th-minute equalizer in the game against Spain — was, and still is, pure art.

Brazil breaks down Serbia to win group

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Paulinho and Thiago Silva ended Serbia’s World Cup hopes with goals in each half as Brazil scooped up a win and the top spot in Group E with a 2-0 win in Moscow on Wednesday.

Brazil will face Mexico in the Round of 16 on Monday. It should be a beauty.

Serbia played well over 90 minutes, and will be left to rue an uncalled foul in the box on Aleksandar Mitrovic earlier in the tournament.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

The first 20 minutes was heavy on scares for Brazil. Marcelo had to come off with an apparent leg injury, and Gabriel Jesus was also felled and hit the deck for a spell.

But Paulinho’s goal came after the half hour mark, as Philippe Coutinho opened the lid on the Serbia back line and the Barcelona man used his first touch to flick the ball past Vladimir Stojkovic.

Serbia’s second half battle was fierce, but Brazil made the path to the knockout rounds extra thorny with a Silva header of a Neymar corner kick.

The rest of the match largely saw Serbia on its heels against a third Brazil goal, as Neymar and Co. very much look prepared for the big stage.

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

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]  

Coutinho saves Brazil from Neymar’s VAR humiliation

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Dominant Brazil needed stoppage time to find a way past Costa Rican backstop Keylor Navas and pick up a 2-0 win in Saint Petersburg on Friday.

Neymar embarrassingly saw an awarded penalty overturned when he flopped instead of shooting following a tug from Giancarlo Gonzalez, but Philippe Coutinho toe-poked a shot through Navas’ legs in the first of six stoppage time minutes.

Neymar would later add a goal in the sixth minute of stoppage time from Douglas Costa.

Brazil finishes the group stage with Serbia, while Costa Rica waits on Switzerland.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Brazil controlled the first 12 minutes of the match, but Costa Rica just missed a bid to make it 1-0 against the run of play.

Deportivo La Coruña midfielder Celso Borges darted into the box to drag a low shot just wide of the far post.

Gabriel Jesus had the ball in the back of the goal in the 26th minute, but was deemed offside. And Keylor Navas stymied another Brazil rush a minute later.

But Costa Rica’s packed-in camp held Brazil at bay into the break.

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

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

Brazil fired out of the gates to start the second half, and Navas was again busy as Neymar clattered into him in search of a loose ball. Well, kinda loose.

When Philippe Coutinho’s hammered shot was blocked out for a corner, it simultaneously felt like Brazil’s goal was either inevitable or destined to not arrive.

Navas then pushed a Neymar point-blank bid over the bar.

Tite opted to bring on Roberto Firmino, but Navas kept up his heroics by collecting a header off another Brazil corner.

The possibility of a scoreless draw felt even more likely when Neymar stole the ball and whipped a 21-yard shot just off the upper 90.

Neymar looked to have a won a penalty kick when Gonzalez tugged him in the six, but VAR overturned the call.

Brazil waste Coutinho’s stunner, draw Switzerland in opener

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Brazil started brilliantly and raced out to an early lead, but the five-time World Cup winners — and one of a handful of favorites in 2018 — disappointed in the end as they settled for a 1-1 draw with Switzerland in the two sides’ Group E opener.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Philippe Coutinho opened the scoring after 20 minutes, turning home a stunning strike from distance, off the inside of the post, to settle any early nerves and give Tite’s Selecao a 1-0 lead (WATCH HERE).

It wasn’t Brazil’s first golden scoring chance of the game, though, as Coutinho and Neymar combined down the left wing to send the latter into space inside the penalty area. Neymar played a first-time cross into the six-yard box, but Paulinho‘s scuffed effort from close range was tipped around the post by Yann Sommer.

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

A bit of complacency and real lack of urgency washed over Brazil as soon as they went ahead, affording Switzerland every opportunity to get back in the game.

Vladimir Petkovic’s side needed just five second-half minutes to draw level, thanks to some shoddy set-piece defending by Brazil. Steven Zuber took up a spot at the near post, virtually unmarked inside the six-yard box, and headed past Alisson.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

The game’s most controversial moment came just after the 70-minute mark, when Gabriel Jesus was bear-hugged inside the penalty area. Wrapped up from behind, the Manchester City forward was blatantly prevented from getting to the ball after a quick passage of smooth build-up, but referee Cesar Arturo Ramos Palazuelos was unmoved and no video review was enacted.

By the full-time whistle, Brazil had piled up 21 shots (just four on target) compared to just six from Switzerland (two). Despite on-target efforts from Neymar and Renato Augusto inside the game’s final five minutes, a winner wasn’t on the cards and the sides were forced to split the points.

Up next for Brazil is a clash with Costa Rica on Friday, while Switzerland will face Serbia the same day. The Serbs topped the Costa Ricans in Sunday’s first game, putting them top of the group after after the first of three rounds in Group E.