Just like that, the 2018 World Cup field is down to eight.
An unforgettable group stage gave way to a scintillating round of 16, which makes you wonder what possibly could be ahead in this Friday and Saturday's quarterfinals.
We're left with two distinctly different sides to the bracket. On one, there are four teams that really wouldn't shock anyone (O.K., perhaps Uruguay), if they reached the final and won it all. On the other? Well, it's an entirely different story. If Croatia, England, Sweden and Russia were a group at a European Championship, for example, you'd think it's a pretty balanced group. And even though Croatia and England should ultimately get out, neither is knocking off a giant in the knockout rounds. Welp. Surprise! One of them will play for the right to be crowned world champion.
With that said, there's a certain power structure to the remaining eight teams. Here's how they stack up based on performance, potential and path to the final entering their quarterfinal matches:
Group stage: 2-0-1, first place in Group E
Round of 16: Beat Mexico 2-0
Quarterfinal opponent: Belgium; Friday, July 6 (2 p.m. ET)
Brazil arguably has the toughest path to the final remaining, with the talent-laden Red Devils of Belgium potentially followed by France's who's-who roster in the semifinal. But the way Brazil is playing, it might not matter. While much has been made of Neymar's embellishment and incessant rolling, he's actually been quite good over the last couple of games. Remember, he missed a few months with a broken foot and had just a couple of friendlies to round into form for the World Cup. Now that he's a few games in, the performances are starting to show. He was excellent against Mexico, a difference-maker both as a provider and a finisher. As he continues to crescendo by the game, so does Brazil, which has improved in each match in Russia thus far.
Casemiro may be suspended for the quarterfinal, but Fernandinho slotting in as a replacement, largely against Premier League players with whom he is familiar, should not be much of a step down. And if Marcelo is able to return, that would only increase Brazil's chances for success. It was 60 years ago that Brazil won its first World Cup against host Sweden. Should it make the final again, there's a 50% chance it'd either face the host nation or Sweden for the chance to win its sixth.
Group stage: 2-0-1, first place in Group C
Round of 16: Beat Argentina 4-3
Quarterfinal opponent: Uruguay; Friday, July 6 (10 a.m. ET)
France has become the Kylian Mbappe show, with the electrifying 19-year-old destroying Argentina and emphatically announcing his arrival on the international stage in the process. Uruguay will present much more resistance in the back, with Atletico Madrid's Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez marshaling a stout back line. They'll undoubtedly be quite up to speed on club teammate Antoine Griezmann.
France's all-world talent is starting to show more and more, though, and Paul Pogba is continuing to have a fantastic tournament bossing the midfield. It's there where France has a decisive advantage, and it'll come down to finishing the opportunities it's able to carve out against Uruguay's stingy rearguard. That Edinson Cavani could miss the match, or at least be severely hampered, is a bonus for Les Bleus. It's a shame they're on the same side of the bracket as Brazil.
Group stage: 3-0-0, first place in Group D
Round of 16: Beat Denmark 3-2 in PKs (after 1-1 draw)
Quarterfinal opponent: Russia; Saturday, July 7 (2 p.m. ET)
Croatia was arguably the best team in the group stage, and then, naturally, it conceded a goal to Denmark 57 seconds into their round-of-16 clash off a long throw-in. Nobody said they were perfect. But the team does have a backbone, as evidenced by it finding an equalizer three minutes later, and by Luka Modric having a penalty in extra time saved, only to bounce back and convert during the ensuing shootout.
Never mind the performance and the potential of this team, its road to the final, by definition, is the easiest. Russia has been sensational in its World Cup, and its upset of Spain is one of the most improbable results in World Cup history, but you'd expect Croatia's talent and experience to ultimately win out.
Group stage: 3-0-0, first place in Group A
Round of 16: Beat Portugal 2-1
Quarterfinal opponent: France; Friday, July 6 (10 a.m. ET)
Much depends on Cavani's health, but Uruguay is disciplined and balanced enough to win with defense if need be. Cavani is not going to be 100% for this match given his calf injury, but even having him loom on the bench as a late-game possibility would be a plus. Uruguay has only conceded once all tournament, and that was on a corner kick. It'll have its hands full with Mbappe running down its throat, but then again, its organization and ability in the back far exceeds Argentina's. Uruguay is an underdog in this game, but not by much.
Group stage: 3-0-0, first place in Group G
Round of 16: Beat Japan 3-2
Quarterfinal opponent: Brazil; Friday, July 6 (2 p.m. ET)
Belgium required a comeback for the ages–and an instant-classic game-winner–to defeat Japan, but it will have to be much sharper if it is to knock off Brazil and give its golden generation a chance at reaching the final. Japan had its way with Belgium for large stretches of their knockout clash, and only until its feet were truly on the fire did the Red Devils respond.
There's no denying that Belgium has the talent on paper to compete with Brazil, but on the field so far, the Seleção have been the much better team. Coming out and punching Brazil in the mouth with an early goal would send a message, but if Brazil is able to settle into the game like it did against Mexico, it'll be a second straight quarterfinal exit at the World Cup for a team capable of so much more.
Group stage: 2-1-0, second place in Group G
Round of 16: Beat Colombia 4-3 in PKs (after 1-1 draw)
Quarterfinal opponent: Sweden; Saturday, July 7 (10 a.m. ET)
England rolls into the quarterfinals with the swagger of having finally won a penalty kick shootout at the World Cup. It should never have come to that, of course. England was the far better team, then conceded a 93rd-minute equalizer to Colombia and had to sweat out the extra stanza. The good news is that the Three Lions showed their fortitude and mental strength, in order to overcome both the late goal and the hoodoo over England teams at the World Cup to be able to advance. The bad news is that for all its possession, England rarely tested Colombia's defense and relied on set pieces for its best opportunities. There's a will and a way about England, but there's still something missing when it comes to sharpness.
Group stage: 2-1-0, first place in Group F
Round of 16: Beat Switzerland 1-0
Quarterfinal opponent: England; Saturday, July 7 (10 a.m.)
There's absolutely nothing flashy about this Sweden team, and it is one that is far from clinical in front of goal. Marcus Berg is supposed to lead the line, and yet he has no goals and a handful of missed opportunities to show for his efforts. There's something that makes playing against Sweden so incredibly difficult, though. Its defense is aggressive in terms of getting in front of shot-takers, and aside from succumbing to a desperate Germany, the Swedes have been lights out to their opposition. In a lot of ways, they're a better version of Iceland–and we all know how England fared against everyone's favorite underdog two summers ago. Sweden's battle vs. England figures to be a low-scoring, one-goal type of game, and that plays right into Sweden's strengths. Just ask Italy in qualifying, or South Korea and Switzerland in Russia.
Group stage: 2-1-0, second place in Group A
Round of 16: Beat Spain 4-3 in PKs (after 1-1 draw)
Quarterfinal opponent: Croatia; Saturday, July 7 (2 p.m. ET)
One of these days, the fact that Russia is the lowest-ranked team in the tournament field will catch up with them ... right? Truth be told, Russia was dominated by Spain, and while, yes, it's a testament to Russia's resolve and heart that it didn't wind up conceding more than once despite giving up 75% of the ball, it really seems like Spain lost that match more than Russia won it. Its next opponent, Croatia, is just as battle tested and talented as Spain and considerably less stale. This is where the hosts are likely to exit.