Neighbour Dave has featured in a few of my columns over the years. He is my sounding board for the daily issues that present themselves in both football and sport in general.
There are only four teams left at the 2018 FIFA World Cup and after one of the craziest tournaments in history, with upsets and big names falling over at every hurdle, the semi-finals are here.
On one side of the draw, Belgium and France have emerged, having knocked over Brazil and Uruguay respectively, while from the weak half of the draw, it’s England trying to bring it home against Croatia.
Let’s get onto our second last edition of power rankings for this year’s tournament.
1. Belgium (quarter-finals: 3rd)
And just like that, Belgium find themselves back at the top of the power rankings. After a brief demotion for the quarter-finals, they turned around and upset Brazil to move into the final four of the tournament.
The victory was fantastically executed by the Red Devils, who were written off by plenty before the match. Brazil had been a little bit up and down throughout the tournament, but seemed to be hitting something near their best before the contest.
Belgium came out and dominated the early exchanges, as they have for most of their five matches so far in Russia. They took a 2-0 lead into the halftime sheds despite a lack of possession, before Brazil poached one back late in the second half.
Belgium’s defence was their saving grace, but Brazil could only put nine of their 27 shots on target and those that were ended up being weak efforts thanks to the pressure applied at the back.
Don’t get me wrong, Belgium will need to play a similar game to dispose of France, but as it stands, they could well go all the way and lift their first World Cup trophy.
2. England (quarter-finals: 2nd)
While Belgium have done things the hard way, England have been in the easier side of the draw after losing their final group game 1-0 to the Belgians.
Even though they have their fans chanting ‘It’s coming home,’ to anyone who will listen, Gareth Southgate’s side still have a heap of work to do during their final two matches.
The Poms battled through their Round of 16 match against Colombia, being forced all the way to penalties, but were a lot stronger against shock quarter-finalists Sweden, putting them to the sword by the tune of 2-0.
England will be under the pump from the get-go against Croatia, who are looking to keep their dream run alive, but it’s little surprise the Harry Kane-led side go in as favourites to advance to a surprising final appearance.
3. France (quarter-finals: 5th)
France are a side with whom it’s hard to know what to expect. They have had an indifferent tournament, with a group stage where they scraped through their matches followed up by a poor defensive effort against Argentina.
Despite how good that game was, France would have taken some negatives out of it. Sure, they ran up four goals, but they also conceded three, which is something they won’t be able to do against the defensive might of Belgium who just kept Brazil to a single goal in 90 minutes.
France’s last contest against Uruguay was a lot stronger as they picked up a 2-0 win, but again, it’s hard to judge exactly how much that means given star striker Edinson Cavani was out.
For France to beat Belgium, they must get more than an even share of possession and dominate the contest out of midfield, setting up good scoring opportunities up front. If the match against Brazil proved anything, it’s that a team needs a lot of opportunities to beat the Belgians.
4. Croatia (quarter-finals: 4th)
There is little doubting the fact Croatia have been the surprise packet of the tournament. They are yet to lose a match, and that must count for something heading into a semi-final against a youthful English side.
While they do appear here at the bottom of the power rankings, there is little doubt in my mind they could knock off their opponents and make a famous run to the final of the biggest sporting event on the planet.
To do that, they need a lot to go right for them. Not rated a chance by most, Croatia will rely heavily on getting an early goal, likely to be sparked by the involvement of Luka Modric, who has had a superb tournament in leading his side past every obstacle in their way.
The Croatians’ biggest problem is that they haven’t battled any of the genuinely good sides in knockout football yet, going past Denmark and Russia (on penalties) in their two games so far.
Playing England will be an enormous step up and one would think a bridge too far.
Brazil (quarter-finals: 1st)
Uruguay (quarter-finals: 6th)
Russia (quarter-finals: 7th)
Sweden (quarter-finals: 8th)