Day 15: Mbappé and Bellingham shine as France and England progress to enticing quarter-final
That last-eight meeting on Saturday looked an exciting possibility ahead of Sunday’s matches, but it was a reality that had to be worked for, of course.
The way in which France and England went about earning it has made it all the more engaging a prospect.
First up on Sunday were Les Bleus, against Poland. It does feel like the holders, for one reason or another, went somewhat under the radar in the build-up to the tournament.
Either way, they’re now beyond that stage at this World Cup, and they’re very much back on the radar.
The performance they put in and the goals they scored in the 3-1 win over Czesław Michniewicz’s side couldn’t help but catch the eye.
They had some close shaves – Hugo Lloris made an excellent first-half save from Piotr Zieliński with the score still at 0-0, for instance.
But the class of Didier Deschamps’ team soon shone through.
Kylian Mbappé’s clever pass was taken in and shrewdly shovelled home by Olivier Giroud in the 44th minute. The 36-year-old’s 52nd goal for France, which took him beyond Thierry Henry’s total and made him his nation’s leading male goalscorer.
And then Mbappé willingly took on the net-finding mantle.
He drove home a cleverly disguised 74th-minute effort to double the lead and then whipped a stoppage-time stunner into the far-corner to make it three.
The 23-year-old has five at this tournament now, putting him two clear in the Golden Boot race.
Another genuinely electric showing from the Paris Saint-Germain forward, within a French team that again looks to be growing into the tournament.
Robert Lewandowski stroked home what felt like a deserved consolation from the penalty spot soon after.
Then came England.
The opening 35 or so minutes, in particular, highlighted that.
Compact and front-footed in their shape and their pressing, the Lions of Teranga made it exceedingly difficult for their opponents to find a rhythm and play through the thirds.
They had the best early openings, too.
The Three Lions then plotted a path out.
The 38th minute saw a clever Phil Foden flick and well-timed Harry Kane pass lead to Jude Bellingham’s burst in-behind being found. The Borussia Dortmund midfielder’s cut-back was then neatly swept home by Jordan Henderson.
10 minutes later, on the stroke of half-time, Bellingham also played a key part in the second.
The 19-year-old won possession in his own half, evaded challenges to get into Senegal’s, and fed Foden. He swiftly played in Kane and the skipper drilled home his first goal of the tournament.
A welcome goal, and goalscorer, at a welcome time.
Bukayo Saka then added the third 11 minutes after the restart as he neatly converted a superbly threaded Foden delivery.
Gareth Southgate’s side negotiated this one with an impressive assurance – and won it with a thrilling ruthlessness.
That, along with what else we saw on Sunday, gives Saturday night plenty of potential.
The round of 16 has plenty to offer yet, as well.
Japan v Croatia – 3pm GMT
Brazil v South Korea – 7pm GMT
Japan v Croatia – Round of 16
Kick-off time: 3pm GMT
Venue: Al Janoub Stadium, Al Wakrah
Where can I watch? BBC One (UK)
A fascinating-looking matchup, given what has preceded it at this World Cup.
Croatia, arguably, head into this one as favourites given their tournament pedigree, experience and evident quality.
The 2018 runners-up, in the eyes of some, actually have a better team than four years ago.
There appears a nice blend of youth and experience within Zlatko Dalić’s starting team and the squad, while the midfield of Luka Modrić, Marcelo Brozović and Mateo Kovačić has a case for being the best at the tournament.
They didn’t massively pull up trees within the group stage, as two draws and a win saw them qualify in second, behind the excellent Morocco – and ahead of an underwhelming Belgium.
Croatia do, though, feel like an outfit who could grow into the tournament from here.
Japan, meanwhile, feel like a side who could just use several of those perceived traits against them.
Two 2-1 comeback wins over Spain and the eliminated Germany – either side of a 1-0 loss to Costa Rica – saw the Samurai Blue top Group E and progress to the round of 16 for the second successive World Cup.
Those results, in themselves, may mean that many will fancy them to edge this one.
Their combination of technical excellence and relentless energy – which helped them score quick-fire doubles in both of those group stage wins – is dangerous and difficult to stop when well-executed and well-timed.
Manager Hajime Moriyasu’s use of substitutes has played a big part so far, too.
The half-time introductions of SC Freiburg’s Ritsu Doan and Brighton and Hove Albion’s Kaoru Mitoma were the latest to make a big impact in that victory over Spain on Thursday.
This feels like a match where tempo-setting – and changing – could be key. It has the potential to be one of the most tactically and technically interesting games of the tournament so far.
Brazil v South Korea – Round of 16
Kick-off time: 7pm GMT
Venue: Stadium 974, Doha
Where can I watch? ITV1 (UK)
Another intriguing clash, even if there appears to be a clearer favourite here.
Brazil, many people’s pick to win the tournament before a ball was kicked, have looked good so far – even if a much-changed side lost to Cameroon in their final group stage outing.
And, notably, they look set to have Neymar back for this one.
After sustaining an ankle injury in the 2-0 opening win over Serbia, the 30-year-old is now back in training and ought to be an option from the bench – at the very least – on Monday evening.
That’s a significant boost for Tite’s side, given the exceptional range of attributes he possesses and the creative hub that he can often represent for the team.
There’s plenty elsewhere, of course.
Vinícius Júnior, Raphinha and Richarlison have already shown plenty of promising signs, while Casemiro continues to provide brilliant balance in midfield.
The importance of Richarlison – who scored both in that Serbia victory – has arguably been enhanced with the news that Gabriel Jesus is now out of the tournament, too.
The Seleção will be widely expected to overcome South Korea, but Paulo Bento’s team might just have momentum on their side after their late win over Portugal on Friday night took them through ahead of Uruguay.
Captain Son Heung-min offered a timely reminder of his quality with the brilliant through-ball that allowed Hwang Hee-chan to make it 2-1 in stoppage time – and it feels reasonable to observe that the Tottenham Hotspur forward will need to be at his influential best if South Korea are to give themselves a good chance of providing the tournament with its latest upset.
Centre-back Kim Min-jae, who’s been so good for Napoli so far this season, is another who will likely need to put in a big performance.
Brazil ought to progress to the last-eight, but South Korea certainly look capable of posing them some tricky questions.