As a result, all four semi-finalists at this year’s tournament in Russia will be European. The most powerful continent in world football is also assured of having its fourth straight title winner from a fourth different country.
On Saturday, the final two quarter-finals will be played. Sweden take on England at the Samara Arena in the first clash of the day. Then hosts Russia face Croatia later in the day at the Fisht Stadium in Sochi.
Here’s a look at what you can expect on Saturday at the World Cup in Russia:
Quarter-final: Sweden vs England, 7.30 pm IST
Having intentionally steered England into what’s widely considered the weaker half of the World Cup’s knockout bracket, coach Gareth Southgate is now casting the upcoming quarter-final against Sweden as “bloody difficult.”
Southgate sent out a crew of reserves in their group-stage finale against Belgium ad they promptly lost 1-0. After both teams survived scares in the Round of 16, Belgium had to play Brazil while England meet a Sweden side that gets far less respect.
But Sweden got to this same point by playing smart and unselfish soccer.
“Sweden are a team I respect hugely,” Southgate said Wednesday. “You know we’ve not got a good record against them, I think we’ve always underestimated them. They’ve got good players and they’ve got a clear way of playing. It’s bloody difficult to play against. They are greater than the sum of their parts more often than not.”
The two teams meet on Saturday at Samara Stadium for the right to advance to a semi-final against Russia or Croatia.
England and Sweden have met twice previously in World Cup play, a 2-2 draw in 2006 and a 1-1 draw in 2002. Overall, England have won just two of the last 15 meetings.
The English are coming off a tense but ultimately euphoric Round of 16 win against Colombia. After giving up an injury-time equaliser that forced a 1-1 draw, England triumphed 4-3 in a shootout.
It was a morale booster for the Three Lions, who had been knocked out of three World Cups on penalties since 1990.
England went 2-1-0 in the group stage to finish second to Belgium. The round was highlighted by Kane’s hat trick in a 6-1 thrashing of Panama. Kane leads the field in Russia with six goals.
Sweden finished atop its group in Russia to face Switzerland in the opening match of the knockout round. Emil Forsberg scored on a deflection in the 66th minute of a grinding 1-0 victory.
Coach Janne Andersson was asked afterward if Sweden has been underrated at the World Cup.
Quarter-final: Russia vs Croatia, 11.30 pm IST
Saturday’s match against Croatia is a huge one for Russia, who have never reached the semi-finals of the World Cup, although the Soviet Union got there in 1966.
Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov knows that most of the 48,000-strong crowd will be supporting the home side but the moustachioed former goalkeeper has shown little interest in participating in the national outpouring of emotion.
“Emotions are simple. You show them when you direct the team. Now I am thinking only about the next game. These are not very sophisticated emotions,” he said.
Cherchesov has several issues to resolve, with his midfield the biggest worry.
Alan Dzagoev has recovered from a hamstring injury but is still unable to take a full part in training while Samedov sat on the sidelines on Tuesday with an unspecified fitness problem.
Fellow midfielder Yuri Zhirkov has been ruled out injured and is unlikely to feature again, unless the hosts make it to the final in Moscow on 15 July, according to Cherchesov.
Croatia showed flashes of their stellar attacking game when they beat Nigeria, Argentina and Iceland to top their group. But, like Russia, they took a defensive route to the last-eight with a 3-2 shootout win over Denmark.
With players such as world-class midfielder Luka Modric and a string of top-level forwards including Mario Mandzukic, Ante Rebic, Andrej Kramaric and Ivan Perisic, Zlatko Dalic’s team scored at least two goals in each of their three group matches, including firing three past hapless Argentina.
They are much more potent in attack compared to Spain and could cause Russia trouble with their quick passing game and crosses aimed for Mandzukic.
Croatia have one of the most balanced teams in the tournament, but the Russians believe their quarter-final in Sochi is winnable. If that happens, Russia would be playing a semi-final — maybe even the final — in Moscow’s main stadium, and a country where football usually takes a distant back seat to hockey could go bonkers.