The 2018 FIFA World Cup™ is now a strictly European affair following quarter-final victories for France and Belgium earlier this morning.
The pair will meet in the first Semi-Final on Wednesday morning after Les Bleus proved too strong for Uruguay, while Belgium shocked tournament favourites Brazil.
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The departure of both the inaugural champions and five-time tournament winners leaves an all-European line up remaining in Russia to contend for the 2018 crown.
Moreover, it prolongs a six-decade long curse for South American sides, who have failed to win a FIFA World Cup™ on European soil since 1958.
The day of quarter-final action started at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, where 1998 Champions France proved too strong for Uruguay.
Didier Deschamps' side ran out 2-0 winners courtesy of Raphaël Varane’s sublime first half header and a horrible goalkeeping error from Fernando Muslera, who allowed a speculative effort from Antoine Griezmann straight through him early in the second.
Griezmann – who opened the scoring against the Socceroos from the penalty spot nearly a month ago – was the inspiration for France. The Atletico Madrid man’s free-kick delivery for Varane’s effort five minutes from half time was perfectly placed, and allowed the defender to bury an emphatic header past Muslera to send Les Bleus on their way.
He doubled the lead for Deschamps’ outfit early in the second half with his third of the tournament, although it was a moment to forget for the Uruguayan gloveman, who got two hands to Griezmann’s strike from range but could only parry the ball over the line. Muslera had been one of the standout goalkeepers and only conceded one goal prior to the team’s quarter final meeting, but it was a costly blunder – and handed their opponents an unassailable advantage.
Uruguayan manager Óscar Tabárez had been significantly weakened by the loss of Edinson Cavani, who had succumbed to a calf injury sustained in the side’s Round of 16 win over Portugal. Cavani's absence resulted in a toothless display from Tabárez’s side, but the 71-year-old was proud of the nation's tournament performance.
"Today we played against opponents who were better and stronger than us. We have to admit it and congratulate them,” he told the press after the match.
"We couldn't control their strengths.
"Today our dream comes to an end, but I think the world has seen what we achieved, what we want to do, and what sort of country we are. We are a small country you know. It is harder for us than for France or Germany or England.”
Uruguay’s exit left Brazil as the only South American side in the tournament when this morning's other quarter final commenced.
But the tournament favourites would soon be sent packing too, after falling 2-1 to Belgium after a thoroughly entertaining contest in Kazan.
The Kazan Arena has seen the demise of several heavyweight nations in this year’s tournament – Germany, Argentina and now Brazil have all met their end in the Tatarstan capital.
Roberto Martinez’s side established a 2-0 lead at half time thanks to Fernandinho’s own goal and a wonderful strike from Kevin De Bruyne. Alongside fellow Premier League stars Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, De Bruyne was sensational for the Red Devils.
Brazil had their fair share of opportunities throughout, but no side in tournament history has ever recovered from a 2-0 half time deficit, and so it proved again.
Thiago Silva had hit the post early on, while Paulinho also fluffed his lines. Renato Augusto restored hope when he squeezed Philippe Coutinho’s clipped pass inside the post with fifteen minutes remaining, but the five-time winners were unable to find an equaliser, with Thibaut Courtois denying Neymar in stoppage time.
The win could be a career-defining one for former Everton and Wigan manager Martinez.
“Many aspects made me proud,” he said after the match.
“Firstly, there was the performance and the confidence. In the tunnel the players had that look in their eyes that they could win. The second was their reaction after conceding.”
“It would be very easy to think you turn up and win a football game but you cannot do that against Brazil. We had to be brave tactically and to do that in a World Cup, the players have to believe. It’s about execution of the tactics.”
Tonight's Quarter-Final fixtures
Sweden v England, Sunday 8 July 12.00AM (AEST), Samara Arena
Russia v Croatia, Sunday 8 July 4.00AM (AEST), Fisht Stadium
France v Belgium, Wednesday 11 July 4.00AM (AEST), Saint Petersburg Stadium
Russia/Croatia v Sweden/England, Thursday 12 July 4.00AM (AEST), Luzhniki Stadium