Samara (Russia): The 2018 FIFA World Cup now has its four semi-finalists after a typically thrilling set of quarter-finals. Here are four things we learned as eight contenders for the title were reduced to four, reports Xinhua news agency:
1. Courage can only take you so far: Russia bowed out of the World Cup in a heroic and painful style following a penalty shootout against Croatia. Right now the Russians will be feeling the disappointment of their exit, but they should be proud of a squad of players who performed well above themselves and allowed their supporters to dream. The win against Spain was a minor miracle and fruit of their hard-work, courage and a necessary bit of luck. But if you want to get into the last 4 you need a bit more than that and a talented Croatia deserved to progress.
2. Let's talk about goalkeepers: The World Cup tends to be about strikers: Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar, Lukaku and Harry Kane, but the quarter-finals have been as much about goalkeepers as attackers. Belgium's Thibaut Courtois made a string of brilliant saves to keep Brazil at bay, England's Jordan Pickford made three magnificent stops to keep Sweden out, Hugo Lloris made out a great save against Uruguay for France when the score was still 0-0 and Danijel Subasic was once again an intimidating presence in the penalty shootout as Croatia got past Russia. Keepers win you matches just as much as strikers.
3 Be flexible: Belgium coach Roberto Martinez produced a masterstroke to help his side beat Russia, swapping the 3-4-2-1 he has used for most of the World Cup, for a 4-3-3 against Brazil. The different formation allowed Belgium to stretch Brazil down the flanks, especially the Brazil right and clearly caught Brazil by surprise. Meanwhile Fellaini was a threat in the air that Brazil struggled to deal with. Brazil's excellent coach, Tite, countered Martinez's strategy at halftime, but by then Belgium were 2-0 ahead; too much of a lead for a team that good to surrender.
4 France continue to improve: Didier Deschamps' side didn't look entirely convincing in their first two group games, making hard work of Australia and Peru, but World Cups with a possible 7 games in four weeks are all about evolving and growing as a team in a short span of time. France have done that and a team that looked disjointed in mid-June looks compact, solid and threatening after the first week of July: of course they have a fulcrum called N'golo Kante holding things together for them, allowing Paul Pogba, Griezmann and company to shine.