World Cup 2018

World Cup 2018: Eight things we learned from the first knockout stage with Reuters
A fan of Russia's national football team with the body painted with Russian national colors celebrates the victory over Saudi Arabia in central Moscow on June 14, 2018 during the opening day of Russia 2018 Football World Cup.
Gleb Garanich | Reuters

If the World Cup in Russia has taught us anything, it is that possession is no longer the law in soccer and what was once deemed the only route to global glory is seemingly now a shortcut out of the tournament.

Russia survives ‘death by football’

David De Gea of Spain fails to stop the penalty of Fedor Smolov of Russia during a penalty shootout as part of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Round of 16 match at Luzhniki Stadium on July 1, 2018 in Moscow. 
Quality Sport Images | Getty Images

Spain averaged 69 percent of the ball in its four games, peaking with a 75 percent share in its last-16 clash with Russia, according to FIFA statistics.

It did not translate into goals or glory, however, as the team was sent packing on penalties having run out of ideas against the host nation, amassing over 1,000 passes in the 120 minutes, but only managing nine shots on target.

David de Gea has a big reputation in the Premier League at Manchester United, but the Spain goalkeeper conceded six goals from seven shots faced at this World Cup.

It was, in fact, his Russian counterpart Igor Akinfeev who emerged the hero, saving twice in the penalty shootout as Russia continues to defy its tag as the lowest ranked team in the competition.

Messi succumbs to young pretender Mbappe

Kylian Mbappe of France celebrates after scoring his team's third goal during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Round of 16 match between France and Argentina at Kazan Arena on June 30, 2018 in Kazan, Russia. 
Robert Cianflone - FIFA | Getty Images

Argentina fared little better, having struggled through its first three matches and scraped into the knockouts, where they were dispatched by France in the last 16, ending the tournament with a 64 percent possession average.

French forward Kylian Mbappe is still only 19, but his two goals and all-round performance overshadowed Lionel Messi, as France produced its best performance so far at this World Cup.

The Paris Saint-Germain player, who is still technically on loan from Monaco, became the first teenager to score a World Cup brace (two goals) since Brazilian Pele back in 1958.

France won its match 4-3, having only had the ball 41 percent of the time. And, if that sounds counter-intuitive, then Uruguay's last-16 win over Portugal was even more remarkable.

Uruguay removes Ronaldo

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates scoring their first goal on June 20th, 2018.
Carl Recine | Reuters

Uruguay manager Oscar Tabarez's side mustered 39 percent possession but completed a 2-1 win against Portugal, who featured soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo that far from being a smash-and-grab, looked more like a perfectly-executed game plan.

"There is very often this mistaken assumption that ball possession leads to scoring opportunities," Tabarez said. "But even if you don't have much ball possession, you can still inflict yourself on opponents in different ways."

Goalkeeping heroics, but contrasting emotions

Luka Modric of Croatia scores his penalty past Kasper Schmeichel of Denmark during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Round of 16 match at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium on July 1, 2018 in Russia.
Richard Heathcote | Getty Images

Croatia and Denmark made World Cup history by becoming the first teams to take part in a penalty shootout during which five penalties were saved.

Kasper Schmeichel saved two Croatian spot-kicks in the shootout, plus another from Luka Modric in extra-time, but still found himself on the losing side. His opposite number Danijel Subasic made an incredible three stops of his own to hand Croatia passage to a quarter-final.

The World Cup may well be over for Denmark, but Kasper’s father and former Danish keeper Peter was still full of praise for what he saw. Peter Schmeichel won 129 international caps of his own from 1987 to 2001, but saw his World Cup record of 533 minutes without conceding a tournament goal surpassed by his son at Russia 2018.

Belgium finds its footing

Belgium's Vincent Kompany in action with Japan's Eiji Kawashima in the World Cup, July 2, 2018.
Marko Djurica | Reuters

Belgium topped its World Cup group and found itself in what was regarded as the harder part of the draw. However, that wasn’t necessarily referring to its round of 16 tie against Japan, a side ranked 58 places lower down in FIFA’s rankings.

Japan had never scored a knockout goal in World Cup history prior to this game, but found the net twice in four minutes to set-up an unlikely victory.

However, Belgium became the first team since West Germany in 1970 to overturn a two goal World Cup deficit, leaving it until 30 seconds from the end of added time to score a winner. Nacer Chadli’s goal was the ninth 90th-minute winning goal in this World Cup. There were just 10 in the previous five tournaments combined.

Neymar rolls Brazil into the quarters

Neymar Jr of Brazil in action during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Round of 16 match between Brazil and Mexico at Samara Arena on July 2, 2018 in Russia.
Fred Lee | Getty Images

Brazil is into the quarter-finals for the seventh consecutive tournament and looks to be improving with every game. Central to its chances is forward Neymar, who despite being the most fouled player at the tournament (23), managed a goal and an assist in the 2-0 win against Mexico.

Neymar may split opinion between his skill and on-pitch theatrics, but he still attracts plenty of attention, with an Instagram following of more than 98 million.

Swedes stun Switzerland

Valon Behrami of Switzerland battles for possession with Viktor Claesson of Sweden during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Round of 16 match between Sweden and Switzerland at Saint Petersburg Stadium on July 3, 2018 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. 
Robert Cianflone | FIFA | Getty Images

Sweden qualified for the World Cup by virtue of a playoff win against Italy and has proved it is worth its place by topping a group that included Germany. The Swedes have kept a clean sheet in three of their four games so far.

The team was rated as underdogs against Switzerland and perhaps still lack the world-class edge that Zlatan Ibrahimovic once brought. It is a strong unit though and one that is happy to concede possession – the Swiss had nearly two-thirds of the ball, but it was the Swedes who prevailed.

England ends penalty heartbreak

Harry Kane of England takes his side's first penalty during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Round of 16 match between Colombia and England at Spartak Stadium on July 3, 2018 in Moscow, Russia.
Fred Lee  | Getty Images

Prior to its last 16 game against Colombia, England’s track record at World Cup penalty shootouts was played three, lost three. However, that statistic has now changed, after Eric Dier’s decisive spot kick bucked the trend to send manager Gareth Southgate’s side into the quarter-finals.

England hadn’t won a World Cup knockout game in 12 years and had only won two since 1990. Southgate’s decision to play a supposedly weakened team in the final group game against Belgium now appears to have been vindicated, with England avoiding Brazil, France Uruguay and Belgium, potentially until the final.

Football’s not quite coming home, but it’s certainly heading in that direction.