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Tales of the unexpected in Qatar

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There were self-help guides and online tips on how to get through the days when the World Cup had a rest ahead of the mouth-watering quarter-finals.

We didn’t know what to do with ourselves, wandering in the football dead zone where other hobbies go to die.

When the dust settled, there were some captivating ties to get us through the week’s journey to the final, where most people hoped to see Brazil.

They were the neutral’s favourites – who in their right mind doesn’t like samba football and playing with a smile to a bohemian beat?

Everybody admired how Brazil dismantled the South Koreans; surely, it was a precursor for more destruction on the way to lifting the gold statue.

A nation’s hopes rested on the mercurial skills of Neymar, a world superstar, but to cement his legendary status for The Selecao, he had to bring home the World Cup.

The weight of expectation was too much for another revered son of Brazil, Ronaldinho, who also couldn’t produce the magic required.

Neymar hasn’t always met expectations and can be injury prone, but his goal against Croatia in extra time of their quarter-final match looked to be one of the most important of his career.

It was also fitting that his mazy run before slotting into the net in a close-fought game saw Neymar equal the incomparable Pele in Brazil’s all-time scoring charts.

Brazil struggled to create chances against a well-organised Croatia, with the ever-green Modric pulling the strings in midfield.

The bookie’s favourites seemed to have navigated a tricky tie, and a few more minutes of game management in extra time would see the golden boys through.

Most fans had their money and hearts set on a Brazil victory.

Croatia showed in the last tournament when reaching the final they were dogged and determined competitors who were not going to be bamboozled by Brazil’s flicks and tricks.

It seemed Brazil had unlocked Croatia’s defence to book a place in the last four before Petrovic slotted home in the dying minutes.

Surely not, Croatia had come to spoil the party, and it went to the dreaded penalties.

It’s football’s version of rolling the dice.

And the lottery of penalties denied Brazil once again as the players lost their nerve (Neymar didn’t take one), and the Croatians didn’t miss to progress.

Neymar was reduced to tears of despair as the rest of his teammates were strewn flat out across the pitch as a nation began to mourn another lost generation.

A seismic defeat reverberated around the globe, as even those with a passing interest in football would have understood the magnitude of the result.

The healing process will take time; the scars will remain, and history will always provide ‘what if’ moments to digest.

With the leadership of Modric and the goalkeeping heroics of Livakovic, Croatia are fearless.

This World Cup has brought a wave of differing emotions, joy, heartbreak, shocks and thrills.

Morocco

Nevertheless, Morocco has emerged as the giant killer of this Mundial in Qatar.

Victory over two-time winners Spain proved how football could be more than just a game but the manifestation of a national phenomenon.

Their penalty victory was priceless, historic and well-deserved – it now remains to be seen if Ziyech and company can dump superstar Ronaldo and his Portuguese.

Following Portugal’s 6-1 mauling of Switzerland with captain R7 sat on the bench, it is unlikely that Ronaldo will start the game against Morocco.

Arguably, the best player on the planet finds himself unwanted by club and country – that’s a tale of the unexpected.

I believe Ronaldo is too good not to have a part to play in the crunch end of the tournament, even if it means coming off the bench late in the game.

This competition has been difficult to call from the outset, but England has grown stronger and more confident with each fixture.

The nearly men of English football must now summon the Churchillian spirit to do battle with reigning champions France, who have the imperious Kylian Mbappe.

Seeing him slice and dice Poland in the Round of 16 with two power goals sent a hazard warning signal to the Three Lions.

Mbappe running at you at full tilt is unstoppable, but England’s young guns have become masters of tournament football.

England manager Gareth Southgate has been criticised as boring and conservative, but he has proven he knows how to win and who to pick.

And England needs to show that killer instinct against France, or they will be playing the crying game with Neymar and the rest.