By Paul Giblin
SAMARA, Russia, July 8 (Xinhua) -- And then there were four; the 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.
1. Courage can only take you so far
Russia bowed out of the World Cup in 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 all tournament 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 about strikers: Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar, Lukaku and Harry Kane, but the quarter-finals have been as much about goalkeepers as attackers. Thibaut Courtois made a string of brilliant saves to keep Brazil at bay, Jordan Pickford made three magnificent stops to keep Sweden out, Hugo Lloris made out 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 in Russia, 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.