Croatia have impressed the most, the fairplay regulation isnt fair and Africa hittings a modern low at the tournament

When does England's semi-final kick off?

Gareth Southgate's team is now in the ” easier ” half of the depict and everyone with an England shirt on can plot a route to the last four or, if you're feeling truly optimistic and entirely blind to the country's record on the big stage, the final itself.' Well played chaps' hollered the headline on the front page of The Sun, after an understrength England side lost 1-0 against Belgium to avoid a quarter-final with Brazil. This is the same nation that has won two knockout matches at major tournaments- against Denmark and Ecuador- since Stuart Pearce tucked away that penalty against Spain at Euro 1996. Colombia, for the record, were quarter-finalists four years ago and they've won six of their last eight World Cup games. Be careful what you wish for. Stuart James

Croatia are the team of the tournament so far

Croatia were viewed as dark horses in some quarters, imagination to go deep into knockout rounds, although it is debatable whether such a tag was appropriate for a squad that contained players such as Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic. Either way, they have been the star turn thus far. When the depict was stimulated, Croatia's was the group of death. Nigeria had arrived with a reputation for youthful dynamism; Argentina's spoke for itself while nobody could underestimate Iceland. Croatia induced short work of all three, particularly Argentina in a statement performance. They did not even need to beat Iceland but they did so anyway, with a starting XI that demonstrated nine changes to illustrate the depth of Zlatko Dalic's squad. Modric has been outstanding while all around him there has been slickness, savvy and ruthlessness. The players believe they can top the achievement of their country's Class of 98, which reached the semi-final. David Hytner

Fair play? No way

So Japan are the first country to qualify for the last 16 via Fifa's fairplay rule. There's a certain irony to that, given that Japan played out the final eight minutes plus added hour of their game against Poland trying, in the words of their coach, to “stay put”. They had no interest in passing forward, assaulting, tackling or – the unthinkable- scoring an equaliser to take control of their own destiny. Instead, Akira Nishino, the Japan coach, openly admitted that he decided to totally rely on events 400 miles away in Samara and, with that in intellect, sent on a sub to preach the importance of killing the Poland game by basically not playing a football match any more. It should be noted that Poland were not blameless in those miserable closing stages, yet they did at least have the excuse of being 1-0 up. Japan, on the other hand, hurled in the towel when they were losing against a team that had already been eliminated, and left Colombia to do the job for them. Doesn't sound much like fairplay. Stuart James

Japan coach Akira Nishino on the sidelines against Poland. Photograph: Toru Hanai/ Reuters

Milinkovic-Savic is made for Mourinho

At the time of writing Manchester United transfer target Sergej Milinkovic-Savic's presence at the top of the table for metres run at Russia 2018 looks like a fluctuation on the old Mrs Merton Paul Daniels joke. So, Jose Mourinho: what first attracted you to very tall workaholic midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic? For now the tales linking the Serbian with a move from Lazio to United are no more than stories. But he would be an apt signing. Jose has a type. He likes big men who run and have ability. Milinkovic-Savic ticks all three, blending some fine phase skills in assaulting areas with an insatiable energy. And of course being 6ft 3in doesn't hurt. Mladen Krstajic had informed his team to play with a freedom and without fear in a must-win game against Brazil and at times Milinkovic-Savic and Nemanja Matic were effective in shutting down Brazil's dinkier midfield. For Brazil this was the lesson for later. For those with an eye on his potential transfer Milinkovic-Savic seems a penalty player in this company. He goes home without a objective or an assistance. But he is only 23 and would stiffen Mourinho's options in the way Mourinho most likes to be stiffened: more power, more height and a willingness to run relentlessly. Barney Ronay

Is this the most open World Cup ever?

Can you pick a winner with even the slightest degree of confidence? The draw for the knockout rounds may have taken on a top-heavy appearance, with several of the traditional elite certain to see each other off well before the semi-finals, but this World Cup did not need that kind of help to be unpredictable. There has not been one standout team and nor are there any remaining in the round of 16 on whom one would confer perfectly no hope. Brazil look as if they are slowly clicking into gear while Croatia and Belgium have enjoyed impressively sleek, comfortable progress through the groups; everyone has a fairly long define of pluses and minuses against their names, though, and it attains for a fortnight in which further amazes are virtually certain. Perhaps this is what happens nowadays when squads are flung together at relatively short notice, bereft of the infinitesimal levels of detail to which Champions League competitors' strategies are compared. But the Champs League is, for all high quality, solely predictable at the sharp aim; nobody can say the same here and it feels like a refreshing boost for the sport as a whole. Nick Ames

Mexico's small problem

While size isn't everything, Mexico's coach-and-four Juan Carlos Osorio had a long think about the kind of impact it had as his team tried- and fought- to play to their own style against an opponent with very different strengths. The height differential between Sweden and Mexico was striking before kick off as the two captain's shook hands- Sweden's Andreas Granqvist towered, almost 10 inches taller than Mexico's Hector Herrera. Across the teams, Sweden's starting XI was an average of roughly three inches higher than the Mexicans. Osorio complimented Sweden on how they played to their advantage, going direct, even if it was obvious it wasn't his vision of football.” I deep respect that way of playing ,” he said.” It's quite amazing to realise you can play in the same manner every game and compete and beat teams that play in a different way like we did. You compete with what you have. But as far as playing talented football? I don't think so .” He was then asked whether he would sacrifice his principles for results- is losing playing beautifully more appealing than winning playing functionally? Osorio exhaled. “Fantastic question!” he called. He came to the conclusion it was OK to lose playing badly in this specific condition because they qualified. But without qualification he wouldn't feel the same way. His job, he felt, was to try to find some middle ground, to play with flair but also be more defensively switched on. The footballing culture conflicts bring into sharp focus the search for balance. Winning at all costs versus esthetics is food for thought going into the knockouts. Amy Lawrence

The Swedish team was on average around three inches taller than their Mexican opponents. Photograph: Ryan Pierse/ Getty Images

Will France and Denmark sadnes taking it easy ?

The gold standard for World Cup collusion was the 1982 Disgrace of Gijon, but at least West Germany scored against Austria before both teams stopped playing to mutual benefit. France and Denmark on Tuesday clearly had no interest in scoring at all during a soulless 0-0 draw that could deserve its own moniker. The sadnes of Moscow? The lemons at Luzhniki? Gaming the knockout rounds is common, but rarely does it appear so cynical. The level of play was so low that it was unclear whether both teams hoped for a describe or were intentionally trying to lose to avoid facing Argentina next round. Not that it would attain much change. Croatia could easily spank either of these teams, and if there is any cosmic justice, both France and Denmark will be expelled from this tournament with great force in the round of 16.” We sacrificed everything to get the point and take us to the next level ,” Denmark coach Age Hareide said after the match. Including dignity and any hope of becoming a fan favourite at this World Cup with otherwise excellent football. Andrew Roth

A modern low for African football

Five squads, five first-round exits. It is the first time Africa has not been represented in the last 16 since 1982 and an equally unbecoming statistic is that this year three of those sides were out of the running before matchday three. Only Egypt failed to put up any kind of fight; Morocco and Nigeria both played well enough in spells to feel frustrated while Tunisia were competitive and a decent Senegal side was, in going out on fairplay phases, plain unlucky. The hypothesis and explanations will nonetheless abound and it is worth remembering that every country, federation and set of players has its own culture and context that induce sweeping conclusions very unwise. But it is still a worrying development, especially given that the mean level at which these countries' players operate for their clubs is now so high. Perhaps this is one of the issues: is player production, often led by European interests through academies across the continent, being industrialised to the extent that some countries are producing too many of the same kind of footballer? That is only a taster of a complicated debate but one undeniable fact is this: it would be a better World Cup if the Confederation of African Football( Caf) could be represented in the knockout stage. Nick Ames

Senegal missed out on the knockout stages on fairplay phases. Photograph: Emmanuel Dunand/ AFP/ Getty Images

You don't have to actually win to win

Panama were 6-0 down when Felipe Baloy scored against England, but that did not stop thousands of them going wild in Nizhny Novgorod or millions of them doing the same 7,000 miles away- and nor should be used have done, so you can stop your sneering. On Panamanian television, the commentator's voice cracked and he began to cry.” My country has scored !” he shouted. Yes, they were beaten then; yes, they were beaten again on Thursday; and , no, they haven't won a game. They have also allow in 11 objectives. So what? They were there, and that is quite something.

The Panamanian league was founded in 1988. Of their squad, merely five play in Europe: at Dinamo Bucharest and Dunakska Skeda plus one in the B squad of Deportivo de la Coruna and two in the B squad at Gent. This is not surprising. The coach had said that there were four possible results- win, describe, lose and get hammered- but he knew there were really merely two, and they all did. But they vied and there were no recriminations. That moment constructed it all worthwhile.

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Baloy, who scored a objective that was everyone's, and the player many of them would have chosen for this moment, was embraced by family and friends; his espouse with teammate Blas Perez was particularly symbolic.” It's been a long career, with lots of autumns and lots of sadness ,” he had said before the tournament. At 37 years and 120 days, he is the oldest debutant scorer at the World Cup. More to the point, he will forever be Panama's debutant scorer. The country hopes to have another chance- being at the World Cup is vital for their development, a first step rather than a last- but he, along with the five others who are retiring now, will not. This was it. Together they represent a generation that did something extraordinary. Sid Lowe

England's squad depth a concern

Gareth Southgate was loathe to admit it, but what was most evident from England's defeat to Belgium was a lack in true squad depth. The younger players, like Trent Alexander-Arnold or Ruben Loftus-Cheek, may have benefited from the run out in a match which determined leadership of rather than qualification from the group, but none of the new guard genuinely did enough to displace a regular first-choice. Eric Dier appeared ponderous in central midfield compared to Jordan Henderson, a player who suddenly felt progressive. Marcus Rashford, a scorer of spectacular objectives but not a regular pilferer, and Jamie Vardy blended are a downgrade on Harry Kane. Loftus-Cheek, at present, is not as dynamic as Jesse Lingard or Dele Alli, while Alexander-Arnold, excellent as he was on competitive debut, lacks Kieran Trippier's delivery at set-pieces. It was a good night for the absentees, and the hope is they will have benefited from the remainder. Southgate will cling to the belief all those tried in Kaliningrad will be able to make an impact off the bench, like the cameos from Rashford and Loftus-Cheek against Tunisia, but this was a reminder those who began the tournament in the team are probably the best England possess. Dominic Fifield

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