After Brazil got knocked out by Belgium, the widespread fantasy damage was clear simply by looking at ownership of several Selecao stars: Philippe Coutinho (61%), Neymar (53%), Marcelo (43%), and Thiago Silva (29%) were all at 25% or more, and another three — Alisson (13%), Gabriel Jesus (12%), and Willian (11%) — were in double digits.
Then again, if the Red Devils had been dispatched by the Samba Kings, there would have been almost as much pain inflicted, given Belgium’s nearly as high ownership levels: Eden Hazard (50%), Romelu Lukaku (40%), Kevin De Bruyne (31%), Thibaut Courtois (20%), Toby Alderweireld (17%) and Jan Vertonghen (12%). The Brazil v. Belgium match-up was simply destined for carnage either way it turned out. Either way, you would have taken a blow to the chin, and you would have had plenty of company, so don’t despair!
WHAT IS THE STRATEGY NOW?
- The Waiting Game is Finally Over. At the start of the World Cup, I advised caution in not going overboard making too many transfers too soon in the early stages. Before the quarterfinals, I looked slightly ahead specifically to where we are right now — on the verge of the semifinals — as the point you wanted to have enough transfers to be able to patch up your team and field a full XI. Hopefully you have done so, or are at least close. Ideally, you’ll have a couple/few extra in your pocket, that would be a nice bonus. What do you do now? Go ahead and fill all of those holes you have! Every player you add should have a very high likelihood of playing two games, so there’s no sense holding off on using a transfer until the finals round for one measly appearance.
- Prioritize the Left Side of the Bracket. In the Round of 16 and quarterfinals, it may have made sense to go with the easier right side of the bracket in targeting players from the teams favored to advance. Now instead the balance tilts to the tougher left side. We’ve seen our fair share of upsets so far, and it would be no shock to see one or two more. But as always, favorites are expected to win because they usually (or at least more often than not) do. After all, three of the four favorites won their quarterfinal match-ups, and Belgium over Brazil was not a total shock by any means. Unless you have a strong hunch going against the grain, playing the percentages will generally work to your advantage. Belgium and France are pretty much a coin toss, while England is a slight favorite over an exhausted Croatia, which means that things are not exactly cut and dried. But the Belgium v. France winner will be expected to take the title, and the loser will be favorite to win third place. So putting most of your eggs in those two baskets on the left side of the bracket should play out well.
- Fill in Your Remaining Spots with the Right Side. If you already have all or most of the best players from the teams on the left side, and you don’t have the stars from England and Croatia, going with the right side of the bracket could pay off. Unlike earlier, now that no team can get knocked out any more, the focus is not quite as much on what teams you expect to win and you can take more of an eye toward which players you expect to perform well. That said, I’d still lean toward English over Croatian players on the right side.
- The Clean Sheet is Not Completely Dead! After giving a lamentable eulogy to the clean sheet when there were only two shutouts from the 16 teams in the first game of the knockout round, it came back to life a bit, with two clean sheets from the eight teams in the quarters. Sure, the 3-4-3 makes sense if so desired, but the 4-3-3 does not have to be avoided like the plague.
- Get All Four Teams’ Primary Penalty Kick Takers. This is officially THE WORLD CUP OF PENALTY KICKS. And now this is the first round where you have been able to load up on every single team’s #1 PK taker. So don’t be shy about making sure you have Antoine Griezmann, Eden Hazard, Harry Kane, and Luka Modric.
- Where Do You Stand in Your Mini-League(s)? If you are in first place, you can play it conservatively and go with the big names from the favorites. If you are instead chasing the leader from a distance, you may want to try some more off-the-wall picks. As far as picking from the remaining teams, a Hail Mary attempt to load up disproportionately on one team from each side of the bracket — or even better, simply the one team you expect to win it all — would be a dazzling ploy. If you get it right, you may just end up climbing into the driver’s seat.
A goalkeeper feasts on clean sheets and saves, with the clean sheet being the truly essential part unless he makes an enormous amount of saves. Hugo Lloris, Thibaut Courtois and Thibaut Courtois each scored 8 points in their quarterfinal games, but went about it in different manners. Courtois gave up a goal while making nine saves. Meanwhile, Lloris and Pickford enjoyed a clean sheet with a more relaxed four and three save days, respectively. Courtois, of course, was facing the offensive onslaught of Brazil, and there simply isn’t one of those left among the four teams. So you’ll want to look for clean sheets as usual, rather than hoping for a huge tally of saves.
Thibaut Courtois (Belgium v. France, £3.5)
I expect Belgium and France both to score. As a fan, I’m hoping for something along 2-2 or 3-2, but 2-1 may be more realistic. Courtois and Lloris will both be coming into this one full of confidence, but also wariness due to the high level of competition. I’m expecting Belgium to win, so that’s why I’m going with Courtois. Two games from the overall favorite (at least in my eyes), gotta take it!
On top of that, think back to what happened in the third game of the group stage. Belgium mostly started its back-ups against England, but Courtois remained in the frame. Meanwhile, against Denmark, France likewise went with plenty of second-stringers, including Steve Mandanda who replaced Lloris. I’m not saying that will happen again if France plays in the third place game, but the possibility has to be in the back of your mind, doesn’t it?
Jordan Pickford (England v. Croatia, £3.5)
On the other side of the bracket, I’ll go with England to win, perhaps 1-0, or maybe 0-0 or 1-1 with the PK tiebreaker could be in order. It’s tough to get too excited about Pickford. After all, his point scores in the first four games: 0, 0, 0, 0. But as mentioned, he comes in brimming with confidence after coming up big in the big penalty kick shootout win over Colombia and the clean sheet against Sweden.
Lucas Hernandez (France v. Belgium, £2.0)
Raphael Varane and Benjamin Pavard have each scored a goal in this World Cup. Even so, Hernandez is the most consistent danger in the French defense to chip in with offensive returns from his probing raids on the left side.
Thomas Meunier (Belgium v. France, £2.0)
France boasts three defenders with 20+ points, while nobody on Belgium has more than 13. So if you’re looking to the left side of the bracket, I wouldn’t blame you for going with multiple French defenders and avoiding Belgians. But Meunier has two assists in this tournament from his ventures forward on the right wing, and if he could just pair one of those with a clean sheet, you’ll be loving life. [UPDATE: Meunier is suspended for the semifinal match against France.]
Kieran Trippier (England v. Croatia, £2.5)
John Stones enjoyed a brace in the group stage. Harry Maguire just had a mammoth goal against Sweden. If you want a small chance of a huge score, go with them. But following the theme, if you’re looking at a steadier chance for a goal or assist from the Three Lions defense, Trippier’s your man.
Kevin De Bruyne (Belgium v. France, £6.0)
Finally, that’s what we were looking for! Much as we lament the times when Kevin De Bruyne plays a conservative role with Manchester City, it looked like that was happening with Belgium. Then Roberto Martinez put Marouane Fellaini into the starting line-up, freeing KDB to power forward against Brazil when given the opportunity. The result: a clinical, powerful strike into the side netting. Let the good times roll!
Eden Hazard (Belgium v. France, £6.0)
KDB may be Belgium’s man of the moment, but Hazard is the team’s highest scorer with 36 points. So even if you could, don’t even think about forgetting about the Chelsea star.
Marouane Fellaini (Belgium v. France, £2.5)
If you’re looking for a differential in the Belgian midfield, Fellaini’s your man. He’s scored 8, 8 and 3 points in the last three games, and less than 1.0% of managers have him in their teams. “The Big Fro” is not a guaranteed fixture in the XI, but with Belgium seemingly having found its formula for success, Martinez will be expected to keep starting him.
Paul Pogba (France v. Belgium, £4.0)
Pogba is France’s leading scorer at the position with 21 points. Unfortunately, 13 of those points came in the opening group stage game against Australia. He’s done absolutely nothing since, so you’re not going to feel overly confident going with Pogba. But if you saw the lovely Philippe Coutinho-to-Renato Augusto goal in the quarters, you might think the same can happen with Pogba against Belgium, either the assist or score.
Deli Alli, Jesse Lingard, or Raheem Sterling (England v. Croatia, £4.0, £3.0 or £4.0)
Harry Kane has 54 points for England. Nobody else in the Three Lions’ offense has more than 17. So if you're going with the England midfield, it’s tough to say which way to go. Among Alli, Lingard and Sterling, nobody has established himself as a reliable force. Against Sweden, Lingard had a nice assist on a strong finish by Alli, while Sterling created plenty of chances for himself, but wasted just as many... which is to say all of them. Lingard is probably the safest bet. If you need to be more speculative, Alli or Sterling would be the way to go.
Luka Modric (Croatia v. England, £4.0)
The Croatia midfield spreads things around, as Modric, Ivan Perisic, Ivan Rakitic or Ante Rebic could be the star of any given game. The tiebreaker always goes to the guy taking pens, especially in this World Cup.
Harry Kane (England v. Croatia, £6.0)
Right now Kane is owned by 59% of owners, so I probably don’t have to tell you much here. But I’d be remiss if I left him out, since he’s the Golden Boot leader. And, again, this is the World Cup of Penalty Kicks, and of the four primary PK takers, Kane has to be the one you have the most confidence in converting.
Antoine Griezmann (France v. Belgium, £6.0)
Griezmann or Mbappe? That was the question, and it remains so. After the latter’s brilliant performance against Argentina, Mbappe was the answer. Following the former’s star turn in the win over Uruguay, though, it’s Griezmann. Things could change yet again, of course, but the thinking has to be that Griezmann is in his prime, and as such this is his time to shine. In four years, put the spotlight back on Mbappe.
Romelu Lukaku (Belgium v. France, £4.5)
Never Manage Alone has had a love/hate relationship with Lukaku over the years. For quite a while, he was known as the Troll King, due to the feeling that whenever we recommended him, he came up empty. Lukaku has somewhat shed that nickname, but not completely. Notably, last season he dominated the minnows but struggled mightily against top Premier League competition. And so far it looks to be the same story in the World Cup, where he scored four times against Panama and Tunisia in the group stage, and then fell silent in that department against Japan and Brazil in the knockout rounds.
However, he’s actually played pretty well in the past pair of games. Lukaku selflessly let Meunier’s ball go through on a dummy run, helping create vital space for Nacer Chadli’s late game-winning goal against Japan, and followed that up with an outstanding dribbling run and assist to KDB on what proved to be the winner over Brazil. At times the big Belgian has gone begging for good service; at others, he’s seen nice chances come close but just fail to hit pay dirt. I can’t promise you he’s going to score in these next two games. I understand if you’ve gone off the Lukaku bandwagon. But there’s also every reason to afford him the benefit of the doubt and stay on.
How is your fantasy team doing and what are your plans for the semifinals? Are there any other players beside those listed above who you think will do well? Do you have enough transfers left to field a full XI, or do you have to pick and choose where you can make changes? Let us know in the comments!