My favorite thing about the 2022 World Cup so far? The stars are bringing it.

Think of the highest-profile players whose supposed legacies had the most riding on the outcome of this tournament. Lionel Messi is probably having the best World Cup of his career at age 35. Kylian Mbappe has been even better. And Neymar, even after suffering a serious-looking ankle injury, is back at the forefront for a Brazil team that has done nothing but reemphasize its status as tournament favorites with each passing match.

The 20-year-old Pedri was brilliant despite Spain's flameout, and the same goes for 19-year-old Jamal Musiala, who was one of the three or four best players at the tournament through the group stage, even though Germany went home after the group stage. Outside of the disaster that is Belgium, which was only a disaster if you abide by the FIFA rankings, and the marginalization of Cristiano Ronaldo, which should've happened months -- if not years -- ago, there aren't any stars who suddenly have "can't hack it on the big stage" suddenly hovering over them.

Netherlands center back Virgil van Dijk has been great in his first World Cup, Croatia center midfielder Luka Modric has been great in what seems like his 15th World Cup, and all of Portugal's younger stars -- including Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva -- have been flourishing, too.

Of course, the games that people really remember -- the ones we'll be talking about in 20 years -- are just getting started. Everything I just said could suddenly change, or we could keep moving along the same track of high-performance everywhere. Either way, knockout-round matches between teams of progressively equivalent talent tend to be decided by minor stylistic advantages, moments of brilliance, flashes of disaster, or all of the above.

Ahead of the quarterfinals Friday and Saturday, here are the eight players who could have an outsize influence on whether or not their team makes it to the semifinals.


Brazil: Casemiro

There's really only one area of the field where Croatia can feel like they've got an advantage over the Brazilians: midfield. With Inter Milan's Marcelo Brozovic, Chelsea's Mateo Kovacic and Real Madrid's Luka Modric, the Croatians have the most talented and most cohesive midfield left in the tournament. They're massive underdogs, too -- by far the biggest of the quarters with a 23% chance of advancing, per FiveThirtyEight. If they're to overcome those odds, the most likely path comes from pressing that advantage in midfield as many times as possible.

The man who can prevent that from happening: Manchester United's Casemiro.

Brazil play with something of a bifurcated team: some players attack, while others defend. You'll almost never see that at the club level these days, but it still can work at the international level if you have Brazil's talent and a guy like Casemiro occupying the hinterland between both zones.

Through four matches, Casemiro leads Brazil with 20 completed progressive passes, which FBref defines as "completed passes that move the ball towards the opponent's goal at least 10 yards from its furthest point in the last six passes, or any completed pass into the penalty area. Excludes passes from the defending 40% of the pitch." He also leads or co-leads the Brazilians in tackles attempted, interceptions, and blocks.

If he's doing his thing Friday -- breaking up possessions and moving the ball forward -- it's going to be a long day for Croatia.