I’m writing this on an evening when we’ve had some amazing sport in the UK to take our gaze away from the World Cup. An awesome day of cycling in the second of two days of the Tour de France in Yorkshire, and another titantic men’s tennis final at Wimbledon, with Novak Djokovic just shading Roger Federer, back at the top, by three sets to two. And, OK, motor racing fans will remind me that Lewis Hamilton won the British Grand Prix today. Not my thing, but I appreciate the skill and popularity.
But reflect we must on the quarter finals! They all went to the favourites, but not without a fight, and with plenty of controversy as usual.
Two of the games were tight, but a bit tame. A bit dull, to tell the truth. Fascinating as tactical battles, but lacking goalmouth action. Germany v France fulfilled my prediction. The first really good side France had faced, and they had no answer. Germany scored early and controlled the game throughout. Manager Low made some sensible selection decisions. He played Lahm in his best position – right back instead of defensive midfield – which then allowed him to pick both Schweinsteiger and Khedira in midfield. That allowed Lahm more licence to go forward and created a defensive shield which freed up all of Germany’s attackers, including Klose, who provided a strong point of reference for the first 60 minutes. The return of Hummels in defence after flu also gave the team more dynamism, although Mertesacker has played pretty well. Apparently Mertesacker took his demotion very well. This is a team playing for each other.
For France, Valbuena and Griezmann were lively, but overall, there was little threat. They didn’t have what it takes to progress further. Like England, they are a young team, in transition. Could be serious challengers at Euro 2016.
Argentina v Belgium was similar. Argentina weren’t great, but had enough about them to get an early goal – a good one from Higuain – and then keep their shape and take the 1-0. Belgium were disappointing. Hyped in the English media because so many of their players are from the Premier League, they didn’t gel as a team. Their talent – and an easy draw, like France – got them through to the quarters, but they shrank at the first big test. Hazard was below his best throughout. Witsel was solid, de Bruyne was energetic and Vertonghen attacked well from the left. But it was all a bit underwhelming.
Holland v Costa Rica last night was on the verge of crazy. The Dutch dominated the game and had endless chances. But Costa Rica held on for a 0-0 and penalties. Just before the end of extra time, manager van Gaal sprung a surpise, and brought on a new keeper, Newcastle’s Tim Krul. Apparently, the regular keeper, Cillessen, knew nothing about the plan. And he had made an outstanding save a few minutes before the end. Krul looked about six inches taller and he was clearly up for the penalties, gesticulating in front of the Costa Rica players (which I thought the ref should have curbed) and then saving two. With the Dutch scoring their first four, that was it. Audacious stuff, but really, it shouldn’t have been necessary. They’ll have to be more clinical against Argentina in the semis.
And them there was Brazil v Colombia. Easily the most exciting game in the first 90 minutes. There was no structure at all. Two sides going for it, a referee who was far too lenient about the heavy tackles, chances for both sides. Someone on Twitter likened it to FIFA 14. Brazil’s two goals were straight out of the virtual world. The first involved almost the entire Colombian defence rushing at the ball from a corner, missing it and leaving Thiago Silva alone in space to knee the ball into the net. The second was just an outrageously good free kick from David Luiz, the ball dipping at the last, almost in contravention of the laws of physics. David Luiz has been one of the stars of this World Cup, the best attacking defender, a bit dodgy when called on to defend. A true Brazilian. How sad that the defensive pragmatist, Jose Mourinho, decided that he wasn’t right for Chelsea and sold him to PSG. We will miss him in the Premier League next season.
It was a brutal game. Brazil clearly aimed to take out Colmbia’s star James Rodriguez. So guess what? Colombia did the same to Neymar. A foul near the end – a knee in his back – broke a vertebrae and he is out of the rest of the World Cup. Fortunately, it doesn’t sound like it has been disabling – Neymar will be back. But can Brazil prosper without him? The other forwards chosen so far – Hulk, Fred, Jo – haven’t looked up to it. Now is the time, maybe, for Oscar to move centre stage. Or for Willian to come in and show what he can do. Or Hernanes. But none of them are remotely as good as Neymar.
And Brazil now face Germany. I would say that Germany have the right to regard themselves as the best team in this World Cup right now. Brazil will not only be missing Neymar, but also centre back and captain, Thiago Silva, who is suspended. Against that, they will have the immense support of the crowd, and they will probably get the marginal decisions from the referee. It happens. Home advantage. England in 1966 is as good an example as any.
My rational self says Germany should win, because they have the better players and a better structure. And they are my team now, since England went out. But those indefinables, that home advantage, make me suspect my original prediction might still be correct, and Brazil will win the World Cup.
In the other semi, it’s similar. All round, I think Holland are probably stronger. But they miss chances. And Argentina have Messi.
So, if I was going to bet on this, I’d go for a Brazil v Argentina final, although objective analysis tells me Germany v Holland. And what a grudge match that would be!
Whatever, we have four of the very best sides – only Spain are really missing – and any permutation will be fascinating.
Bring on the semis!
very nicely balanced semis- would have gone for a full strength Brazil but their 2 best players missing is a huge blow and should tip it Germany’s way.
Argentina looked pretty good against Belgium with only the long ball causing them any trouble.
I’d pick them ahead of Holland as they seem more ruthless and haven’t needed penalties yet (though have left it late more than once and if missing Di Maria and Aguero would be a setback).
So Germany v Argentina is my bet.
Which means it will be Brazil v Holland as that’s the one neither of us has considered likely.
Germany v Argentina brings back horrible memories of Italia 90, when we all hoped for an England v Italy final. And if I can remember, it was an awful game. Would be better now. But I’m pretty happy with the prospect of any of the permutations. Like all the teams.
Germany v Argentina in 1990 was indeed awful – so bad, in fact, that we all became Germans by the end of it. I have a soft spot for this Argentina side, and have backed them to win, but what has surprised me so far is the plodding predictability of their midfield play. They just lamely kick the ball among themselves before finally deciding to give it to Messi to score. The German midfield seems far more creative and dynamic, which could be crucial if they meet in the final.
I agree with almost your analysis, though I can’t share your feelings about missing David Luiz. One of the most selfish, preening players ever to play in the Premier League – admittedly exciting when going forward, but defensively preposterous. Happy for him to work on his perm at PSG. (Though I confess I liked his salute to James Rodriguez at the end of the quarter-final.)
With Luiz unreliable and Thiago Silva suspended, I suspect that the Brazilian defence will finally be found out by Germany – although, as you say, the crowd, the general hysteria surrounding Brazil, and the possibility of referee bias will all be significant factors. (Barney Ronay’s piece on Saturday was a joy in that respect.) Germany 2-1, Argentina 1-0? Probably not. But fun to speculate.
(I’ll be at the Cross Keys for both – tomorrow with an Italian friend, Wednesday with Ian Bartley. But you’ll presumably have reserved your seat on the sofa?!)
Could yet be Messi’s World Cup.
Just for the game, sentiment aside, I’d rather have a Germany-Holland match. Maybe my expectations were a little too high but both Argentina and Brazil have been hugely disappointing. But like you say, 4 of the pre-tournament biggies have made it thus far. So nothing’s going to be a shock win or loss now. 3 more days of good fun. Or do they still have that silly 3rd place playoff?