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!