We seem to have reached the semi final stage of this World Cup in no time. It only seems like yesterday that we were all enjoying the delights the group stage had to offer, and goals were being scored with reckless abandon.
The knock-outs have, predictably, provided more cagey affairs though not anything like as horribly boring as those from 2010. Algeria v Germany and USA v Belgium have to go down as two of my favourite 0-0 draws of all time (at least in 90 minutes), while Colombia v Brazil in the last 8 was a horrendously refereed attack-fest from beginning to end.
What of Brazil then? They go into their semi in Belo Horizonte against the Germans having lost their best player (Neymar) for the rest of the tournament. Couple that to losing their most important defender, and arguably second best player, Thiago Silva to suspension and Brazil’s task seems rather tricky. In only their second ever World Cup match against Germany, they will do well to match their 2-0 win from the 2002 final. The Germans have, as ever, been resolute without ever being riveting. Thomas Müller continues to score World Cup goals with alarming regularity, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira continue to work hard in the middle, while Manuel Neuer maintains his reputation as one of the best goalkeepers on earth, as well as doing a bit of a Franz Beckenbauer impression from time to time.
Given how this World Cup has gone in terms of the kindly way referees have looked upon them, and if they had a full strength team at their disposal, I would probably be angling my thoughts towards Brazil. However, if you add in the fact that Dante and Willian for Thiago Silva and Neymar doesn’t really go in an already unconvincing Brazil team, I might just plump for Germany to see their way to the Maracana, after extra time.
The other semi final pits two sides who had fairly uninspiring quarter final wins against one another, in another World Cup final re-match – 1978 this time. Argentina relied on Gonzalo Higuain’s snappy finish and passing the ball to Leo Messi a lot to beat a fairly insipid Belgium 1-0. The chaps in sky blue and white have yet to really kick on in this tournament, with that front line now lacking the not very effective Sergio Aguero and henceforth including the not very effective Ezequiel Lavezzi. You get the feeling that they have to click sometime. One man who I have been impressed with, not least because he’s earned me rather a few Fantasy World Cup points, is Ezequiel Garay, who has done rather well to hold together an apparently otherwise shoddy Argentinian defence.
The Netherlands, meanwhile, snuck past arguably the tournament’s best defensive side in their quarter-final against Costa Rica. Louis van Gaal’s alleged tactical genius in hauling Tim Krul off the bench in the 120th minute for penalties doesn’t really paper over the fact that they needed penalties to beat Costa Rica. Indeed, the Dutch have not been at their effervescent best since their 5-1 annihilation of Spain in their opening game.
Their strategy appears to now be largely similar to the Argentines’, in that Arjen Robben is given a lot of time on the ball to go and do…something. Having said that, Wesley Sneijder did also finally come to the fore against the Costa Ricans, striking the woodwork on a number of occasions. The Dutch will need both to be near their best form on Wednesday evening.
I have a funny feeling Argentina might just win this one. Much of their story so far in this tournament has been the way Lionel Messi has found that little bit of genius to see them through, or dragged defenders one way to allow a team mate to exploit the space left behind. I have a feeling he’ll do the business one last time, with the Netherlands demonstrating the unfortunate folly of playing to their maximum in the opening game and never living up to it. The sad passing of Alfredo di Stefano, who was never lucky enough to play in a World Cup despite being one of the best to ever stick on a pair of football boots, might just provide the Argentinians with that extra little incentive.
I could of course be proved entirely wrong. But then that’s what I love about football – its inherent unpredictability. A final and third/fourth place play-off preview is yet to come, then a review of this wonderful tournament, before returning to normal business in late July.