We’re close enough now that these guys can almost taste it. Two wins from immortality. It’s easy to understand why goals have proven harder to come by since we’ve entered the knockout phase. Defenders are committed to the point of desperation. No one wants to make a mistake, including the managers. Riskier tactics and team selections are eschewed in favor of more defensive (and defensible) approaches.
All of the plucky outsiders have been sent home, and we’re left with a final four which includes only the giants of soccer history. Of the five nations that have won more than one World Cup, three are still alive in Brazil. The Dutch are the only semi-finalists never to have lifted the trophy, but they have been runners-up three times and their historical stature and influence in the sport are beyond question.
Backing the big teams turned out to be the way to go, it seems, as I got all four of my quarter-final predictions right (at least in terms of results):
RESULTS FOR THE QUARTER-FINALS
My predictions (actual results follow in parenthesis, correctly-predicted winners in bold):
1. Germany 1-1 with France, Germany wins on penalties (Germany won 1-0)
Germany had an easier time than I expected, as they looked to be in control from start to finish. France had moments here and there, but never seemed able to mount any kind of a sustained threat. I kept waiting for them to make a substitution to try to change the game, but when they finally made a move after 70 minutes, it was to swap one central defender for another. They waited until the 73rd minute to bring on Loic Remy; Olivier Giroud wasn’t introduced until the 85th. Too little, too late.
2. Brazil 2-1 over Colombia (Brazil won 2-1)
This is not your father’s Brazil – more grit than samba, scoring both their goals through central defenders on set pieces and then hanging on for dear life. Colombia went toe to toe with the hosts and will feel unlucky about not having gotten a second goal, but Brazil deserve credit for defending well. They may not have won any extra style points, but they did what they had to do to survive. They paid a heavy price, though, in losing Neymar for the duration of the tournament with a back injury.
3. Argentina 2-1 over Belgium (Argentina won 1-0)
Belgium were a bit disappointing here, never really getting into the game. Part of that was due to the Red Devils’ somewhat bewildering decision to have Marouane Fellaini try to man-mark Lionel Messi, a task at which he proved completely ineffective. Credit must also be given to the excellent Javier Maschiarano, who seemed to pop up whenever the Belgians tried to do anything in the offensive end. Higuain took his early goal well and it was cruise control after that for Argentina.
4. Netherlands 2-0 over Costa Rica (Match finished 0-0 after extra time, Netherlands won on penalties)
This match was almost all one-way traffic, as expected, but Costa Rica somehow kept the Dutch out for 120 minutes and pushed them to the limit. The Dutch deserve credit for keeping their composure when it came down to penalties (and maybe for making Costa Rica lose theirs with the Tim Krul substitution), but it’s hard not to see this as disappointing for the Netherlands. They got the result they needed in the end, but their inability to break the Ticos down doesn’t bode well for their next, much stiffer, challenge).
SEMI-FINAL MATCH-UPS (PREDICTED WINNERS IN BOLD)
Germany vs. Brazil
Argentina vs. Netherlands
Even before the injury to Neymar, Brazil have struggled to create chances from open play (both their quarter-final goals came on free kicks). When you combine his absence with that of Brazilian captain Thiago Silva (suspended after picking up a very unnecessary yellow card against Colombia), things are looking grim for the hosts.
That’s not to say that Germany don’t have weaknesses – their defenders look slow, and their finishing hasn’t been as ruthless as they would have liked. Moving Lahm to his proper position at right back and starting Klose up front seemed to improve things, though, and their quarter-final performance was their most convincing so far. Notably, they midfield three of Schweinsteiger, Khedira and Kroos were completely dominant in shutting down a heretofore free-scoring French attack. All of this adds up to bad news for the hosts. 2-1 to Germany.
The Netherlands have struggled with CONCACAF opponents in the knockout rounds so far, needing two late goals (including a stoppage-time penalty) to come from behind against Mexico, and going all the way to penalties against Costa Rica. Both of those teams had excellent tournaments but, with all due respect to them, Argentina represent a big step up in class. The Dutch will need to raise their game if they are to survive another round. They’ll also need to adjust their approach – they won’t have the luxury of keeping the ball and dictating the tempo the way they did against the Ticos
I think that they have the talent to play better, and they will certainly benefit from the absence of Angel di Maria. My sense, though, is that their exertions will finally catch up with them, and Argentina will prove too talented. Like Germany, they seem to have improved with each round, and they will be confident after a convincing performance against Belgium. 1-0 to Argentina.