Sport | World Cup down to four
Saturday saw the latter two quarter-finals played, with Argentina facing Belgium and the Netherlands up against Costa Rica.
The Argentinians were aiming to reach their first semi-final since 1990 and they got off to a blistering start. Lionel Messi weaved away from two challenges and laid the ball off to Angel di Maria, whose deflected pass found its way to Gonzalo Higuain, and he lashed in the loose ball from just outside the area. It was a welcome goal for the Napoli striker, and he could have added more later in the match. While Belgium offered little in the way of attacking threat, they did have some chances, while Argentina did not really press home their advantage. Kevin de Bruyne’s fizzing drive was beaten away by Sergio Romero just out of the reach of striker Divock Origi, who was starting in favour of Romelu Lukaku. Argentina then almost doubled their advantage when Messi, one of the leading lights in the tournament so far, knocked his free-kick narrowly over the bar. Belgium then responded when Jan Vertonghen’s superb centre was met by Kevin Mirallas, but his header was just off target.
After the interval, Argentina emerged with renewed vigour and started to take control. Higuain looked intent on adding to his tally and his surging run into the penalty area almost brought about a second goal, with his shot deflected wide off Daniel van Buyten. He continued to try his luck, almost netting after charging from the halfway line, nutmegging Vincent Kompany and striking the bar with a thunderous shot. However, Vertonghen’s delivery still posed questions for the Argentinian defence and his inviting cross was met by the head of Marouane Fellaini, who guided the ball just over. Messi then had another chance of his own after Lucas Biglia launched a swift counter-attack, knocking the ball on to Fernando Gago, who played in the Barcelona forward. It seemed certain that Messi would put the result beyond doubt, but Thibaut Courtois came out to smother superbly. Dries Mertens, who came on for Mirallas, provided the spark that the Red Devils had craved, when his ingenious through-ball hooked across goal by Lukaku. The ball was hacked away in desperation and found its way to Axel Witsel, but he steered his volley over the bar and La Albiceleste survived. While their performances of late have been far from dominant, Argentina did enough and will be slight favourites against the Netherlands, who squeaked through on penalties against Costa Rica.
The battlelines were drawn from the outset and this was borne out by the match statistics, which illustrated the Netherlands’ dominance, both in terms of shots (they managed 20 to Costa Rica’s 6) and corners (11 to 1). Despite such territorial dominance, it took Oranje over twenty minutes to carve out a serious chance. Kuyt’s raking ball to Memphis Depay was shifted on to Robin van Persie, whose shot was blocked superbly by Costa Rica’s heroic goalkeeper Keylor Navas. The Netherlands’ pressure on Costa Rica was unrelenting, but Los Ticos remained resolute. The overwhelming favourites almost made the breakthrough through a superb bending set-piece from Sneijder that Navas palmed away.
Only the hard work of the Costa Ricans stopped the Dutch from running riot, and they found it difficult to break out of their own half. Cristian Bolaños provided some inspiration from set-pieces, with one almost reaching the diving Johnny Acosta, only to be cleared away by Aston Villa captain Ron Vlaar. At the other end, Galatasaray schemer Sneijder displayed quick-thinking and almost caught Navas out when his free-kick cannoned off the post. Some uncharacteristic hesitation from Navas nearly allowed van Persie to break the deadlock, but despite wriggling away from a few Costa Rican defenders, the Manchester United striker was denied by a sprawling save. Van Persie then almost snatched victory in the last few minutes of normal time, but he inexplicably missed his kick after a superb clipped ball by Sneijder, who could lay claim to being man of the match, possibly challenged only by Navas.
The Dutch had their best chance in the last few minutes of normal time, with Danny Blind set free down the left after some neat interplay. Van Persie got on the end of his tantalising cross and drove the ball towards goal, only for it to be somehow scooped off the goalline by Yeltsin Tejeda. Costa Rica seemed galvanised by their late defensive stubbornness and had a shout for a penalty in extra time, after Marcos Ureña went down under the close attention of Vlaar. Despite having not scored a league goal in three years for Russian outfit Kuban Krasnodar, Ureña almost nicked it at the death, dancing past some flat-footed defending before his shot was blocked at point-blank range by the legs of Jasper Cillessen. Sneijder then almost had the last word, cracking a wicked effort against the woodwork that had Navas beaten. However, the major talking point was to come shortly before penalties. Cillessen’s reward for a brilliant save moments earlier was to be substituted by Tim Krul, who manager Louis van Gaal said was better at saving penalties due to his greater reach. Krul repaid the manager’s faith in him though and was not fazed by the pressure-cooker atmosphere, denying Bryan Ruiz and Michael Umaña to send his nation through.
Krul saved two penalties in the shootout
Image: The Telegraph
While the game on Wednesday seems to have all the hallmarks of a great match, neither team has been consistently exciting throughout the tournament. The Netherlands set a high standard for themselves following their 5-1 demolition job of Spain, but have not been nearly as convincing in recent games, needing very late shows to dispose of both Mexico and Costa Rica, neither of whom had much of an attacking threat. The Dutch defence has occasionally looked very shaky (as could be seen in the narrow 3-2 win over Australia) and they have generally failed to convert their dominance into crushing wins. Wesley Sneijder’s performance against Costa Rica was a major positive and van Gaal will hope his guile and composure will prove the difference. In addition, Argentina’s suspect defence could provide joy for the pacemen of the Dutch side like Arjen Robben and Blind, who have both been hugely impressive, while Memphis Depay could also be a threat. Van Gaal might also rely on the hard-working Dirk Kuyt to do most of the donkey work and try and deny space to Argentina’s creative starlets. One cause for concern is the potential for the Netherlands to lose their discipline, particularly Bruno Martins Indi and Vlaar, who have been embroiled in unnecessary tackles and heated exchanges. In addition, following Krul’s commanding display in the penalty shoot-out, there must now be a big question mark hanging over Cillessen’s head.
Argentina have been dealt a massive blow with the news that playmaker Angel di Maria has been ruled out of the semi-final with a thigh injury. The good news is that Sergio Agüero has been declared fit, and could take his place in the starting line-up. However, the likelihood is that he will start from the bench, with Fernando Gago in contention to start instead. Higuain’s goal against Belgium provided a timely boost to a team that had appeared far too reliant on the brilliance of Messi. With Agüero and Lavezzi yet to join the goalscoring party, the potential is there for Argentina to get a lot, lot better.
The loss of Di Maria means Alejandro Sabella will have to shuffle the pack and he may decide to deploy Messi behind Agüero and Higuain, even though the former has not had a run of games. Despite the stability in midfield provided by Gago, Biglia and at times Javier Mascherano, it is the defence where alarm bells will ring. A backline with Mascherano and possibly Demichelis, both of whom lack pace, is asking to be attacked, and, along with the rash decision-making of Marcos Rojo, could be punished. In addition, Sergio Romero has failed to fully convince and Sneijder’s set-pieces could make his evening very uncomfortable.
Tonight, Brazil face Germany in Belo Horizonte, where all the talk has centred around the tournament-ending injury to Neymar and the suspension of captain and defensive stalwart Thiago Silva. The dependable Dante is certain to deputise for the Paris Saint-Germain star, lining up alongside the loose cannon that is David Luiz. Neymar’s replacement is slightly less clear. Luiz Gustavo will return to the starting line-up following suspension, and he could potentially be the only change to the starting XI. Gustavo could either be used as an extra holding midfielder, or he could replace Paulinho, allowing Willian to fill the void left by the poster boy of the tournament. The last viable option would be to have Gustavo, Paulinho and Fernandinho sitting back, with Willian replacing the disappointing Fred. Scolari will also need to make a decision about who to start at right-back, given that he opted for Maicon in the quarter-final against Colombia, after plumping for Alves in the first four matches. While Dante has been superb in the all-conquering Bayern Munich side of the last few seasons, the Brazilian backline have only kept one clean sheet so far this tournament, and the way that teams like Croatia, Chile and Colombia unpicked Brazil will give home fans cause for concern. In addition, Neymar has been the only steady source of goals, while fellow strikers Fred and Hulk have mustered just one goal between them. However, the one clear strength that Brazil possess is set-piece delivery. Luiz has been particularly threatening in these situations and can provide plenty of power and athleticism at both ends of the pitch.
Willian is likely to start against Germany
The Germans will go into this match confident that they can knock out the tournament hosts. They have a clean bill of health and, in Manuel Neuer, they have one of the world’s best keepers. Mats Hummels was once again impressive in the quarter-victory over France, scoring the winner and marshalling the backline expertly when the French came knocking. Brazil can take comfort though from some of Die Mannschaft’s other performances, when lapses in concentration meant that they conceded numerous chances against Ghana and Algeria (neither of whom are potent attacking forces) with Per Mertesacker and Jerome Boateng both prone to errors. However, at the other end of the field, they have a plethora of attacking options. Miroslav Klose grabbed the equaliser against Ghana and will hope to break Ronaldo’s record of 15 World Cup goals in what is almost certainly his last major tournament. Thomas Muller has been Germany’s most reliable attacking force, scoring four goals and proving a thorn in the side of opposition defences with his willing running and direct style. Mario Götze has also reminded people of his quality, particularly against Ghana and Portugal, when he dovetailed beautifully with Mesut Özil and Muller. However, he has only started one of the last three games (against Algeria) and was hauled off at half-time in place of Andre Schürrle, who has put himself in the frame to start after making a telling contribution against the Desert Foxes. Özil is another who has had an on-off tournament, beginning brightly, but like Götze, has faded in the last few games and his place in the team has come under scrutiny from the media in his homeland. Youngster Julian Draxler has not yet been given the opportunity to showcase his talent, while Lukas Podolski has had to be content with mostly substitute appearances, and has failed to score so far.
I think that given the way the four teams have played, the final will feature Germany and Argentina on 13 July in the Maracanã.
Featured image: www.worldsoccer.com