The business end of the tournament. Quarter final stage and all the group winners facing off against each other.
France 0 Germany 1
First up was France vs Germany. Both teams had looked anything but confident in their round of 16 games – France winning 2-0 against Nigeria but not with the same fluency that they had shown in the first two group games where goals rained in. Germany had also looked disjointed in their extra time win over Algeria, particularly while playing without a recognised striker, but seemingly having an over abundance of central midfielders and central defenders.
France disappointed in this game and seemed to lack any real urgency throughout the match. Germany took an early lead through a set piece and scored via the head of Mats Hummels. German coach, Joachin Low, tweaked his team and brought in striker Miroslav Klose instead of Mario Gotze and Philip Lahm reverted to his right back position instead of central midfield.
After the exciting, attacking style of 2010 the German team looked like they wanted to revert to a more stereotypical ‘German’ style as they dominated possession and controlled the game more than their counterparts. After the helter-skelter, heart-palpitation-inducing win over Algeria, it seemed that the emphasis was to try to prevent the dangerous French attackers from having too much influence on the game – and in this they were successful.
Former national team player, and current general manager, Oliver Bierhoff summed up the performance perfectly:
“We were very organised; we filled in for each other; we were well-arranged on the pitch; we were calm; we knew what we had to do to win the game,” said the Euro 1996 winner. “That has always been the strength of German teams.”
In order to win at this level, the Germans are reverting to one of their core strengths. Let’s see if it will get them into position to lift the trophy.
Brazil 2 Colombia 1
The battle of the number 10’s.
This game was a head to head between two of arguably the players of the tournament thus far. Whilst Brazil had been less than impressive as a team in the tournament thus dark they were winning their games and this was due (in no small part) to the form of Neymar, who had been irresistible.
On the other side, the Colombians had truly been playing as a team and had emerged top of their group by playing some exciting and attractive football. This was encapsulated by the form of their young playmaker, James Rodriguez, who had tongues wagging with some superlative performances.
The tournament progresses with both number 10’s not featuring any longer. Rodriguez and his Colombian team eliminated by the pumped up Brazilian team. Neymar, on the other hand, cracked a vertebrae in his back in a collision with Colombia’s Zuniga and was airlifted to hospital. Brazil’s talisman gone and a nation mourned and struggled to process this information.
Brazil took the lead through captain Thiago Silva’s knee from a corner and his chest thumping celebration seemed to sum up the Brazilians’ mood – determined to get the result. Silva had come in for some criticism from some quarters about being overly emotional (a man crying or showing his emotions? Never in public!) and showed a different stoic side with this celebration. David Luiz’s stunning free kick in the second half was a thunderbolt from 30 yards out and the stadium erupted.
Credit to Colombia for not giving up and they won a penalty, converted by James Rodriguez which set up a grand finale as Colombia threw everything and the kitchen sink at their South American opponents in the last ten minutes. Brazil dug in their heels and defended obstinately to book a semi final place against Germany.
Brazil have to find a way forward without their star player, and also without captain Silva who is suspended for the semi-final after collecting a second yellow card. Maybe the time is right for Brazil to produce a real team performance in honour of their injured hero. Germany will be a major stumbling block though.
Argentina 1 Belgium 0
Belgium is a team that has talented individuals but they have struggled to play as a team in this tournament and this game was no different. They had been touted as dark horses in the build up to the tournament but had failed to find any sort of fluency. The best example of this has been the form (or lack thereof) of Eden Hazard who sparkled for Chelsea in the first half of the Premier League season.
A moment here to reflect on Jose Mourinho and his criticism of Hazard’s form during the latter part of the season. Mourinho had also come under fire for his decision to send Romelu Lukaku on loan to Everton while Chelsea struggled for goals. Based on the performances of both players at the World Cup, it seems Mourinho may have had a point about their form. Hazard has been invisible during the World Cup and Lukaku has only looked effective when running at tiring defenders whilst he has been well shackled against tight defences.
The Argentines, whilst having some quality players in their ranks, have been heavily reliant on Lionel Messi. To be fair to their captain, he has risen to the challenge and has actively looked for the ball in every game he has played. Belgium made a rookie error and stood off Messi and allowed him to receive the ball and gave him time to pick passes. In this game, Messi didn’t run directly to goal as he often does for Barcelona – instead he played as more of a traditional number 10 and released others into space.
Vincent Kompany lost possession in midfield and the ball fell to Messi – who controlled, swiveled and passed the ball to Di Maria whose deflected pass was buried by Gonzalo Higuain. Messi also played arguably one of the passes of the tournament to Di Maria, who injured himself shooting at goal. Di Maria will be a huge loss to Argentina as I feel he has carried a lot of the attacking threat for the team with his direct running and intelligent movement in the tournament – without Sergio Aguero, there is even more pressure on Messi to deliver and hopefully his teammates also decide to help and pitch in.
Holland 0 Costa 0 (4 – 3 penalties)
If there’s anything this tournament has taught us, it’s that the “bigger” or more established teams have not had it all their own way during this World Cup. Holland faced off the impressive Costa Rican team and initially looked to try and kill the game early, but they did not have it their own way at all. Arjen Robben has provided much of the attacking thrust for this team but he was expertly marshalled by an organised Costa Rican defence for most of the game. Interestingly enough, the Central Americans were disciplined enough to show Robben onto his weaker foot when he threatened their penalty area – a basic defensive move which many teams (club and international) struggle to do.
The Costa Ricans seemed happy to play for the lottery of penalties as evidenced by the jubilation when the final whistle blew to end extra time, but their joy was short-lived as they couldn’t win the shootout. The statistics tell a tale in this game – the Netherlands had 15 attempts on target – Costa Rica had three. The Dutch had 11 corners – Costa Rica had one. The Europeans also had 64 percent possession, although I have never been one to be swayed by the possession stat as it can be very misleading at times. Costa Rica played this game very cautiously, and who can blame them? If they had decided to play a gung-ho attacking game, they would likely have been punished by Robben’s pace on the counter attack. There was a semi final spot up for grabs and their coach went for the best option he thought could assure that.
Dutch manager Louis van Gaal emerged with all the plaudits for his last minute substitution bringing on Tim Krul, who had not played a single minute of football in the tournament. Krul was decisive in the shootout, both for saving two penalties and also for his somewhat controversial antics before some of the spot kicks. Van Gaal looked like a genius in the celebrations that followed, but obviously the move could have backfired had Krul been beaten by the Costa Ricans. I guess it is true what they say – all’s well that ends well.
Featured photograph credit: Fabrizio Bensch/AP