World Cup Blog: Not a bad final four
07:00 08 July 2014
A quick look at the semi-finals
And then there were four.
After 25 days and 60 matches the 2014 World Cup is down to its last four: the semi-finalists and last four fixtures of this vibrant tournament.
England’s early elimination may have led to some apathy among the armchair public in this country (guilty your honour), but there has been no shortage of drama in their absence.
That trend continued in the quarter-finals, as Germany’s efficient 1-0 win over France in the first of the four last-eight ties.
Most of the pre-match talk had been about an infamous 1982 meeting, when German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher’s brutal challenge left Patrick Battiston unconscious in Spain before his side won a penalty shoot-out.
The Germans had Manuel Neuer to thank this time for a fine late save from Karim Benzema, as an early header from Mats Hummels proved enough to down Didier Deschamps’ side.
Then came the hosts as Brazil moved 2-0 up against Colombia thanks to goals of some contrast either side of the break from defenders Thiago Silva, who bundled home an early opener, and David Luiz, who smashed a free-kick into the top corner.
The Colombians hit back from the penalty spot through James Rodriguez, who could yet finish with the Golden Boot thanks to his six goals in five matches, but Brazil held on despite losing wunderkind Neymar to a back injury that has sadly ended his involvement in this event.
Quarter-final three pitted Argentina against dark horses Belgium, when another early goal proved enough.
Gonzalo Higuain’s stunning eighth-minute strike left the Europeans chasing the game but they made little impact in truth.
In fact, the Belgians could have been 3-0 down by the time Axel Witsel fired an injury-time chance over, as Higuain hit the crossbar and Lionel Messi scampered clear only to be denied by Thibaut Courtois.
The Netherlands completed the set with a shoot-out win over plucky Costa Rica, after their tie ended goalless.
But only after Louis van Gaal had sent Newcastle keeper Tim Krul on in the closing seconds of extra time to face the spot-kicks instead of Jasper Cillessen.
Krul kept out two efforts from Brian Ruiz and Michael Umana to earn the plaudits, but it was no more than the Dutch deserved after hitting the woodwork three times on the night.
But now what?
The ‘dream’ final of Brazil v Argentina remains a possibility, but is far from a formality.
Luis Felipe Scolari’s side, for all their spine-tingling spirit during emotional national anthems and brief moments of wonder, have attracted a fair amount of criticism thus far.
Without the talismanic Neymar, one cannot help but wonder where the creative spark is going to come from.
Maybe it is time for Oscar to step forward, but with Thiago Silva suspended for tonight’s clash with the Germans the hosts look even more vulnerable at the back.
Joachim Low’s Germans are nothing if not highly organised and have been waiting for the mercurial Mesut Ozil to truly make his mark. Why not in Belo Horizonte?
Tomorrow’s clash between Argentina and the Netherland immediately brings images of Mario Kempes and the 1978 final to mind, along with Dennis Bergkamp’s stunner for the Dutch in 1998.
Messi has lived up to the hype to date, but if the Dutch can deny the supply line to the Barcelona no.10, they have enough weapons in their armoury in Robin van Persie, Welsey Snejder and Arjen Robben – if he can stay on his feet long enough – to do damage at the other end.
What odds on an all-European Germany v Netherlands final, 40 years on from their meeting in the 1974 final in Munich?