Goals were the biggest story of the 2014 World Cup group stage, while drama dominated the round of 16. How will the quarterfinals be remembered?
It's understandable that the attacking, aggressive football of the first few weeks has disappeared a bit. The stakes have been raised, so managers are much less willing to take chances. Plus, the idea is that the deeper into the tournament you go, the tougher the competition, which means a leveling of the playing field.
Unlike the last round, each one of the quarterfinals matchups is utterly engrossing and must-watch television. Even the most unattractive fixture—Netherlands vs. Costa Rica—is the proverbial David vs. Goliath, which makes for great theater.
Seriously, can this World Cup never end?
|July 4||France (23-10)||Germany (6-4)||FRA 3-1|
|July 4||Brazil (13-15)||Colombia (15-4)||BRA 3-2|
|July 5||Argentina (15-13)||Belgium (29-10)||ARG 2-0|
|July 5||Netherlands (18-35)||Costa Rica (7-1)||NED 2-1|
Note: The odds are via OddsChecker.com and last updated at 6:43 p.m. ET on Wednesday.
France vs. Germany
When Philipp Lahm was moved out to right back against Algeria after Shkodran Mustafi's injury, many German supporters wondered if that was the moment that Joachim Low would finally come to his senses. Instead, he's decided to keep Lahm in midfield, per Bleacher Report's German football expert Clark Whitney:
Löw: Lahm will play in MF for the rest of WC. Figures, Schweinsteiger & Khedira aren't fit and Kramer has 0 exp. CM more important than RB— Clark Whitney (@Mr_Bundesliga) July 2, 2014
Defense has been a problem for Germany throughout the World Cup, between the lack of natural full-backs and Per Mertesacker's lack of pace.
Both of those issues could come to the fore against France, which demonstrated against Switzerland how deadly it can be on the counterattack.
Les Bleus' midfield trio of Paul Pogba, Yohan Cabaye and Blaise Matuidi should be able to neutralize Germany's attack through the middle.
The key for France will be getting the ball out wide to Antoine Griezmann and Mathieu Valbuena and letting them use their pace to stretch the German defense. If Germany's center backs are forced to move out to the flanks to help cover space, that will open attacking lanes through the center.
To those sleeping on the French, they've arguably looked one of the strongest teams in the World Cup. Meanwhile, Germany has been one of the most underwhelming. Maybe Die Mannschaft finally play up to their potential, but their malaise goes back a little while, so it's not as simple as they start playing better all of a sudden.
This game has the potential to be very wide open, especially if one of the teams scores early.
France will nab a quick-fire double to take a 2-0 lead. Although Germany will get a goal back, it'll concede late as it chases the game.
France 3, Germany 1
Brazil vs. Colombia
Of the four quarterfinals fixtures, this one is the hardest to predict. Brazil has the home-field advantage but has looked far from convincing. Meanwhile, Colombia has been one of the best teams throughout the tournament but will be walking into a cauldron in the Estadio Castelao.
James Rodriguez is the most in-form player in the World Cup. Everyone thought the absence of Radamel Falcao torpedoed Los Cafeteros' hopes, but the AS Monaco midfielder has more than filled the gap in the attack. Whatever Colombia do will go through his feet.
The good news for Brazil is that its best playmaker, Neymar, will be available, per Sky Sports:
Neymar has assured Brazil fans he 'feels fine' and will able to play in Friday's World Cup quarter-final v Colombia. http://t.co/Bg37xeN0P2— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) July 2, 2014
One of the biggest knocks on Brazil in the past has been that it's been unwilling to make the tactical sacrifices necessary to win the World Cup. Beauty had always trumped results.
That isn't the case this year. Neymar spoke about how he's only fixated on winning. Entertainment is a distant second, per Marca:
I don't want to entertain, that's the last thing on my mind. We aren't here to entertain; we're here to win. Even if we won by half a goal to nil it would be enough. It makes absolutely no difference if we pull off a nutmeg or chip the opposition.
All I want is for Brazil to lift the trophy. It doesn't matter whether I score a lot of goals, whether I play well or not. What I want most is to see Brazil crowned world champions.
What may end up deciding this game is the absence of Luiz Gustavo. The Wolfsburg midfielder has become of the most important players for Brazil:
19 - Luiz Gustavo has made the most interceptions at the 2014 #WorldCup. Anticipation.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 2, 2014
Without him, Brazil are a little exposed defensively because there isn't that same cover on the left for Marcelo. Colombia will look to Juan Cuadrado to get in behind the Real Madrid left back when he's caught too far forward.
Colombia doesn't exactly have the most intimidating defense itself, so this match should have plenty of goals.
You could make a strong case for either team advancing, but Brazil gets the slight edge.
Brazil 3, Colombia 2
Argentina vs. Belgium
Which pragmatic team will be the pragmatic-est?
If you're solely interested in goals, few teams have been more underwhelming than Argentina and Belgium. Despite having a wealth of skilled attackers, Marc Wilmots and Alejandro Sabella have opted instead to take the air out of the ball and slowly wear their opponents down rather than going at them from the opening whistle.
You can see this match going either way.
Argentina gets the slight edge for one reason: It has Lionel Messi.
Rarely do you see one of the best players in the world raising his game like this at the international level. He's been Man of the Match in each of Argentina's four World Cup matches. What's most impressive with Messi is the way that he's not only scoring but also setting up his teammates.
Against Switzerland in the round of 16, he created eight scoring chances, per ESPN's Dale Johnson:
That ability to create wasn't lost on LeBron James, somebody else who's renowned for often making the best basketball play rather than looking only for individual glory:
Heard Messi made the game winning pass! That's my type of play/er. Win, loss, draw u make the right play to help your team be successful— LeBron James (@KingJames) July 1, 2014
The problem for Argentina is that it may be a bit overreliant on its world-class forward.
"We know he is our main player, our captain, the best player in the world," Pablo Zabaleta said, per The Independent's Ian Herbert. "This team is playing for him as we know how important Messi is for this team. Every time we recover the ball we try to pass to him as he is the best player we have in the team and he will score goals."
If Belgium can isolate Messi and force his teammates to shoulder more of the burden, then it can advance to the semifinals.
But the thing is, he only needs a few seconds to create a moment of brilliance. Switzerland had largely shut him down for 117 minutes. Then he creates some space for himself, finds Angel di Maria, and it's 1-0 in extra time.
Argentina 2, Belgium 0
Netherlands vs. Costa Rica
Costa Rica's dream World Cup run looks to be nearing a conclusion. Its players looked completely gassed by the end of their round-of-16 win over Greece, and Los Ticos will be without the services of Oscar Duarte, who's been one of their fulcrums in defense.
Johnny Acosta is a less-than-impressive replacement, too:
Not only will Duarte being sent off make this a nervous 20 mins, but gap between him & next CB option, likely Johnny Acosta, pretty big.— Jon Arnold (@ArnoldcommaJon) June 29, 2014
The scary thing about the Netherlands is that it is like a new miracle drug where you get all of the benefits without all of the side effects. Two of the biggest issues that have limited the Dutch in the past—a defiance against all things pragmatic and intrasquad strife—have been largely absent in this tournament.
Louis van Gaal already has his future sorted out, so he doesn't care what the fans back home think. What's the worst thing that can happen to him?
Therefore, he's gonna win, and he's gonna win ugly. The Netherlands' 5-1 win over Spain was an outlier. The Dutch have labored against both Australia and Mexico but managed to come through with wins. That's a trait that's often missing in Dutch squads.
Costa Rica has so far done a great job of isolating the opposition's striker. It completely neutralized both Mario Balotelli and Edinson Cavani by playing a high line and swarming them with multiple defenders.
The problem with a high line against the Dutch is that they've shown an ability to play direct and beat teams over the top. The Spain match was case in point of that. Playing a high line against Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben is an extremely dangerous game.
If the Netherlands played its typical possession-based attacking style, then perhaps it could be in trouble. However, Van Gaal will be perfectly happy to cede possession and beat the Costa Ricans with quick counterattacks.
Netherlands 2, Costa Rica 1
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