The semi-finals for the 2014 FIFA World Cup are now set, with tournament favourites Brazil and Argentina both contesting last-four games. They are joined by European heavyweights Germany and the Netherlands.
|Brazil vs. Germany||Tuesday, July 8||9 p.m. BST / 4 p.m. ET||Estadio Mineiaro, Belo Horizonte|
|Netherlands vs. Argentina||Wednesday, July 9||9 p.m. BST / 4 p.m. ET||Arena de Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo|
Brazil's clash with Germany will be dominated by talk of how the hosts can cope without prolific forward Neymar Jr. The gifted attacker suffered a damaged vertebra following a grueling quarter-final against Colombia.
But Brazil's problems are not only in attack. Star centre-back Thiago Silva is also set to miss out, due to suspension. That could be a fatal blow against a fluid and creative German forward line led by Thomas Mueller.
Speaking of talented forward lines, Argentina's has been dealt a blow by the thigh injury sustained by Angel di Maria during the last-eight win over Belgium. The creative winger joins Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero on the treatment table.
At least Argentina still possess Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuain. That pairing will try to match deadly Dutch duo Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben.
Here are picks for the tournament's final four, beginning with Brazil against Germany.
Germany Will Overcome a Wounded Brazil
The Germans haven't exactly been in dominant form in the knockout phase. They edged past France by just a single goal in the last eight, following a similarly narrow victory over Algeria.
However, while they haven't been overpowering teams, negotiating big games at tournaments is just what the Germans do. They may not have won a major competition since 1996, but they have always been close, reaching the semifinal of the last two World Cups, as well as the final in 2002.
This time, Germany can go one step further and gain revenge for their 2-0 defeat to Brazil 12 years ago. Neymar is a loss the hosts will struggle to overcome. A paucity of true quality in attack is the bane of manager Luiz Felipe Scolari's team.
Neymar was the one positive in an otherwise limp attacking unit populated by disappointing players such as Fred and Hulk. Neymar's injury has not only rocked Scolari's squad, it also seems to have disturbed the psyche of the host nation's fans, according to Jonathan Wilson of The Observer:
Yesterday's papers said it all. Brazil may have reached the semi-final of the World Cup on Friday night, but yesterday the full cost of their quarter-final victory over Colombia was being counted. Neymar, the 22-year-old star of this tournament, the player who has borne the weight of Brazilian expectation with extraordinary calm and good grace, is out of the World Cup, having suffered a fractured vertebra. Perhaps it was coincidence, but when somebody in an apartment in Copacabana, four blocks from the beachside fan park, began playing Barber's Adagio for Strings on a loop, it seemed entirely in keeping with the general mood.
Germany can take advantage of any nerves, provided their own attacking unit delivers. That should mean trusting Mueller as the de facto striker and flanking him with attacking midfielders.
That's the dynamic that seems to suit this team best. If Mueller gets the right support, he can spark Germany to another narrow win.
Predicted Final Score: Brazil 0-1 Germany
Messi Will Inspire Argentina to the Final
Argentina will only go as far as Messi can take them. Fortunately, the world's best player has been in good form during this tournament.
Messi will deliver another strong performance to help see off the Netherlands. The pint-sized FC Barcelona ace is playing with a genuine exuberance at these finals.
The trademark quick turns and frightening pace have been on display, striking fear into opposing defences. But as good as Messi has been, he is also receiving credible support, as BBC Sport reporter Ben Smith noted following the single-goal win over Belgium:
While much of the attention was taken by Messi's pirouettes, body swerves and delightfully clipped passes, Argentina are a team that know how to disrupt rhythm and dismantle systems.
Javier Mascherano provides the bite, to Messi's ballet, in midfield. They are also defensively sound, they can battle, they can play. It was testament to their defensive solidity that Belgium resorted to aiming long balls at Fellaini and Daniel van Buyten in a desperate final 10 minutes.
Mascherano could well prove to be a key figure against the Dutch. Robben, Van Persie and others love to break at pace, something Mascherano can disrupt from his deep-lying midfield position.
He was outstanding against the Belgians, actively seeking out and destroying opposition attempts to sustain possession. Mascherano can't let the Netherlands own the ball the way manager Louis van Gaal loves his team to do.
It will also be important for Higuain to build on his excellent quarter-final display. The Napoli striker is superb at leading the line and provides a powerful foil for Messi's dazzling wizardry.
Higuain has combined well with Messi at this tournament. If he's on top form again, Argentina will have too much for the Netherlands.
The Dutch defence can be exploited, as players such as central stopper Ron Vlaar lack credible pace. Although Argentina have yet to be as prolific as their forward talent would indicate, Messi and Higuain can decide any game in an instant.
Predicted Final Score: Netherlands 1-2 Argentina
Home fans will be denied an all-South American final between bitter rivals Brazil and Argentina. To make matters worse, Brazil supporters may well have to endure the sight of Messi inspiring Argentina to lift the trophy at the Maracana on Sunday, July 13.