The 2014 FIFA World Cup semifinals will boast some of the best attacking talent in world football. That is especially true of the clash between Argentina and the Netherlands, where a quartet of forwards are sure to shine.
Of that group, Argentina star Lionel Messi and Dutch wing ace Arjen Robben will be the focus here. They are each the talisman for their respective nations.
By contrast, defenders come into focus for Brazil's meeting with Germany. The Germans can count on intelligent and imposing centre-back Mats Hummels. Meanwhile, Brazil will look to gifted but erratic stopper David Luiz to mitigate the absence of Thiago Silva.
Here are some projections for the key stars on display in the tournament's final four:
Mats Hummels Will Stifle Brazil
Mats Hummels has steadily emerged as the key figure for Germany at this World Cup. The cultured centre-back was dominant in the 1-0 quarter-final win over France.
An aggressive and savvy stopper who can play out from the back, Hummels often makes the pundits purr. The praise is well earned at this tournament, after the way the Borussia Dortmund man has marshaled the German defence.
Hummels, 25, is a centre-back of power and elegance who joined Bayern Munich's academy at the age of seven but was forced by a lack of opportunities to move to Borussia Dortmund at 19 for €4 million. What England would give to have a centre-half of his skill and grace. Across the English game you hear people say he lacks the speed to be a top-money acquisition for the Premier League. You can stop laughing now.
Hummels’ gift for reading the game is a long-standing entry in scouting notebooks. If he came to England – to Manchester United, say – he would lay on an education for young English centre-backs, who need to step up on the current bunch: Phil Jagielka, Gary Cahill, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling.
Even if we accept the critique about a lack of pace, which is perhaps a fair assessment, Hummels won't be troubled by that against Brazil. When Neymar Jr. succumbed to a fractured vertebra in the quarter-final win over Colombia, the Brazilians lost their genuine pace in attack.
The rest of manager Luiz Felipe Scloari's forward line is pedestrian compared to the FC Barcelona star. Central striker Fred is too static, while Hulk rarely ventures off the wing. Scolari also doesn't encourage enough forward-breaking runs from his midfield players.
Hummels will cope with anything Brazil try. He'll play the key role in shutting out the hosts, enabling Germany to saunter to the final.
David Luiz Will Flounder Without Thiago Silva
David Luiz is a high-priced centre-back you can never completely trust. He can be reckless with his tackling and has a cavalier attitude toward stable positioning.
Yet Brazil are often able to compensate for his maverick style thanks to the solidity and brilliance of Thiago Silva. The athletic and intelligent Paris Saint-Germain central defender provides a natural balance to Luiz's buccaneering antics.
However, Silva is scheduled to miss the semi-final clash due to suspension, per Goal.com. Without Silva by his side, Luiz is sure to be exposed by Germany's quick and fluid movement.
The Germans love to interchange positions up front, constantly managing to drag defenders into uncomfortable areas. Given how eager Luiz is to embody an attacking brand of defence, he is sure to leave space for German runners to exploit.
Expect such a gaffe from Luiz to create the decisive opening for Germany.
Arjen Robben Will Again Be Netherlands' Main Threat
Robben has tormented defences throughout this tournament. The ultra-talented wide forward still has the pace and close control to scare any defenders out of their wits.
Expect Robben to be at his direct and devilish best against Argentina. The 30-year-old tends to deliver on the big occasion, and this semi-final clash will be no exception.
It cannot be emphasised strongly enough how much the Dutch need Robben. He is the one player who gives their attack its fear factor, thanks to his blistering speed.
He is also so heavily relied upon by his international team-mates. That much was clear during the quarter-final with Costa Rica, as the Dutch toiled to find the spark that would undo the spirited men in white and red. When Robben is subdued or shackled, as was the case for long spells of the game, the limitations of this Holland team are highlighted.
Argentina will likely try to surround Robben with numbers, doubling up on him whenever he receives the ball in wide areas. However, the veteran winger has become a master of turning his initial marker one way and another before escaping into central areas.
Robben will still carry the main threat for the Dutch. While he won't score, he'll almost certainly play a key role in setting up his nation's lone goal.
Lionel Messi Will Score the Winner
Messi has looked more like his old self at this tournament. By his own irrepressible standards, he endured a difficult club season with FC Barcelona, but Messi has been revitalised in Brazil.
His current good form is ominous for the Netherlands. Messi is playing with the quickness and elusive skills that make him the best player in the game. Those qualities will be too much for the Dutch defence.
Messi will be too nifty for a slightly cumbersome Netherlands back line. Expect him to dance his way beyond players such as Ron Vlaar to net the decisive goal that puts Argentina in the final.
These four players will be the key figures, for better or worse, for their respective nations in the semi-final games. For Messi and Hummels, the occasions should be positive, earning them yet more plaudits from this tournament.
At the opposite end of the appreciation spectrum, every critic who frets over Luiz will feel vindicated after his tough day. There may also be little sympathy for Robben, despite his efforts to put his country in the final.
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