6 Players to Watch on Day 31 of the 2014 World Cup
Day 31 of this exhilarating 2014 FIFA World Cup sees the penultimate match of the entire tournament take place as host nation Brazil go head-to-head with the Netherlands in the third-place play-off at the Estadio Nacional in Brasilia.
And these are the six players to keep an eye out for in the Brazilian capital on Saturday…
In the injury-enforced absence of key Brazil forward Neymar, much of the responsibility for being the host nation’s creator-in-chief has since fallen on the slender shoulders of Chelsea playmaker Oscar.
However, the 22-year-old—much like the rest of his international team-mates—was unable to express himself in an attacking sense at all during Tuesday's 7-1 humiliation at the hands of Germany. It was the first match that the Selecao have had to play since their star man was ruled out of the tournament with a back injury.
Oscar will have one final chance to prove his worth in a more central position when Brazil play the Netherlands in Saturday's third-place play-off. It's unlike in previous contests this summer when the twinkle-toed youngster has been forced to do a job for his country on either the right- or the left-hand side of an attacking three in support of lone frontman Fred.
And as a result of that tactical tweak, the former Sao Paulo and Internacional starlet has at times struggled to impose himself on games at this World Cup, despite beginning the competition in eye-catching fashion with a goal in a Man of the Match display against Croatia.
But as respected Brazilian football journalist Fernando Duarte wrote on ESPNFC:
Despite being forced to deal with a tactical sacrifice, Oscar has hardly been the influential player Brazilians and many other neutrals expected him to be. However, the little man from Americana, Sao Paulo, is now the Selecao's biggest playmaking hope. ...
... If anything, though, the way Oscar found space in the Premier League shows that his shyness is complemented with courage. Oscar is certainly no Neymar, but his importance for the Selecao is often underrated.
And now the Blues star has a great chance to emerge from Neymar's giant shadow and at least try to bring a smile back to Brazilian faces.
Dirk Kuyt (Netherlands)
Netherlands forward Dirk Kuyt will win his 103rd and final cap for his country when they face host nation Brazil in Saturday's third-place play-off at the Estadio Nacional. However, working out just where the 33-year-old will line up in Brasilia is another matter entirely.
And that is because the Fenerbahce wide man has been utilised in so many different positions since being drafted in for the first time in this tournament by Oranje coach Louis van Gaal to play in his country's final Group B clash against Chile.
Left midfield or right midfield, left wing-back or right wing-back, you name it, Kuyt has played it in Brazil. The man nicknamed "Mr Duracell" during his time at Liverpool—for reasons that should need no further explaining after the player's all-action displays for his country this summer—has surprised many with his international renaissance.
And as the Daily Mail's Ian Ladyman wrote of Kuyt:
He emerged in his new wing-back role in the final group game against Chile, however, and subsequent displays against Mexico and Costa Rica proved fundamental to Holland's progress.
Against Mexico—in the unyielding heat of Fortaleza—Kuyt was astonishing, playing in three positions and somehow maintaining his energy levels to win the corner from which his team equalised with five minutes left.
That game was played in 38-degree heat—many fans seated in the sun moved to the walkways at the back of the stands in search of shade.
Played on the anniversary of his father's death and a day that brought him his 100th cap, Kuyt seemed unfazed, his personal heat map so impressive down both sides of the field it's a wonder his boots didn't leave two trenches behind.
And that is why Kuyt is one of only seven Dutchmen to have won 100 caps or more for his country.
Thiago Silva (Brazil)
Brazil will be hugely relieved to have influential captain and defensive lynchpin Thiago Silva back from suspension when they take on the Netherlands in Saturday's third-place play-off in Brasilia after the way in which the host nation's back four was so horribly exposed in midweek.
The Paris Saint-Germain centre-back missed Tuesday's 7-1 thrashing by Germany after the 29-year-old had picked up a needless booking in the five-time world champions' quarter-final win over Colombia.
And as ESPNFC’s Jack Lang wrote:
It meant Brazil was without the defensive partnership that has proven so fundamental to their form over the past 18 months. The Selecao did not lose a single one of the games Thiago and David Luiz started together—and won 21. There would be no such safety net against Germany.
However, Silva, who on several occasions was caught on camera watching in disbelief from the stands at the Mineirao as the horror show unfolded in front of his very eyes, has since called on Brazil's fans to get behind their team in the nation's capital. The skipper promised that he and his team-mates will go all out for victory at the Estadio Nacional.
"The pain from this defeat is too big. It is during this bad time that we need the strength of the fans even more," Silva said via Goal.com's Harry West.
"I guarantee that we will play Saturday's game like it was the final of the World Cup."
All of which has at least added a certain frisson of interest to the much-derided contest.
Robin van Persie (Netherlands)
Netherlands captain Robin van Persie endured a hugely frustrating night in front of goal on Wednesday as his country cruelly lost to Argentina on penalties in the semi-finals of the World Cup.
Neither team was able to break the deadlock during two hours of closely fought action in Sao Paulo, meaning the tie was settled via a dreaded shootout. By that stage, RVP had already been hauled off by Oranje coach Louis van Gaal to be replaced by fellow forward Klaas-Jan Huntelaar after an anonymous 96 minutes up front.
In fact, by the time of his substitution, not only had Van Persie failed even to have a single effort on goal at the Arena Corinthians, but the 30-year-old had also enjoyed just 23 touches of the ball, fewer than any other player on either side who had started the match.
This is the same frontman who played such a starring role with two goals as the Netherlands thrashed Spain 5-1 in their opening Group B encounter, including a breathtaking headed equaliser in what was one of the strikes of the tournament so far.
However, while Van Persie’s displays in attack may have dropped off since that eye-catching double against the world champions—perhaps due to a knee injury the centre-forward may still be nursing which prematurely ended his club season with Manchester United—it would be foolish to write the Dutchman off just yet.
And as the Daily Mail’s Neil Ashton said of the Oranje skipper in the aftermath of Wednesday’s defeat to Argentina:
Van Persie is Van Gaal's man, the striker who can turn games with those clinical finishes from his left boot. ...
... There is a menacing air to him and he always comes alive when there is a sniff of a scoring chance. ...
... Here in Brazil he has been a positive influence within the Dutch camp, taking his responsibilities of leading the country at a World Cup with dignity and a great degree of professionalism.
On the pitch he went on to score in the penalty shootout against Costa Rica, setting the tone for Holland’s dramatic victory with a ruthless finish from the spot.
Now the Dutch will be hoping for one more captain's performance from their leader when they meet Brazil in the third-place play-off at the Estadio Nacional in Brasilia on Saturday.
While much-maligned Brazil striker Fred has borne most of the criticism in the immediate aftermath of his side's mauling at the hands of Germany on Tuesday, especially from the Selecao's own fans, it seems to have been conveniently forgotten by many that it was the host nation's defence that was the real embarrassment on the night.
In fact, one really had to feel for the Fluminense striker when the crowd at the Estadio Mineirao roundly booed the player after his face appeared on the big screen moments after being substituted midway through the second half in Belo Horizonte.
However, with famously stubborn Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari having in many ways risked his own reputation by recalling Fred to the national team in February 2010—after he himself had just returned to the job—then there is no doubt that the 30-year-old will once again line up as the Selecao's lone frontman against the Netherlands in the third-place play-off on Saturday.
And as the BBC’s highly regarded South American football correspondent Tim Vickery wrote about the forward before the start of the tournament:
His footballing ability has never been in doubt. A wonderful striker of the ball, dangerous in the air, skilful and intelligent, he was a consistent performer in his three-and-a-half seasons with Lyon, and is an idol at Fluminense.
Now, though, Fred has the ideal opportunity not only to add to the solitary goal he has scored so far in his six matches at the World Cup but to also silence—if only for a brief moment—his many legions of critics throughout Planet Football at the Estadio Nacional on Saturday.
Arjen Robben (Netherlands)
Netherlands winger Arjen Robben goes into Saturday's third-place play-off against host nation Brazil still in with a great chance of winning FIFA's Golden Ball award for the best player at the World Cup after a brilliant campaign at this summer's tournament.
The Bayern Munich star scored three hugely important goals, including a second-half double as the Oranje stunned world champions Spain 5-1 in their opening Group B contest. He also contributed an assist in his country's run all the way to Wednesday’s semi-final with Argentina.
And while Robben was unable to find the required skill needed to help his side through to what would have been a second consecutive World Cup final after the South Americans had prevailed on penalties in Sao Paulo, it was not for want of trying on the part of the 30-year-old.
In fact, the sight of the wide man bursting through the Argentine defence with just seconds to go of normal time at the Arena Corinthians, before seeing his goal-bound shot diverted behind for a corner by the scurrying Javier Mascherano, will live long in the memory.
Not only that, but Robben was also then one of only two Dutch players to score in the resulting shootout. Whatever happens against the Selecao in Brasilia on Saturday, the player can hold his head up high on his return home.
As The Guardian’s Owen Gibson noted of the flying Dutchman’s courageous display in midweek:
Messi and Robben both suffered but the Holland winger at least retained his momentum and toiled to inspire those around him. Louis van Gaal, with whom he goes back a long way, looked to him for one last effort.
As the teams switched ends after the first period of extra time, it was Robben—as against Mexico and Costa Rica—who tried to gee up his troops. He has carried this side, a combination of callow Eredivisie players and old heads, but the semi-final was a bridge too far.
However, we should see far more of the fleet-footed playmaker in an attacking sense against Brazil at the Estadio Nacional on Saturday in a contest with much less riding on it than in the Netherlands' taut and tense semi-final with La Albiceleste.
And that, from a neutrals' point of view at least, can only be a good thing.