OUR MAN IN BRAZIL
Match may not catch fire
With final spot at stake, free-flowing action is likely to be given the boot
Published on Jul 8, 2014 1:40 PM
Semi-final: Brazil v Germany
Brazil will be on familiar ground when they host Germany in the first semi-final (4am, tomorrow, Singapore time) of the 2014 World Cup. The Estadio Mineiro in Belo Horizonte was where they saw off a spirited Chile in the second round. It is also one of the closest stadiums to their home base in Teresopolis, just outside Rio de Janeiro. Belo Horizonte is just over 300km away, making the journey a quick one.
Germany, on the other hand, will be playing their first match in the city located more than 1,000km away from their camp in Santo Andre, in Brazil's north-eastern state of Bahia.
Yet, it will be Brazil who find themselves in unfamiliar territory. For the first time since the tournament kicked off on June 12, the hosts are not entering a match as the favourites, an unlikely situation forced upon them by a mixture of poor judgment and poor sportsmanship.
Captain Thiago Silva is serving a one-match suspension after a needless yellow card for impeding Colombia goalkeeper David Ospina during the 2-1 quarter-final win. But while he is set to return for either the final or third-place play-off, Neymar's involvement with Brazil 2014 has ended.
The star forward fractured a vertebra after being kneed in the back by Colombia's Juan Zuniga.
The circumstances leave the hosts with justifiable reasons should they falter. The mood in the nation of 200 million is one of mourning at the loss of Neymar, their "great warrior", as Brazil President Dilma Rousseff so poetically called him in one of the many tributes that have poured in for the national icon. There will hardly be any finger-pointing if Luiz Felipe Scolari's men fail to deliver on their promise to win the World Cup. Only commiseration.
Yet, while it may be easier to embrace the role of the underdog, the Selecao have no interest in playing the sympathy card.
Indeed, Silva is adamant that the dream of winning their first World Cup on home soil is still very much alive - and the five-time champions intend to use Neymar's injury as a rallying point.
"We have proposed to win the World Cup for Neymar because of the injury he suffered," said Silva.
"This moment could mark the start of a revolution for us.
"He hopes and expects a lot from this group, and this could unite us; it could give us more determination to win."
The circumstances could see players like Fred, widely criticised for his lack of goals in this campaign, and Neymar's likely replacement Willian, who missed a penalty in the shootout against Chile, rise to the challenge.
A packed and highly-charged Estadio Mineiro will also give rise to that.
The feeling of being hard done by may also push Dante, the Bayern Munich defender and Silva's likely stand-in in defence, to fight off the Germans he knows so well.
The Germans are well aware what tragedy can do to unite a team, in this case, even a country. But they are hoping the sympathy factor is one that is lost on Mexican Marco Rodriguez, the referee for today's clash.
Making the observation that the Brazil of 2014 are now more of a robust side than the artists of older vintage, Germany coach Joachim Loew called on match officials to make the right call.
Brazil lead the tournament with 96 fouls and 10 yellow cards.
Said Loew: "For sure, Brazil still have good technical players. But they're playing more robustly than any other team here and they have been trying to break up their opponent's attack that way.
"At the end of the day, it's up to the referee to come up with the correct punishment."
The Germans also reached at least the semi-finals in the last three World Cups but failed to add to their three titles, with the last win coming in 1990. They have had to settle for second and third a record eight times.
But with a team who boast a creative midfield trio of Thomas Mueller, Toni Kroos and Mesut Oezil, who have outpassed and outclassed everyone in Brazil, this could be Germany's best chance to shake off the "choker" tag.
The expectation is that Brazil, without their main attacking threat, are likely to battle their way to a win. Brazil's last three goals have all come via set pieces and one can expect Scolari to be banking on them to deliver a goal while keeping things tight at the back.
That Brazil will welcome back Luiz Gustavo, their main midfield destroyer who also plays his football in Germany, from suspension further fuels the speculation of how Scolari will set his team up.
Loew is already expecting a physical affair and is willing to sacrifice style for success.
"This tournament has shown that no team have been able to play with great, brilliant, attacking football because there has been so much physical destructiveness set against that."
"Beautiful football by itself won't be enough to win here."
With so much pressure on winning, chances are we may see unfamiliar faces of two familiar teams as they do whatever it takes to reach the final.