OUR MAN IN BRAZIL
So near, yet so far from goal
Last teams standing unlikely to throw caution to wind with so much at stake
Published on Jul 7, 2014 7:32 AM
South America against Europe. After four long weeks, 60 matches and 28 teams eliminated, it has come down to Germany versus Brazil, and the Netherlands versus Argentina, for a place in Sunday's World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro.
The final four are hardly big surprises.
The Germans and the Dutch were also in the semi-finals in 2010 and, by maintaining a strong core from four years ago, were always fancied this time too.
Argentina, with Lionel Messi in their highly-rated squad, were also touted as early contenders for the title as were hosts Brazil, who showed they could rule the world with their Confederations Cup win last year.
What has been surprising, however, is that the top four have largely stumbled into the semi-finals, when most expected them to sail through, especially given the dynamic start to Brazil 2014.
After averaging over three goals a match during the first few rounds, the quarter-finals delivered just five goals in four matches, with the ties decided by one goal and a penalty shootout.
Perhaps everyone had the romantic notion that teams would continue in the spirit of a South American World Cup, where attacking football is demanded and negative play jeered.
But in truth, elimination stages are always tight affairs with much at stake. Apart from the odd big win, six out of the last eight quarter-finals before this tournament have been decided either by a single goal or spot-kicks.
In Brazil, it was no different. There is just too much to lose and often it becomes as much a tactical duel as it is a physical battle among 11 men, as Germany coach Joachim Loew explained.
"I think both teams played well defensively," he said of Germany's 1-0 quarter-final win over France. "There weren't many goal-scoring opportunities, which was part of our plan. We didn't want to give France chances with the quality of strikers they possess. We closed them down well - and that was the key. They did the same against us."
Unfortunately for fans who want to see goals, that mindset is unlikely to change when the semi-finals begin tomorrow.
The notion that an early goal will open up play, while true in the group stages, has not materialised in the knock-out stages. Both Germany and Argentina scored within 13 minutes of their matches, yet both were forced to hold on dearly to their advantage and eke out 1-0 wins.
And with key attacking players still unfit or out of the tournament - Argentina are still sweating over Sergio Aguero's fitness, while compatriot Angel di Maria and Brazil's Neymar have been ruled out with serious injuries - coaches are likely to place emphasis on defences to win matches.
The Netherlands' coach Louis van Gaal showed that one must always be prepared for matches to go to penalty kicks even in games that are one-sided.
Despite hitting the crossbar and missing numerous chances, he still had the presence of mind to save a substitute spot for reserve goalkeeper and penalty specialist Tim Krul.
In the end, it was a switch that proved decisive, as Krul's two saves in the shootout sent the Dutch through at Costa Rica's expense.
The final four now features two South American sides for the first time since the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.
But with a Neymar-less Brazil and an Argentina still over-reliant on Messi, it is likely that both teams will take a more uncharacteristic approach in their remaining matches.
Brazil relied on set-pieces and goals from defenders to see off Colombia and with an impotent strikeforce, could be forced to do the same again.
Argentina, who are also finding it hard to get their attack going, may have won all five of their matches in Brazil, but have done so with only one-goal margins.
So while it may be South America versus Europe in the semi-finals, and even possibly the final, do not expect a clash of two distinct styles of play.
Instead, it will be a meeting of like-minded coaches and teams who know that they will be defined by what happens over the next few days.
Brazil have yet to win on home soil, the Dutch team are looking to deliver a first World Cup, Germany are keen to shake off the "choker" tag and the Argentinians are led by a man who has won everything - except football's biggest prize. They all have as much to gain as they have to lose.
PART OF THE PLAN
There weren't many goal-scoring opportunities, which was part of our plan... We closed them down well - and that was the key.
- Germany coach Joachim Loew on his tactical approach against France
If people say that Argentina attack all the time, well, that was not the case, in my opinion.
- Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal claiming Argentina are defensive