World Cup 2014: Phil McNulty's guide to the semi-finals
Brazil have struggled to cope with the expectation of a nation, Germany have excelled only in short spells, Argentina are supposedly over-reliant on Lionel Messi and the Netherlands required an unlikely goalkeeping intervention to beat Costa Rica.
But those four sides – despite plenty of scares along the way – are the ones left standing at the semi-final stage of the 2014 Fifa World Cup.
How do the teams rate? Which factors will determine who competes in the final in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday? And, most importantly of all, who will win?
Brazil v Germany (Tuesday, 8 July)
Brazil and Germany meet for only the second time in the World Cup when they face each other in the semi-final in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday.
The only other occasion was in the 2002 final at Yokohama in Japan – Ronaldo inspiring Brazil to a 2-0 win – and the prized place at the Maracana next Sunday is at stake.
Luiz Felipe Scolari was the coach behind that Brazil win – but can Joachim Low’s Germany spoil his hopes of a historic second triumph and this nation’s burning desire for a sixth World Cup?
Brazil’s World Cup has been something of a slow-burner, but for the first hour of theirquarter-final win against Colombia in Fortaleza they showed the sort of verve – mixed with physical determination – that finally justified their status as tournament favourites.
Scolari has been using psychologist Regina Brandao, a move that has not been unanimously well-received, notably by legends such as 1970 World Cup-winning captain Carlos Alberto, but he may need her now more than ever.
The tournament-ending injury to Neymar has driven at the very heart of Brazil’s hopes of winning the World Cup and Scolari must hope his absence, along with suspended captain Thiago Silva, does not have an impact on the spirit and momentum that has been slowly building both among the team and the mass support willing them on towards the final.
BBC Sport pundit Chris Waddle claims Brazil would be “the worst team to win a World Cup” if they do triumph and it is true to say they have not convinced so far but every step they take they will surely feel it is their destiny.
Against Colombia, however, there were signs that the pieces may be coming together and the fervent home support gives them a vital edge.
Team rating: 8
|Brazil have advanced to the final in each of their last six appearances in the final four|
|Germany are the first country to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup in four consecutive tournaments.|
|This will be only the second meeting between these two nations at the World Cup.|
Germany, as ever and in whatever guise, are getting the job done. Theworkmanlike win against France sent them into their fourth successive World Cup semi-final.
Joachim Low’s side has displayed all its many facets at this World Cup – from attacking variety through to occasional defensive vulnerability – but they will really sense the prize is in sight now and that they can become the first European team to win the trophy on South American soil.
Germany may need to tighten up a little at the back and they will be helped by the businesslike approach of coach Low, who believes his side must secure success to back up the praise they have received for their progress together as a squad.
Low says: “We have no titles yet as a team. Titles are marvellous and our players, mainly from Bayern Munich, have already won many. That is important for them, something special, but for us first and foremost it is a matter of playing the semi-final, which is going to be difficult.”
They have graced this World Cup in wonderful games against Ghana and Algeria – the old cliche about German efficiency is an insult to the ability shown in this tournament – but now they must take the final step.
Germany may have kept more clean sheets than any other team at this World Cup, three, but do not mistake that for a dour approach.
Team rating: 7
|24 Jul 1999 – Brazil 4-0 Germany- Fifa Confederations Cup Group, Estadio Jalisco, Guadalajara|
|30 Jun 2002 – Brazil 2-0 Germany- 2002 Fifa World Cup Final, International Stadium, Yokohama|
|7 Sep 2004 – Germany 1-1 Brazil- International, Berlin|
|25 Jun 2005 – Germany 2-3 Brazil- Fifa Confederations Cup semi-final, Frankenstadion, Nuremberg|
|10 Aug 2011 – Germany 3-2 Brazil- International, Mercedes-Benz Arena|
Why Brazil can win
The force of nature that is Brazil’s support means they have been riding a wave of emotion towards what they believe is the ultimate triumph – winning a World Cup in their own country.
To be present at Brazil’s quarter-final win against Colombia in Fortaleza was to witness an atmosphere almost unmatched in the sport. The Estadio Casteloa was decorated with thousands of yellow Brazil shirts and embellished by a deafening noise that swept around the arena at the slightest encouragement.
This Brazil team may not be one of the best to have graced the famous shirts but the fanatical support remains undimmed. It could carry these players to glory.
Brazil have been robbed of the injured Neymar but in Hulk they had a player who looked like he was ready to come to this World Cup party against Colombia and the return of the unsung Luiz Gustavo in midfield will provide a blanket of security for an occasionally vulnerable defence.
In Dante, they have an experienced defender to come in for Thiago Silva – but it is the backing of the Brazilian nation that may yet be their most potent weapon.
Why Germany can win
The simple answer to this could be because Germany do – often.
In this instance, they can call on a group of match-hardened players who are unlikely to be easily unsettled by the atmosphere that will engulf them in Belo Horizonte. They also have many of the Bayern Munich side who have enjoyed success in the Champions League.
If anything, they may rise to the occasion and in goalkeeper Manuel Neuer they have the finest exponent of his art in the world.
Neuer’s save from Karim Benzema in the closing moments of the quarter-final win against France illustrated the barrier Brazil must breach. He made it look deceptively simple and yet it was a demonstration of magnificent reflexes, the ball moving so fast many observers thought it had struck the woodwork, and such strong hands that it almost counted as a clearance.
|Games||Brazil wins||Draws||Germany wins||Brazil goals||Germany goals|
|World Cup = 1||1||0||0||2||0|
|All comps = 21||12||5||4||39||24|
He is also an extra defender, the best “sweeper-keeper” in the game, racing from goal throughout this World Cup to clear up trouble, acting as an extra shield and source of assurance for his defence.
Germany have class throughout the team, from captain Philipp Lahm and outstanding, powerful central defender Mats Hummels, through to Sami Khedira and the dangerous Thomas Muller. And if they need a goal they can call on their all-time record goalscorer Miroslav Klose, who also joined former Brazil striker Ronaldo as the leading scorer in finals history with 15 goals in the group stage.
Prediction: Brazil 2-1 Germany
Argentina v Netherlands (Wednesday, 9 July)
These two countries have World Cup history, from the Dutch handing out a 4-0 thrashing to Argentina in Gelsenkirchen 40 years ago to a victory in the final for the host country in Buenos Aires’ River Plate Stadium four years later.
Many will recall the famous late Dennis Bergkamp goal that decided the quarter-final in France 98 – although the goalless draw in Frankfurt in 2006 does not inspire too many memories.
Argentina and Netherlands have been both spectacular and effective in Brazil and now, as they approach this match in Sao Paulo, they stand just two games from glory.
Rather like Brazil with Neymar, so many of Argentina’s hopes rest on the brilliance of superstar Lionel Messi.
However, amid some unspectacular performances their other stars have come to the fore and that all-round ability represents a real threat.
With tough competitors such as Pablo Zabaleta, Javier Mascherano and Ezequiel Garay, this is a team for all occasions.
It may not have counted for much with Belgium coach Marc Wilmots, who said: “We were not impressed by Argentina. They’re just an ordinary team.
“If I had played this way I would have been destroyed by the Belgian press.”
But Argentina coach Alex Sabella may even take the outburst as a compliment, using it as evidence to prove that his team is much more than just Barcelona superstar Messi.
Team rating: 7
|Argentina have reached their first World Cup semi-final since 1990, when they went on to finish runners-up to West Germany.|
|These teams have met four times in the World Cup, with the Netherlands winning twice and Argentina once, with one draw.|
|Argentina’s victory, in the 1978 final, is their only win against the Netherlands in eight meetings overall (L4 D3).|
The Netherlands’ success is inconvenient for Manchester United as they wait on coach Louis van Gaal to finish his job in Brazil before arriving at Old Trafford, but for the orange army of fans who follow them this World Cup has brought new delights.
They may not have touched the heights of the brilliant 5-1 opening win against Spain but they have demonstrated talent, physical fitness and determination to reach the last four.
Netherlands also have a man with a plan in Van Gaal, as proved when he sent on penalty specialist goalkeeper Tim Krul in place of first-choice Jasper Cillessen to play a vital part in the shootout win against Costa Rica in the quarter-final.
He led from the front, making the big call and, while Arjen Robben has been their inspiration, the Dutch have also shown great physical fortitude to overcome Mexico with two late goals in the searing heat of Fortaleza. They finished stronger than the South American teams.
This team has more colour than the somewhat dour side that lost – and did little to enhance its reputation with an over-physical approach – to Spain in South Africa four years ago, but they have steel as well.
Team rating: 7
Netherlands v Argentina – recent matches
|4 Jul 1998 – Argentina 1-2 Netherlands- International, Olympic Amsterdam|
|31 Mar 1999 – Netherlands 1-1 Argentina- International, Arena Amsterdam|
|12 Feb 2003 – Netherlands 1-0 Argentina- International, Arena Amsterdam|
|21 Jun 2006 – Netherlands 0-0 Argentina- 2006 FIFA World Cup Finals Group C, Commerzbank Arena, Frankfurt|
Why Argentina can win
Two words. Lionel Messi.
Even though he did not score in the quarter-final win against Belgium, coach Sabella was effusive and made no attempt to underplay his importance to Argentina.
He said: “Every move he makes is a sign of hope for us and endangers his opponents, which is what he does beyond scoring goals or not. He is water in the desert – he gives us that. Against Belgium, when the terrain was dry he gave us that breath of fresh air.”
The potential loss of Di Maria to injury would be a setback but add that Messi magic to the steel running through this Argentine team and it gives a formidable combination, able to grind out wins but also capable of producing real inspiration.
Why Netherlands can win
Netherlands are never short of confidence – indeed only over-confidence and fractured relationships within their camp have harmed their chances at previous tournaments.
And in Van Gaal, whose every move is being watched by Manchester United fans eager to appraise their new coach, they have a man who feels he and his team are comfortable on the big occasion.
Van Gaal’s style gives confidence to his players and this vastly experienced figure will have only increased his standing among his squad with that inspired decision to pitch Krul into the penalty shootout against Costa Rica. Brave, bold – but most of all successful.
It was not the act of a maverick but a coach who prepares for specific occasions, saying: “We felt Tim would be the most appropriate keeper to save penalties. Every keeper has specific qualities. Tim has a longer reach and better track record with penalties than Cillessen. “We’re proud this trick has helped us through.”
|Games||Argentina wins||Draws||Netherlands wins||Argentina goals||Netherlands goals|
|World Cup = 4||2||1||1||7||4|
|All comps = 8||4||3||1||13||6|
On the field, Arjen Robben has proved a match-winner and Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder have delivered reminders of their brilliance. They may also be fuelled by the bitter disappointment of losing the final four years ago.
Prediction: Argentina 1-0 Netherlands