I’ve said before that this has been the best World Cup in recent memory. If you’re a fan of Cinderella, you might disagree.
You know how in the NCAA basketball tournament, there’s always a slew of upsets in the early rounds, but by the time the Final Four rolls around, more often than not it’s comprised of four really good teams that were expected to be there? Well, this World Cup is a bit like that.
What I mean is that we have a “final four” that consists of teams that are superstars in world football, and one would even say pre-World Cup favorites in Brazil, Germany, Netherlands and Argentina. They’re also all in some way flawed, making it difficult to predict what will happen or who will emerge. Though I’m out of the prediction biz (which is just as well, since all four of my “America’s next team” picks lost in the last round), there are four very, very good teams left in this tournament. One of them is going to win the World Cup, and I have no idea which one it will be.
Let’s take a look at Tuesday’s semi-final.
Brazil v. Germany
Tuesday, July 8, 4:00 p.m., Estádio Mineirão, Belo Horizonte (ESPN)
As tempting as it may be to market this as “German efficiency vs. The Beautiful Game,” in truth neither team are living up to their football stereotype in this World Cup. Brazil has mostly abandoned the free-flowing dynamic soccer that led to the phrase the beautiful game; Brazil spent most of its Round of 16 match against Chile hoofing the ball up the pitch via long passes. Though Felipe Scolari knows how to play sambafut he has clearly (and rightfully) decided that he lacks the personnel in this current Brazilian team to play in that particular style. Pragmatism is more important: in a Brazilian World Cup with this much pressure, if the choice comes down to playing great football or winning, there’s no doubt what the answer is.
But this overshadows the elephant in the room. Brazil lost their best player, top goal scorer, and talisman to a cracked vertebrae in Friday’s match against Colombia, an injury that will keep him out for the rest of the World Cup and possibly even longer. This is, quite frankly, disastrous for the Seleçao, as Brazil has relied upon his production to get even this far. Even with Neymar, Brazil should not have been considered shoo-ins for the World Cup title. Take away Neymar, and add in the one-game suspension of captain Thiago Silva, and the job becomes that much more difficult.
It’s not clear exactly what Scolari will do to mitigate the loss of Neymar. It’s thought that Willian will likely replace Neymar in the starting lineup, though Willian is less likely to create his own shot and more willing to put in the killer through-ball that sets up his teammates. This puts more pressure on striker Fred, who has been apt to drop deep in a supporting role to Neymar up until now.
It’s gut-check time for Brazil. Despite a team oozing with talent, too often it’s seemed as though the team has sat back and waited for Neymar to make some magic. Now someone has to step up in his absence, but it’s just not clear who that’s going to be.
Germany, by contrast, now sense blood in the water. Joachim Löw’s side has shaken off some defensive frailties and the lack of a true striker on the squad to make an impressive deep run into the semifinals. As shaky as the Germans looked at times against Ghana, a thrilling match that ended in a 2-2 draw, it must be said that they looked equally as magnificent in matches against Portugal, USA, and perhaps most impressive of all, a 1-0 quarterfinal victory over an outstanding French side.
This is not your typical German team, either. Whereas in previous Cups Germany has ridden the talents of Miroslav Klose, at age 36 he’s no longer a player Germany can hang its collective Alpine hat on. This German side features a wealth of attacking midfield talent, leading to several notable “striker-less/false nine” formations, and is oddly for a German team a little wobbly at the back, susceptible to long balls over the top if the defensive line is pushing up high.
While many had counterintuitively picked Germany to be one of the teams most ripe for the picking in the early knock-out rounds, wins over a resilient Algeria and France have indicated that the Group of Death has galvanized this German squad. Now, they have the opportunity to take down a wounded Brazil in the semi-finals in their own country. Don’t expect Germany to sit back and counter.
More likely, they’ll come out and try and punch Brazil in the nose. The midfield tandem of Thomas Muller and Meszut Özil is still as imposing as ever, and with Brazil seemingly lacking its scoring punch with Neymar out, it’s possible that Andre Schurrle will come into the side at the expense of Klose. Even a wounded Brazil is not a team you want to take chances with defensively, so it seems likely that Löw will move Miroslav Klose back to his normal position of right back after experimenting with him in the midfield.
This is an extremely intriguing match-up of world football heavyweights.Throw previous match results out the window -- with Neymar out and Germany riding a wave of confidence, it would seem as though the Germans have the advantage. But this is Brazil, and Brazil does not countenance losing in a Brazilian World Cup. With the stakes this high, it would be foolish not to pay attention.