After three and half weeks and 159 goals scored, only four teams remain at the World Cup and are just one win away from Sunday’s final at the Maracana. However, despite being so close to glory, none of the four semi-finalists have sailed through the knockout stages as all four have needed extra time in either the second round or the quarter final, with two of them requiring a penalty shootout. None have really taken the tournament by storm or looked the real deal which ultimately means that this World Cup really is there for the taking for any one of them.
Last week, I talked about how Brazil could still emerge as world champions despite the many potential hindrances weighing down on the team’s shoulders. Since then, despite defeating the tournament’s surprise package Colombia, they suffered even more setbacks with the injury to their star player and sporting icon Neymar and the suspension of their captain Thiago Silva. If Germany, their semi-final opponents, could choose any two players in the Brazil team who they wouldn’t want to come up against it would be those two. Their absences are a huge blow to the host nation’s chances.
However, if any team in this tournament has shown that they can overcome setbacks like this, it’s Brazil. Arguably none of the other semi-finalists have come closer to elimination than Brazil, who were pushed all the way by a very resilient and hard-working Chile side in the second round. And with such a passionate and partisan home support backing them from the stands and the streets, they will still be very difficult to stop from winning the tournament even though this is far from being one of Brazil’s strongest ever sides.
Germany are the first team to stand in their way and very few will be surprised that they have made it this far as they seemingly always do. In fact, this is the fourth World Cup in a row in which they’ve made the semi-finals at least. However, on the previous two occasions, they were defeated by the eventual champions and had to settle for third place. Had Germany have won either the semi-final against Italy in 2006 or against Spain in 2010, they would have probably won both of those World Cups. However, as it stands they have not been world champions for 24 years which, by their standards, is about as bad as England’s ever-increasing drought of 48 years (will be 52 years by the time we get to try again).
The way in which they’ve performed in this tournament has been typical of a German side, ruthless and efficient in getting the results required without being the most pleasing team to watch. They’re a bit like the Manchester United of international football, they simply have a knack of doing just enough to get through difficult games when they’re not at their best, which is surprisingly often. As a result, they’re always “there or thereabouts” in major tournaments and are always the most difficult side to eliminate due to their incredible resilience and aforementioned ability to win by doing the bare minimum. However, against Brazil, they won’t be able to get away with doing the bare minimum. It’s a fascinating match-up and sure to be a fascinating contest.
The other semi-final is between two sides who have quite literally stumbled their way through the tournament to reach this stage. So much was expected from Argentina’s array of superstars and in truth, only one has really matched those expectations and that is the biggest of all their superstars, Lionel Messi. Even though they achieved maximum points in their group, they made beating Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria look much harder than it should have been. Bosnia-Herzegovina were the better side for large spells of their group opener, Iran were minutes away from getting a remarkable point against them and Nigeria pegged them back twice before Argentina eventually got over the line. By and large, Messi carried them in those group games.
Against Switzerland in the second round, they were even worse. For nearly 120 minutes, Argentina were lifeless, one-paced and toothless in attack until one moment of quality from Messi and Angel Di Maria (who had been absolutely awful up until that point and that’s putting it kindly) dug them out of another hole. One goal was also enough against Belgium, who failed to test them and put pressure on them enough. Argentina were many people’s pre-tournament favourites to win the competition but out of the four semi-finalists, they have to improve the most in order to achieve that.
However, their opponents Holland haven’t been that great either. Yes they did put the previous world champions Spain to the sword in the opening game but since then, I haven’t been overly impressed. They saw off Chile in the final group game fairly comfortably but in all their other games, against comparatively weak opposition, they have struggled. Against Australia, it was a goalkeeping error which helped them to a narrow 3-2 win. Against Mexico, they were minutes from elimination until two very late goals swung the tie in their favour (the winner being a penalty which they were quite fortunate to be awarded). They also failed to break down the Costa Rican defence in 120 minutes and needed a penalty shootout and a switch of goalkeepers to squeeze their way through.
If they come anywhere close to reaching the standards they set when they demolished Spain, they could very easily win the World Cup and lose their unfortunate title of “the best team never to win it”. However, if they play like they have done in the games against Mexico and Costa Rica, they won’t be going any further. It’s as simple as that. Whilst I did say that Argentina have the biggest room for improvement, Holland also have to step up. Unlike Argentina though, there is evidence of their potential in this tournament. Louis Van Gaal may also have to have another tactical masterstroke or two up his sleeve, but you wouldn’t put it past him. Again, it’s a tough semi-final to call.
So, to sum everything up, here a few reasons why each team can win the World Cup and also a few reasons which may prevent them from winning it. For Brazil, their home support will be a crucial advantage, especially when the team are so close to achieving the dream of winning the World Cup on home soil. How they deal with the absences of Neymar and Thiago Silva will turn out to be decisive. It could either spur them on or completely deflate them. However, I’d hint at the latter being unlikely.
For Germany, it’s their big game experience which will be the biggest factor and also in Thomas Muller, they have the best “number 9″ in the tournament. If he wins the Golden Boot, he will have probably fired Germany to the title. However, in playing against the host nation, they probably have the hardest task of any of the four teams of reaching the final.
For Argentina, they have the motivation of wanting to steal the trophy away from Brazil in their own back yard and of course, they have Messi. If they were to reach the final, it would be difficult to envisage Messi being on the losing side. However, if they are to reach the final, all of their other big names will have to step their game up significantly. They have scored fewer goals than the other three semi-finalists and this is surprising given the firepower they have.
For Holland, they have the potential to destroy any team on the planet in a similar fashion to the way in which they destroyed Spain with style and swagger. However, they don’t produce it often enough. If the Dutch do perform anywhere near to that standard, they will beat Argentina. However, if they don’t they will end up being the latest side to lose 1-0 to Argentina. If that game comes down to whoever can produce one moment of magic, you’d have to back Messi to do it over the likes of Arjen Robben, Robin Van Persie or maybe Wesley Sneijder.
I would still back Brazil to win the World Cup, even without Thiago Silva for the semi-final and Neymar for both the semi-final and the final. The dream scenario would be a Brazil versus Argentina World Cup final, certainly as a neutral that is what I’m hoping for and it would provide the best finale to the best ever World Cup.
Photo: Charles Kerr (via Flickr)