Less than a week remains in the FIFA World Cup now, and the tournament has been whittled down to the final four teams. The quarterfinals were another rousing series of games, continuing the pattern that this World Cup has consistently offered. Again, there was little surprise in the victors, but some of the games were tantalizingly close.
The most even matchup of the quarterfinals was between France and Germany. Both teams had several attacking chances, with possession divided evenly between them throughout the match. France had a majority of shots with Karim Benzema leading the charge, but France was unable to get any balls past Manuel Neuer. Germany, however, gained the upper hand early on in the 13th minute. Mats Hummels put Germany up 1-0 with a header to the right. Hummels’ goal was what separated the two sides after the match, sending Germany on to the semifinal against Brazil. While France will be disappointed at their exit in the quarterfinal, they should be proud. The French team played much better and more attractive football than in 2010 and 2012, and showed a renewed spirit throughout the tournament.
Meanwhile, the three South American teams left in the tournament fought hard to keep their continent represented in the semifinals. Argentina, facing one of the strongest Belgian teams in recent times, went through on a goal from Gonzalo Higuain in the 8th minute, but continued to show a lack of pace that could potentially hurt them against a stronger team. Much of the game was a high tempo back and forth affair. The Belgians frequently pressed the Argentina defense, while the combination of Messi, Higuain, and Angel di Maria surged on the counterattack. However, Argentina was still lackluster, with Higuain’s lone goal being what put them through to the semifinal. The result might be considered good enough, but Argentina has had arguably the easiest path to the semifinals and has struggled throughout. Their group stage opponents were Nigeria, Iran, and Bosnia, and yet Argentina only prevailed by one goal each game. In the quarterfinal, Switzerland was able to hold the Argentines to a draw into extra time and nearly took the match to penalties. And now against Belgium, Argentina showed a lack of pace in the second half as Belgium came close to an equalizer many times. The Netherlands are likely going to present a real challenge to the Argentines if they don’t step up their play.
Speaking of the Dutch, they faced a surprisingly difficult challenge from Costa Rica in their route to the semifinals on July 5. The Ticos used the same offside trap that was so effective against the Greeks against the Netherlands, and it was just as effective at shutting down the Dutch attack. While Robben and Van Persie were effectively neutralized, so was the Costa Rican attack. Costa Rica played almost entirely defensively, only occasionally sending more than one player forward into the Dutch third of the field. Costa Rica had few chances, but with 11 offside calls during the match, so did the Dutch. The match remained goalless at the end of regular time. To extend their already impressive feat, Costa Rica continued to hold the Dutch to zero goals into the penalty shootout. The Netherlands in a surprise substitution brought on backup keeper Tim Krul just for the shootout. Krul emerged as the hero for the Netherlands as he blocked two of Costa Rica’s penalties to put the Dutch through 4-3. Nonetheless, Costa Rica’s achievement in the tournament should be celebrated. Their keeper, Keylor Navas, now has the best record of any keeper of this World Cup, with 21 saves and only 2 goals conceded throughout the entire tournament.
The most controversial match of the quarterfinals will likely be the Brazil-Colombia match. With an underperforming Brazil side that squeaked past Chile in the round of 16 on penalties and a much improved Colombian side that looked to be one of the best playing teams in the tournament, it was bound to be an exciting match. However, Brazil played with a fresh vigor that they had not showed at all during the World Cup, and Colombia was pressed into their own half from the start. Thaigo Silva put Brazil up early in the 7th minute, with a close header from the back post off a corner. In the second half, Brazil put another past David Ospina despite improved performance from Colombia, as David Luiz launched a 35 yard free kick into the top of the net. Colombia bounced back though, earning a penalty kick in the 80th minute. James Rodriguez converted it, netting his sixth goal and putting name on the scoresheet for every game Colombia has played in this World Cup. Brazil kept Colombia at bay to the final whistle, winning the match 2-1 and earning their place in the semifinal. However, the match against Germany could be difficult for the Seleção. Thiago Silva will sit out the semifinal as the Brazilian captain earned his second yellow card of the tournament in the 64th minute. In another unfortunate incident, Colombian defender Juan Camilo Zuñiga landed his knee on Neymar’s lower back during a rough challenge. Zuñiga was not carded for the incident, but Neymar was taken off the field on a stretcher. The Brazilian striker suffered a fractured vertebra and will be out for the next few weeks, missing the rest of the World Cup. Despite an appeal from Brazil, FIFA declined to discipline Zuñiga further as the foul had been called by the referee and it was clear Zuñiga was not intentionally trying to injure Neymar.
The semifinal is now set up as a continental clash with Brazil and Argentina facing off against Germany and the Netherlands, respectively. Which teams have made it to the semifinal should not come as a surprise. However, there is a possibility of a relative upset in the final. With the performance of these four teams, there is a real possibility that the South American fortress on their home continent could finally be broken. The Dutch and German teams have been the best of the tournament so far, while Brazil and Argentina have been relatively lackluster given the expectations for a South American hosted World Cup. It is a not insignificant possibility that there could be a revival of the old Netherlands-Germany rivalry in the final in the Maracana on the 13th. If this happens, it would be a rematch of 1974, the first time the Netherlands reached the final. As it stands, the two semifinal matches – Germany-Brazil and Netherlands-Argentina – will be rematches of the 2002 and 1978 finals. In both of those finals, the European team lost out to the South American team. With Europe looking for a triumph in South America, both semifinal matches will no doubt be thrilling spectacles.