Tuesday, July 8, 2014

And then there were four

Last time, when we took a break, after the group stages, so many of us were saying what a fun World Cup it was. Well, the knock out stages so far have been a lot more dark and grim. The World Cup just become very, very serious indeed. Here's a quick recap:

The Round of Sixteen

Brazil v Chile: Rarely, if ever, have I seen a more frenzied atmosphere at the start of a match...... Watch this clip to see how the players and more amazingly the little kids who are the mascots - belt out the Brazilian national anthem at the start of the match. The match was tough, physical and demanding with Chile pressing as hell, and Brazil responding in kind. It went down the penalties and a tearful Julio Cesar emerged winner for Brazil sending the host nation into immense relief. And while Chile lost, I think I saw the best penalty ever from one of their players.
Colombia v Uruguay: James (called HAMEZ) Rodriguez starred for the Colombians including scoring probably the goal of the tournament, to overcome a lackluster Uruguay missing the bite of Suarez in attack.
Netherlands vs Mexico: Mexico played the better, and led the match for a large part, but Robben inspired Netherlands to a terrific comeback to sneak through. While the debate rages on, Robben's diving, the match which saw the first official water break in a world cup match, also showcased once more the tactical acumen of Louis van Gaal - who as Jonathan Wilson points out here, is compromising on idealism to win matches.
Costa Rica v Greece: Probably the most low key clash in the Round of Sixteen, but this developed into a classic as both played out an interesting draw 1-1 after FT and ET, with the Costa Ricans led by their brilliant keeper Keylor Navas - one of the heroes of the world cup - winning the penalty shoot out.
France v Nigeria: Both teams played quite well, in this reasonably entertaining game, but the French class eventually proved too much for the Nigerians as they ran out 2-0 winners within regulation time.
Germany v Algeria: The Germans, still struggling on their best combination and where to play Phillip Lahm, struggled against an impressive Algerian team. Both teams failed to score in 90, but the Germans eventually prevailed 2-1 in Extra Time.
Argentina v Switzerland: A still dysfunctional Argentina, rode their luck, especially in the first half to edge out a dramatic late, late winner into injury time, then rode some more luck before the final whistle to win against the gallant Swiss team. Messi once more though, played .... rather well.
 Belgium v USA: Tim Howard was magnificent in goal for the USA, but still could not prevent Belgium as another match went into extra time,

And so, the round of sixteen saw, 2 matches going into penalties and a further three into extra time. One other was settled deep into stoppage time of regulation time. The matches were tight, and the free goal-scoring of the group stages became a distant memory. But wait, the world cup was about the get a lot more darker now.

Quarter Finals: And so we arrived at the last eight, in a World Cup where you could not make sense

France v Germany: It never materialized into the classic that so many of us expected it to be. The French midfield, so effective till now, got smothered by the Germans completely. While the Germans could not translate their dominance into more goals - this was a rather comfortable 1-0. Best part about this match-up ? This cartoon ...
Brazil v Colombia: Compared to the rather tepid previous match, this match was a sight to behold in terms of its physicality, and sheer violence as it appeared to me - watching way past midnight. In the end, Brazil got through, but after paying a huge cost - in terms of losing their talisman Neymar to injury for the rest of the World Cup. While one view says, they reaped what they had sown, in terms of their physical approach and constant fouling, there is also an alternate view - which says that the allegations against them might not be factually accurate. It was the end of the road for both Neymar and HAMEZ Rodriguez as the star of the world cup so far bid goodbye but not before giving another superb performance and goal.
Massive Respect
Argentina v Belgium: Argentina played rather well, with Gonzalo Higuain hitting some form and scoring the winning goal against Belgium - a team that did not quite add up to be the sum of their parts. Messi was quietly understated in his brilliance - but this pass to Angel Di Maria will remain in memory for a long time.  The sad part is that it appears Di Maria might have got injured after attempting a shot post that pass, and Argentina will miss him badly if he does not recover on time. And this pic of mascots wishing Messi good luck before the match is quite some sight.
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When you meet your idol !
Netherlands vs Costa Rica: This wasn't expected to be that difficult for the Dutch, but the phenomenal spirit and organization of Los Ticos made them worthy opponents as they prevented the Dutch from scoring for 120 minutes. Louis van Gaal's substitution to bring in Tim Krul just before the penalty shoot-out however proved to be inspirational as the Dutch saw off the brave Costa Ricans - just about - in the penalties. The last of the underdogs - thus departed - undefeated during regulation and extra time having played against - Uruguay, Italy, England, Greece and the Netherlands - a phenomenal achievement.

The Semi-Finals: The Sign of Four
And so we are down to the final four. As big names go, this is one of the most blockbuster semi-final line-ups of all time. My friend Suhel nicely summed up the history of the two semi-finals and the possible final match-up in this tweet.

It is quite clear that with four big names - history will be repeated and made when the semi-finals and the final take place. And curiously enough, this is the first time ever that both Brazil and Argentina have qualified for the semi-final.

Brazil v Germany: The question really is will a Neymar (& a suspended Thiago Silva) less Brazil be able to rely on a passionate crowd and a super-charged atmosphere to see off a German team - which is beginning to control matches. For all the talk of Samba football and Joga Bonito, the Brazillians have played AND won ugly before, and they are prepared to do it once again as they take on this German side filled with players of a golden generation who must also prepare to win at all cost, or else be remembered as eternal runners-ups.  The stakes have rarely been higher. In a world cup, which has gone dark and bloody - like a George R R Martin book, this one will be A Song of Ice and Fire.

Argentina v Netherlands: If the Brazil-Germany match is a battle of the ice cool Germans vs the Fiery Brazilians - this one in GoT terms is A Clash of Kings. Messi v Robben - two of the best players in the tournament and indeed in the world have largely carried their teams through till here. There is enough and more fire-power in both teams, but stop their two main players and the task will be a lot easier. Messi has played a lot deeper this tournament - more like a classical Argentine no 10, than the false 9 position that he often plays at Barca, and the focus will be squarely on him as he leads Argentina into the unfamiliar place of a World Cup Semi-final - their first in, believe it or not, 24 years. And what about the Dutch, we really don't know what to make of them. While I had earlier linked a piece of Louis van Gaal, compromising ideology for success, there are some who are saying that this is the most Dutch team of the last 40 years. The key being their improvisation.

What do I predict ? Nothing. A Brazil - Argentina final is the most scary thought ever... but somehow I don't think it will happen.... We are still missing a truly great team to emerge from this World Cup, but we can continue to hope for at least a truly great performance, or at least a truly great match.

And so to summarize the tournament, with once again some of the best pieces that I came across. Firstly, more than ever, this world cup has become a tournament for individuals and individual brilliance. But for all the brilliant men, there are unsung heroes too who must be celebrated, here are four of them. This has been a world cup of keepers' too, here is a Top 10 list of super custodians. And finally, this World Cup started off brilliantly, but it may be in danger of petering out, unless the last 3 matches give us some classics.

PS: If you like numbers and stuff and/ or if you like Messi, this will blow your mind.

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