Sunday, July 13, 2014

It takes two to tango ! Semi finals review and Final preview

We are down to the last match now. What a tournament it has been ! Difficult to remember another World Cup which has thrown up so many incredible stories. But before a brief preview of the finals, here's a look back at what happened in the two epoch defining semi-finals.

Brazil 1 - Germany 7.  It was quite clearly the most shocking scoreline in the history of football. It left so many of us, and not just Brazilians, dazed for a very long time. During the match, I felt this was the worst collapse by a home team in a semi-final, since India's collapse vs Sri Lanka at the Eden Gardens in 1996. I had expected Germany to win, but not like this. A lot of post-mortems have been written, but perhaps this is the most erudite one of them all was this by David Goldbratt. The myth of Brazil, Joga Bonito and the beautiful game had been well and truly busted. Before the World Cup began, I had done some research on Brazil & Argentina, their football culture, tradition and the rivalry here, and the thing about Brazil is the conflict between Futeball Arte vs Futebal Force - the beautiful game vs the football of force and power. Clearly, since 1982 (2002 notwithstanding), Brazil has clearly moved towards physical, pragmatic, functional football, but then they have reached a new nadir now. This is the sad summary. 
Intolerably Cruelty
Kolkata refuses to identify this Brazil
And what about Ze Germans ? Magnificent in their ruthlessness on the night, and more on them later.

Argentina 0 - Netherlands 0 (Arg win on penalties).  After the events of Belo Horizonte, there was no way that either of the two teams would take any risks and so it proved. The game was dominated by the defenses and the defensive midfielders. Messi, for once was completely marked out and Robben too had minimal impact. Javier Mascherano (and Ron Vlaar too) was the outstanding player of the game and it was this epic tackle very, very late into the game, which prevented a Robben shot on goal and saved Argentina's world cup campaign.
Putting the ditch in Last Ditch
The match went to penalties. Louis van Gaal couldn't bring on Tim Krul this time and Sergio Romero's heroics in goal brought Argentina into their first final since 1990. The Dutch have had a good tournament this time, Arjen Robben has been superb (and after defeating Brazil 3-0 in the playoff, they deserve the 3rd place in the tournament).

Germany - Argentina : The Final Preview

Germany: German football has been on the up ever since Klinsmann and Joachim Loew took charge of the national team before the 2006 World Cup in Germany. They have reached the S/F in 2006, losing to Italy; Finals of the 2008 Euro losing to Spain; S/ F in 2010 World Cup, losing to Spain; and the S/F of Euro 2010 - this time losing to Italy again. This can be looked at in two ways - great consistency or lacking the killer instinct to actually win the whole thing. For a generation of fabulous footballers, who play a very nice, attractive brand of football - history beckons. In Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Neuer, Muller, Klose, Ozil, Kroos, Hummels and co, this is a fabulous group of footballers - clearly the best overall squad among all the teams. Here Honigstein writes about this group finding the right balance, while Marcotti here on what is needed for one last push.

Argentina: This really is the nightmare scenario of all Brazilians. Having to witness an Argentina - Germany final after getting thrashed by Germany in the semis is like having a cricket world cup in India with India thrashed by Australia in the semis and seeing Pakistan reach the final too. This is that bad. In any case, a team which started off as a one man team, has now grown in stature and confidence and is playing with incredible belief. Messi took them through to the quarter finals but from then on, the rest of the team has stepped up. Javier Mascherano has been immense, Higuain has played well in patches and should Angel di Maria get fit to play - this would be an even more equal contest. Their defense has also held steady and they have turned themselves into a very hard team to beat. But really, it is all about Messi. As Jonathan Wilson writes, even when he doesn't play well - he occupies two to three players of the opposition thereby giving breathing space for this team-mates to play.

Clearly Alexando Sabella's Argentina lack the fluency and overall control that the Germans have demonstrated, but their grim resolve and fighting spirit to win close matches makes them worthy contenders. It is easy to make the narrative of the final as a match-up between "The Best Team in the World" vs "The Team with the Best Player in the World", but Germany vs Argentina is a little more than that. Germany would like to finally, go out and win the cup, that has eluded this "golden generation" of uber-talented players. There really is no great fun in being the nearly men of world football for five straight major tournaments running. And Lionel Messi and Argentina await them - waiting for the right moments to seize in a winner take-all contest. I suspect the match could be decided on fine margins. Will the Germans decide to man-mark Messi ? Probably not - and not out of their ego, but rather their belief in their overall team game. And if they don't do that, perhaps that will provide Messi and his team, that window of opportunity - to make the difference.

This has been a fabulous tournament in general. The knock-out stages, barring the blow-out at Belo Horizonte, has been extremely tight though. A memorable final, with goals scored by both teams, would be a fitting end to this edition of the World Cup. May the best team win !
It's Up For Grabs Now !
PS: Bonus Reading 1) This wonderful post by an Argentine journalist on why she is going back home to watch the final ; 2) The Best Preview of the final by Brian Phillips: Man vs Machine.

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