Brazil kept its World Cup dream alive on Friday, but now faces the nightmare scenario of being without its two best players for the semifinal against Germany.
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Friday’s games seemed determined to play on stereotypes: the passionate Latin Americans; the cold Europeans. Brazil showed the best and worst of its game against the overawed Colombians during its 2-1 victory. For the first 45 minutes, the Brazilians were unstoppable – strong in the tackle, fleet of mind and foot, hungry for goals. However, the fact Brazil managed only one goal, from captain Thiago Silva (later to be booked and suspended for the semifinal after a dumb body check on Colombia’s goalkeeper), set up a tense and attritional second half.
Brazil committed 31 fouls during the game, happy to upend the Colombians whenever they threatened to put a passing move together. It was cynical and unpleasant to watch, and both sides’ increasingly physical approach was abetted by a weak referee. The most shocking moment came when Neymar was kneed in the back by Zuniga, a premeditated attack that was worth a five-match ban.
Amazingly, the referee didn’t even brandish a yellow card as Neymar suffered a broken bone in his spine. His World Cup is over, leaving the Brazilians looking for a new talisman.
Amid the madness – at one point Brazil’s defenders were happy to boot the ball anywhere, any pretense at calculated thought long since gone – there was one moment of beauty: a long-range David Luiz free kick that flew unerringly into the top corner of the net. Unstoppable, just like Luiz himself as he raced off to celebrate the goal, neck bulging, eyes ablaze, a man possessed.
Although the tournament’s leading goalscorer, James Rodriguez, pulled a goal back for the Colombians, he endured a difficult night. Roughed up by Brazil’s midfield, he was only able to shine spasmodically and ended the evening crying like a bambino.
It was a frustrating end for the Colombians, who had promised so much but ultimately were found wanting on the biggest stage. They played the occasion as much as they played Brazil, and ultimately paid for their rabbit-in-headlights timidity in the first half.
The Germans are unlikely to be so compliant. In the first quarterfinal, a surprisingly bloodless affair, they scored early and held on pretty comfortably against France.
Again, the relatively inexperienced French seemed unnerved by the occasion and never looked like matching the highs of their 5-2 group stage win over Switzerland.
In a game devoid of many chances, Germany scored from a free kick routine, Mats Hummels showing strength and determination to head the decisive goal. The return of Hummels and Sami Khedira gave the Germans a more organized look than against Algeria – or maybe it was just the decision to bench accident-waiting-to-happen Per Mertesacker that made the defense look less like a tribute to slapstick comedy.
France had more scoring opportunities than the Germans, but whenever it did threaten the imposing figure of German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer was always there to stick out a hand, like some Teutonic superhero. In truth, the French coach Didier Deschamps didn’t seem too disappointed afterward. Now they can look forward to hosting the European Championship in 2016.
The Germans, meanwhile, can look forward to their fourth consecutive semifinal and a repeat of the 2002 World Cup final in Japan, when they lost 2-0 to a Ronaldo-inspired Brazil. If anyone can stop Brazil, you sense it will be die mannschaft (the team) – that same old methodical, clinical, predictable Germany.
There’s invariably one unheralded team in the semifinals (think Uruguay, Portugal, Turkey, South Korea and Croatia from previous tournaments), and Costa Rica will be hoping to be the surprise package this time around. Can the tiny Central American country really beat Netherlands and become just a step away from the final? Not if it plays like it did against Greece, is the simple answer. Arjen Robben and Co. would have been expecting to play a team like Italy or England at this stage, but they, too, will have to play better than during the Round-of-16 victory over Mexico if they want to win the tournament.
The most intriguing quarterfinal sees Argentina face Belgium. The good news for the Europeans is that Tim Howard is not in goal for the South Americans. The bad news is that Leo Messi is going for goal for Argentina. Which Belgium will turn up – the madcap entertainers who beat the United States or the group stage bores? And will Argentina yet again be Leo Messi and 10 others, or will the likes of Gonzalo Higuain finally show up for a game?
We’d love to be proved wrong, but the likelihood is wins for Argentina and Netherlands, setting up a repeat of the 1978 final on Wednesday.