FIFA are happy: The semifinals have four teams that everyone deems as fitting in the semifinals: Two European sides, Germany and the Netherlands, and two South American teams including the hosts, Brazil and Argentina, with an option of a classic final no matter who comes out as the winners.
Three teams have world cup titles, 10 between them. The Netherlands, the only non-winner left in the tournament, have been to the finals three times, including four years ago in South Africa.
When you think about it, Argentina really had one golden age of dominance in global football: 1978 to 1990, with three finals and two titles. It’s been 24 years since their previous visit to the final, when it was Germany, or West Germany to be exact, standing in the way of Diego Maradona and his second triumph in the World Cup.
This time it’s Lionel Messi, supposedly at the peak of his powers. He has scored four goals so far in the tournament and even though he didn’t score in the win over Belgium, his presence forced defenses to change and focus on him with two and three players. Argentina may have lost Angel Di Maria. Sergio Aguero might be close to unusable. Ezequiel Lavezzi & Rodrigo Palacio are both strikers who do a lot of great things and can’t score. Gonzalo Higuain isn’t one who shines in big matches. But Pablo Zabalte is carrying his unique form from the Premier League, and there always seems to be enough, either with Messi or without him, to go through.
This is a weird tournament. Argentina were one of the four favorites that we signaled out to go this far, but like the others, it hasn’t been with beautiful football. That just doesn’t exist in this tournament, as it’s unpractical. Naivety doesn’t win you anything. Efficiency and defending well is the basis to everything, and Argentina are passing with flying colors in those tests.
Once the hatred and anger at Camilo Zuniga subsides, Brazil can start focusing on what’s really important: Figuring out how to win without Neymar and Thiago Silva. It probably means Dante next to David Luiz and maybe a third midfielder: Luis Gustavo, Paulinho and Fernandinho together. Scholari isn’t fond of changing formations, but now he has no choice, especially with creativity being at an all-time low considering the poor form of Oscar in this tournament.
Maybe it’s time to think a little bit out of the hat. Hulk is good on the wing, but giving him a free role, considering that his strikers (Fred and Jo) aren’t exactly reliable, might be his best option. Bernard, who hasn’t been used enough or correctly, might be deserving of more minutes.
Brazil haven’t been impressive so far? They might regress even further when it comes to the “beauty” of their match and performances. It doesn’t matter now. Strong defense and fantastic finishing on set pieces, which doesn’t get more European than this, has been something they’ve relied on, and will continue to rely on further.
Favorites? It’s hard to say, especially in this tournament. Germany seemed like the deepest and most flexible team left in the tournament, with the ability to play with or without a striker up front, and have the ability to play attacking football better than anyone else.
Manuel Neuer has been fantastic in this tournament, but not him alone. Mats Hummels is the anchor of this defense, and using Philipp Lahm on the flank instead as a defensive midfielder brought a lot of confidence to the German defense, which should look even better after some shaky minutes early on against France.
Mario Gotze going to he bench isn’t a big disaster, but he might be more suitable to start than Mesut Ozil, who carried on his poor form from the second half of this season, next to Thomas Muller and Miroslav Klose, who started against France. Joachim Low has pulled a couple of surprises so far in this tournament, and the semifinals might be another opportunity for him to show that he’s not just a copycat.
So far, Louis Van Gaal is the head coach of the tournament, especially after knocking out the previous contender, Costa Rica and Jorge Luis Pinto. His brilliant move in the round of 16 in the final 20 minutes to win against Mexico, and his decision to pull out his goalkeeper at the end of extra time to win the penalty shootout.
This team is Arjen Robben. He creates almost everything good that happens offensively. Robin van Persie hasn’t been playing well in the two knockout stage matches. Wesley Sneijder isn’t the same player he was four years ago. Dirk Kuyt is a rare specimen of work rate and tactical flexibility, but he doesn’t win matches.
There’s no real edge, no real deficiency against Argentina. Maybe their adventurous nature when it’s time to win or lose might hurt them against a team that’s a bit more cynical and cautious. However, like Messi, they have a player who can pull off wins on his own, not to mention the confidence that even penalty kicks can’t stop them right now.