The World Cup is well and truly into the business end of the competition. As the dust settles on the round of 16 there’s been no shortage of drama, controversy and talking points.
The best South American side playing in yellow is not Brazil; Arjen Robben will be closely scrutinized after admitting his penchant for taking a tumble. The European sides haven’t had it easy, but are looking better than South America’s traditional powerhouses, the goalkeeper highlights reel will be replete with wonder saves and the old adage “it ain’t over till it’s over,” still rings true as we’ve seen lots of action right at the death.
Each side are only three games away from lifting the World Cup. Previous winners Germany, Brazil, Argentina and France will be looking to add to their collection whilst Colombia, the Netherlands, Belgium and even Costa Rica are in the mix to join the exclusive club of World Cup winning nations.
Brazil vs. Colombia:
The Seleção was extremely fortunate to go through against Chile, if they perform like that against the World Cup’s most impressive South American side they’ll surely be dumped unceremoniously out of the tournament.
Neymar has declared himself fit, which is a big boost for Brazil. However, the pressure and toll of expectation coupled with the underperformance of his teammates is starting to show on the weary striker. He has consistently delivered for Brazil this World Cup, be it scoring vital goals, to keeping his cool in the penalty shoot-out; Neymar has been far and away Brazil’s best player. It is imperative that Luiz Felipe Scolari squeezes more out of the other Brazilian players and in order to life their collective game. Brazil has had a fair share of fortune in this run, but they can’t win the World Cup relying heavily upon the heroics of Neymar.
The Brazilians will also be without Luiz Gustavo who is suspended for this game. In his absence Scolari will probably opt to bring in Paulinho to partner Fernandinho in midfield. There’s no room for errors now for the Seleção.
José Péckerman’s Colombia has progressed serenely into the quarterfinals and have been playing bright, enterprising attacking football. They also possess one of the bonafide stars of the World Cup in James Rodríguez. The Colombian sensation has scored in each of his World Cup games including THAT stunning strike against Uruguay. No doubt Brazil will look to shut down the Colombian danger man, but they would be wise to focus on Juan Cuadrado too as he has set-up four goals and scored one in the competition. Perhaps an unsung hero in the Colombian ranks has been David Ospina, who has been a calming presence in goal. If anything Colombia’s biggest threat could be their own complacency. Despite all the difficulties the Seleção have experienced, don’t underestimate Luiz Felipe Scolari’s ability to wring a performance out his squad and maximize the support of the Brazilian public. If things fall into place for Brazil then they can upset the rhythm of the Colombians. However, the fact that reasons are being sought to build-up Brazil should tell its own story.
Colombia has no injury concerns or suspensions to worry about and should take the game to the Brazilians as they have the ability, momentum and belief to win. An upset could truly be on the cards.
Prediction: Brazil 1 – 2 Colombia
France vs. Germany:
Germany may go into the clash as favourites, but in all likelihood this will be an extremely tight match between two high quality teams. There’s not much that separates the two keepers. The central defense is strong for the Germans and the French, but the fullback area could be a source of concern. A midfield battle of Paul Pogba, Yohan Cabaye and Blaise Matuidi against Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger is a mouth-watering prospect, whilst in Karim Benzema and Thomas Müller the French and Germans have some of the World Cup’s most potent strikers.
So where could this game be won? The flanks of both teams can be exploited, especially if the fullbacks are instructed to push on. An option for Joachim Löw to solidify one wide area is to switch Philipp Lahm to right or left back, though the German coach is not keen on shifting the Bayern Munich man. French manager Didier Deschamps can possibly reward Antoine Griezmann for his performance against Nigeria with a start whilst keeping the faith with Patrice Evra and Mathieu Debuchy.
Of the two managers Didier Deschamps will be slightly happier with the performances of his players as they cruised through the group stage and showed the necessary strength and character to see off an enterprising Nigeria. It’s been a little bit tougher for Germany who displayed their fragile side against Ghana and needed extra time to get past a pesky Algeria.
Neither side is affected by suspensions, but Germany will be without Shkodran Mustafi who has a thigh injury and will take no further part in the World Cup. This match has all the signs of a match that will go the distance.
Prediction: France 1 – 1 Germany (France to win on penalties)
Netherlands vs. Costa Rica:
On paper this should be a win for the Netherlands, but if this World Cup has proved anything it’s that reputations count for nothing. The Dutch have been on a high after emphatically downing the World Champions, Spain, in the opening game and haven’t looked back. Their togetherness is there for all to be seen and they’ve come through stern tests of character coming from behind to defeat Australia and Mexico. The standout player for the Dutch has been the controversial Arjen Robben and Costa Rica will need to keep a close eye on him if they are to progress.
The Netherlands will be without Nigel de Jong who was injured early on in the match against Mexico and has been ruled out of World Cup. This will cause a reshuffle that could see Daley Blind move into the centre with Dirk Kuyt possibly filling in on the left hand side. Van Gaal could also be without captain Robin van Persie who reportedly exited training with heavy strapping around his left leg. If that’s the case then it will be a big blow to the Dutch, although Klass-Jan Huntelaar has gotten on the scoring sheet and is a serviceable replacement. If van Persie is out, Arjen Robben will shoulder an even greater responsibility. Critical to the Dutch’s success will be Wesley Sneijder. Sneijder opened up his World Cup tally against Mexico, if he can follow that up with another good performance it will bode well for the Netherlands.
It will be interesting to see if Louis van Gaal, who has thus far got everything spot on tactically lines-up with a 3-5-2 or a 4-3-3. His 3-5-2 system has been particularly effective in springing counterattacks against opponents, but if he’s looking to force the play then he may opt for a 4-3-3.
Costa Rica made history the hard way winning a penalty shootout against Greece in a tense match. They will be without Óscar Duarte as a result of suspension and the injured Roy Miller who would have been in line replace Duarte had he been fit. Johnny Acosta could slot in at the back in what should be an otherwise unchanged line-up.
Keylor Navas will be key for the Costa Ricans again. The goalkeeper who has reportedly attracted the attention of Atletico Madrid, missed a training session as a result of a shoulder injury. This was a precautionary measure and he is expected to start the game. Los Ticos will need him to be at 100% against Holland’s formidable attack.
Once again Costa Rica will be a tight unit, but won’t be afraid to attack especially with Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell looking dangerous. It would be easy to write off the Costa Ricans, but they have beaten Uruguay, Italy and eliminated Greece. Los Ticos can’t be taken for granted. What they will need to do is stifle the Dutch attack as the Oranje have scored at least two goals in each of their World Cup matches.
Prediction: Netherlands 3 – 1 Costa Rica
Argentina vs. Belgium:
This is an extremely intriguing encounter with both sides having to come through grueling matches on their path to the quarters. Argentina booked their slot courtesy of a very late goal from Ángel di María, whilst the Belgians had to withstand a late US fight back in a thrilling contest.
Of the two coaches Alejandro Sabella has probably the most cause for concern as Argentina has struggled in this competition. Lionel Messi has been able to bail the Albiceleste on a number of occasions already, but he was kept relatively quiet by the Swiss and Marc Wilmots may wish to copy Ottmar Hitfeld’s ploy. The Swiss as much as they could stationed three players within the proximity of Messi, effectively caging the Argentinean playmaker in a triangle and shutting down the space he could operate in. They were particularly effective pressing when Messi was receiving the ball. Belgium, assuming they play 4-2-3-1, can close down Messi with the likes of Axel Witsel and Moussa Dembélé and one of the attacking quartet coming back to deny the Argentine captain time or space.
Sabella will also have to contend with Marcos Rojo’s suspension. Rojo has been one of Argentina’s better performers and losing him will be a blow. José Basanta is likely to be drafted in, but the left side of Argentina’s flank could be targeted by Belgium. Ángel Di Mária will be hoping to have a better game despite netting the winner for Argentina against the Swiss. He and the other Argentinean attackers such as Gonzalo Higuaín and Ezequiel Lavezzi will need to provide Messi with more support. If they don’t Argentina could be in for a nasty surprise.
Apart from the unfortunate Anthony Vanden Borre, Belgium do not have any injury concerns or any players suspended. Manager Marc Wilmots will effectively have a full squad to pick from. Despite not completely clicking the Belgians have grown in the tournament and Wilmots’ tactical tweaks and substitutions have helped the Red Devils achieve a perfect campaign so far. He has a decision up front to make after Romelu Lukaku netted a much-needed goal against the US. Divock Origi has not let Wilmots down, but Lukaku’s physicality could pose the Argentinean backline a lot of trouble. Marouane Fellaini should start on the bench after a disappointing performance last time out and Dries Mertens could be dropped as well with Kevin Mirallas taking his place.
The last time these two sides faced each other in the World Cup was in 1986 in the semi finals. Argentina on that occasion won 2-0 with a brace from Diego Maradona. Can Lionel Messi carry the torch for this Argentine side and inspire his troops or will Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ underline their World Cup credentials? If they do beat Argentina they’re guaranteed to win the hearts of the locals.
Prediction: Belgium 2 – 1 Argentina (after extra time)