World Cup quarter-finals: Expect the unexpected
Fight for soccer’s ultimate prize still a guessing game
I have three horses still running. How about you?
You didn’t need a rocket scientist to predict Brazil, Argentina, and Germany would all reach the quarter-finals of the FIFA World Cup. My fourth, Spain, pulled up lame weeks ago. Everyone’s dark horse, Belgium, is galloping along nicely with two big fences left to jump.
It always was, and remains, Brazil’s World Cup to lose. The very health of a nation depends on it. Yet the host has ‘won’ only two of its four matches to date. Mexico blanked the Brazilians in the group stage, and Chile gave them all they could handle before a shootout finally settled their Round of 16 encounter.
Colombia is next in line. Of all the South American contingent at this World Cup it is Colombia that has impressed me the most. James Rodriguez has been its biggest star, but like Messi with Argentina, Los Cafeteros is not a one-man band.
Colombia has won each of its four games and looked comfortable in every match. It has conceded just two goals while plundering 11 at the other end of the field. It has creative flair and speed, while 38-year-old veteran Mario Yepes has marshalled his defensive corps with discipline and bravery.
There is no doubt in my mind Colombia has all the tools to ruin Brazil’s party. The only question is one of belief. Can coach Jose Pekerman, who led his native Argentina to the last eight in 2006, convince his players they can win on Brazilian soil — an outcome that would plunge an entire country into mourning?
In Pekerman’s homeland, the belief is already strong. Argentina has looked anything but convincing at times but ultimately you can’t argue with four straight wins. And you can’t argue that Lionel Messi hasn’t shown up this time. Game after game he has shown us just enough magic to make the difference.
The supporting cast has also played its part. Angel Di Maria, in particular, has helped relieve the burden on Messi but the solidity of the backline remains in doubt. Belgium’s Golden Generation will surely pose more serious questions and hope they did not use up all their scoring chances against the Americans.
The Red Devils represent an interesting statistic. Despite the early departures of Spain, Italy and England, to name a few, Europe still accounts for 50 per cent of quarter-finalists. France and Germany will need no introduction at the Maracana, a game which will guarantee a European team in the final four.
As usual the Germans have progressed but something’s amiss. The well-oiled machine is not firing on all cylinders with a series of laboured performances against Ghana, the US and Algeria. In contrast, French coach Didier Deschamps has brought back a certain swagger to Les Bleus. Karim Benzema is buzzing again, and Paul Pogba is Patrick Vieira’s heir apparent.
Finally, the fairy tale. All good things must come to an end, and for plucky Costa Rica — the World Cup’s underdog success story — it surely finishes at the hands of the Dutch. It is tough to imagine Robin van Persie having two quiet games in a row while Arjen Robben has been a revelation.
Yet this is a World Cup where the stereotypes have been torn up. Do as I do — expect the unexpected and you won’t go far wrong.