Everyone had a favourite they backed to win the World Cup before the tournament began. Most people’s early tips are still in the running as well, the hosts, Brazil, perennial contenders Germany, two-time champions Argentina, and last tournament’s runners-up, the Dutch. Three matches are left now, and the time has come for definitive predictions. But really, a number of factors have left a lot of people trepidatious about doing this; injuries to Neymar and Di Maria, the continued precarious success of Louis van Gaal’s tactical interventions, and largely sluggish quarter final performances by Germany and Holland have all turned the penultimate round into one shrouded in uncertainty. Who can say that Brazil will be able to overcome the Germans without their talisman? Can anyone be certain that Messi will again fire Argentina to victory over The Netherlands? Of course, absolute certainty is an illusion when it comes to football, but even a sense of likelihood is hard to discern here, in favour of any team. So, with that mind, here are my absolutely definitive predictions for the semi-finals. You can bet your house on it, people (note: you should not bet your house, flat and/or semi-detached townhouse on these predictions).
Germany v Brazil
A tie defined by an absent man. The national grief, the embattled sense of desperation, the gaping vacuum that’s there to be filled, it will either make or break Brazil’s World Cup campaign. Brazil have the depth to survive the loss of their Number 10; Willian, Bernard, Hulk and Oscar (and…*gag*…Fr…Fred) are still a formidable front line, though Willian apparently went down grimacing in training the other day. Brazil may even opt to play ultra defensive and field Ramires in a more advanced, Mourinho-centric role with the intention of defending from the front.
Thiago Silva’s absence in this match may be a bigger factor for the hosts; he has been excellent in the tournament so far, scoring in the last game. A centre back pairing of Dante and David Luiz doesn’t exactly instil utter confidence. Still, with the crowd throroughly behind them, and Luiz Gustavo returning from suspension, Brazil can rally. The Germans haven’t exactly been potent in a attack since the Portugal rout in the group stages, their quarter final win over France was rather less than emphatic. German supporters are claiming this as evidence of an essential grit the Germans possess, a maturity and focus. Though that may be true, the Germans had far fewer shots and shots on target than their opponents, and Miroslav Klose looked blunt in the extreme. On top of this, Ozil had a poor game, Gotze has been having a bad tournament and Neuer can hardly be expected to make the saves he made against the French every time out. The Brazilians are strong in the air, so expecting another goal from a set piece might be a little hopeful. Thomas Muller will be the focus of the Brazilian defence; the Raumdeuter’s elegant drifting and sharp finishing are always a threat. But if the goal-scoring onus then falls to Andre Schurrle, he had better improve his finishing. He had two gilt-edged opportunities to finish off the French on the break and shot weakly on both occasions. They may be regretting not bringing another centre forward along with Klose. Though grabbing the all time World Cup scoring record from Ronaldo while playing Brazil would be an unbelievable story, it’s one that’s unlikely to eventuate for old Miro.
Joachim Low has been heavily involved with this German national team for three World Cups and one would think he has it finely tuned enough by now. If the Brazilians can’t score early, and the game settles, then they will panic without Neymar, their skeleton key. The Germans will take possession and look to overpower, even if that means a narrow victory. I can’t see past a night of heartbreak for the hosts. The Germans will grind out a victory, by a single goal, and Brazil’s home tournament will end in heartbreaking anguish. The stadium will be submerged in the tears of the faithful.
Argentina v The Netherlands
This match is just as evenly matched, as enigmatic. The Dutch have been smugly championing the improvisational brilliance of their coach, Louis van Gaal, because of his (in hindsight, quite ridiculous) decision to replace his goalkeeper in the quarter final penalty shoot-out against Costa Rica. Tim Krul came in, shouted at the opposition shooters, then saved two penalties. “A masterstroke, a masterstroke!” the Dutch cried. Van Gaal has had an answer to every tactical roadblock he’s faced. But, hold on let’s think about who the Dutch have faced so far: a retched Spain, the plucky Aussies, a strong Chile side, the unfancied Mexicans in the Round of 16, then Cinderella minnows Costa Rica, who almost beat them. It’s hardly a laundry list of world footballing superpowers. Against Lionel Messi’s Argentina, probably the second most supported nation at the World Cup, they will be coming up against a two-time World Cup winner, the most intimidating front line (even without Angel Di Maria) and the best player in the world. Sergio Aguero is apparently fit to play against the Netherlands as well, which boosts the South Americans’ chances considerably.
Arjen Robben was excellent against Costa Rica, but even his quicksilver running and confident shooting couldn’t win it for the Dutch in regulation. Robin van Persie seems to have faded since the opening matches, Wesley Snjeider runs hot and cold, and there are some key injuries, Nigel de Jong’s in particular. The Oranje survived Costa Rica without him, but Argentina are on a higher level. The AC Milan midfielder has shown he is much more than the karate-kicking bulldog, and is normally a mainstay in van Gaal’s midfield. His World Cup has been cut short by a groin injury. The Duracell Bunny, Dirk Kuyt, might be utilised by van Gaal to fill the gap, because that man can play anywhere and put a helluva shift in. But will it be enough?
For Argentina, Di Maria’s absence is a blow, but not one that shatters their prospects. The concerning factor is that in the win over Belgium in the quarters, the most fluid interplay was between Messi and Di Maria and even after the Madrid man went off, Ezequial Lavezzi found it difficult to link up concertedly with Messi. A hopeful sign is Gonazalo Higuain discovering that predatory sense that has given him his sniper reputation. His finish for the goal against the Belgians reeked of a striker hitting a groove, instinctual, confident, carefree. He’ll be as high on life right now as he has been all tournament.
If we were to take their quarter final performances as any indication, Argentina would be in front, by a nose. But then again, Argentina haven’t faced an attack as potent as the Dutch’s. Argentina conceded 2 goals against Nigeria, but they were bailed out by three of their own. Arjen Robben and Lionel Messi will wage a personal battle of who can drag their teams to victory here, and Messi will win that battle. So, Argentina will win this semi-final, 2-1, with Messi scoring the winner. The Barcelona maestro will continue his superlative form and hoist his nation up onto his shoulders once again.
So, there you have it. Leave your thoughts in the comments below on whether you agree or disagree with my predictions. If I get this horribly wrong, it won’t matter much. I just want a couple of electrifying semi-finals.