Friday, July 02, 2010

At Close Quarters

And so we get down to the business end of things: the quarter-finals are upon us. By rights, the tournament's most important action should be crammed into one-eighth of its matches though that's not always the case, as the drab petering-out of the 1994 and 2002 World Cups at this stage proved. Three of this weekend's four ties look enthralling, even if the Netherlands v Brazil could possibly be smothered out by two highly-organised sides with two holding midfielders each. That would be a shame, as the two countries, in their three World Cup finals matches to date have each time served up one of the matches of the tournament. Their first meeting in 1974 in Dortmund signalled the Dutch's definitive arrival as a force in world football. They prized apart the World champions, who resorted to an unusually physical game. I was reminded of this listening to a Dutch journalist speaking on the Guardian podcast earlier was pessimistic about the Dutch chances, particularly regarding Arjen Robben, whom he said would be double-gamed and 'kicked wherever he can be kicked' by Felipe Melo.

Other great matches took place in Dallas in 1994, where a squabbling Dutch side, mediocre until then and fortunate to beat Ireland 2-0 in the last 16, finally found their feet and pushed Brazil all the way, succumbing in the end 3-2 to the combined genius of Romario and Bebeto. Four years later in Marseille, Guus Hiddink's fantastic team looked like they would put an end to their twenty years of hurt, but although they outplayed Brazil for much of the match, they needed a Patrick Kluivert goal two minutes from time to save the game and when the match went to penalties, everybody knew one team was going to win.

The Dutch have been largely uninspiring so far without ever really being threatened in any of the four matches they have played. Their defensive approach hasn't pleased fans but they have done the minimum, which was surely always going to be to survive till this inevitable match. Bert van Marwijk has praised his defence, noting that the only two goals they have conceded yet were from the penalty spot. But there were a few hairy moments in the second half against Slovakia and they relied on a pair of fine saves by Maarten Stecklenburg to maintain their lead. Had the Slovaks expressed a greater deal of urgency, they could well have been in trouble. The prospect of Maicon bearing down on Giovanni van Bronckhorst is also an alarming one. While I hope the Dutch sneak this one, and save the whole world from another Brazil win, I think it will be beyond them.

Uruguay and Ghana looks a far more open game. The South Americans look by far the better team on paper but they way they surrendered control of the game in the second half against South Korea should provide some cause for concern. Ghana did fantastically well against the United States (and probably should have pushed Germany more than they did) but they still have the scoring problem. At least against the US they got off the mark from open play though their two goalscorers Kevin-Prince Boateng and the brilliant Asamoah Gyan are uncertain to start today due to injury. I would expect Uruguay to take it narrowly but if Ghana get that lift of playing for a whole continent that clearly gave them the edge against the US, they could become the first ever African team to make the semi-finals. Whoever wins, I will be happy.

Argentina and Germany is another chapter in a Titanic saga of World Cup football. Though the Argentines scarcely harbour the same enmity for the Germans as they do for England, this is a definite grudge match. The two countries faced off successively in one of the best World Cup finals ever (1986) and one of the worst (1990). Argentina had two players sent off in the latter and went down to a non-existent penalty converted by Andreas Brehme. Four years ago in Berlin, the majestic gallop of José Pekerman's side was curbed by the hosts, in what was a bit of a shock at the time. To be fair, the Argentines were much the better side in that game but a puzzling attempt to defend a lead, against the Germans of all people, backfired and a Miroslav Klose goal pulled the match into extra time. Then there's the famous story of Jens Lehmann's secret list of Argentine penalty kickers and the mass brawl that broke out after his winning save.

So far both sides have been among the best in the tournament, though it is difficult to gauge exactly good either are. Argentina benefited from a pitifully weak first round group and an offside goal by Carlos Tevez broke the spirit of Mexico in the last 16. That said, they have won all matches handsomely and Lionel Messi is having a stellar tournament, and surely it's only a matter of time before he finds the net. Germany have been hugely impressive in hammering hapless Australia and England, and less convincing against Serbia or Ghana. It's interesting that the Germans, previously the villains of the piece at almost every World Cup are now a side almost universally popular. It certainly helps that the rather one-dimensional football deployed by Jurgen Klinsmann four years ago and by Joachim Löw at Euro 2008 has been discarded in favour of a more dynamic counter-attacking game. The Germans are fearsome going forward and with three dodgy Argentine defenders in Samuel, Gutierrez and Dimechelis, the albiceleste could be in big trouble before they even get on the target. That said, the Germans are far from perfect at the back either. I think this one could be a 2-2 draw and then go to penalties. And we know who always wins on penalties...

The we have Spain, who have been winning relatively ugly too. Like the Dutch, they should be happy enough to get to the quarter-finals and open up the way for their first semi-final (if you discount the final 4-group stage they contested in 1950). After a rickety start they have grown in composure, even if Fernando Torres' continual inclusion remains questionable; Athletic Bilbao's Fernando Llorente looked the part against Portugal and should prove a sharper tool in unpicking the Paraguayan defence. Paraguay are a team notoriously difficult team to beat (and a 0-0 draw against them in Saint-Étienne in 1998 effectively put Spain out of that tournament) but also a wretched team to watch. With the exception of Tunisia, Paraguay have been involved in the greatest number of dire World Cup matches I have had the misfortune to see. I haven't been convinced of their worth in this tournament either; they were incapable of stringing three passes together against Italy and scoreless draws against New Zealand and Japan are hardly the stuff of champions, even if they did deserve to go through against the Japanese. Paraguay have conceded only one goal so far and one will probably be all the Spanish get tonight. As we have seen against the United States in last year's Confederations Cup and against Switzerland in their opening match, Spain have difficulty with defensive opponents. A little extra width in the game with the introduction of the homesick Sevillano Jésus Navas should do the job. It will be a frustrating evening and it's unlikely to be pretty, but I thin Spain will carry the day.

My pre-tournament prediction for the semi-finals was Uruguay v Brazil and Argentina v Spain. There's still a fair chance of that being right.