Brazil 2014: Quarterfinals – France vs Germany & Brazil vs Colombia – preview
Quarterfinals time in Brasil. Austin Fido has a glance at the first day’s match-ups…
The round of 16 was almost too much fun. Eight closely contested matches: only one – Colombia’s win over Uruguay – decided well before the final whistle; five extending past the usual time required to settle a football match and into extra time; two needing more time than that, and concluding with penalties.
So there was drama, there was competition and tactical variation, there was plenty of ebb and flow, and yet everything finished sort of the way it was expected to: all the group winners went through, all the group runners-up went out. The closest thing to an upset was Costa Rica beating Greece, and if you’re counting that as a surprise you are prioritizing the evidence of 2004 over the evidence of Brazil 2014.
It was as though Football was trying to throw a surprise party, but decided to leave a note on the front door telling us about it cos it was worried we might get too much of a fright. It’s OK, Soccer, it’s the thought that counts: really touched you went to such trouble; it was still a great party.
We got our surprises in the group stage. In the second round, if you didn’t watch any of the games, you might simply have cast an eye over the results, shrugged at the apparent inevitability of it all, and got on with your day. Nothing to see here: the teams we expected to win have won.
If this continues, we’ll get another set of extremely engaging football matches and another set of predictable results: Argentina, Brazil, Germany and the Netherlands are the presumptive semifinalists, based on how they got this far, who they had to beat to do so, and the simple fact they are the biggest beasts of world soccer still in the draw.
11 am (Chicago time): France vs. Germany
Both these teams made being heavy favorites in the round of 16 look difficult. France had trouble getting the ball past Nigerian ‘keeper Vincent Enyeama, and really only sealed their place in this match when Joseph Yobo helped out by kicking into his own net at the death.
The Germans had even greater difficulty with Algeria’s ‘keeper, Rais M’Bolhi, and only ducked out of penalties because Andre Schurrle scuffed his shot perfectly for the go-ahead goal in extra time, and Mesut Ozil managed to bag a second just before the Fennecs’ frantic efforts to get one back paid off.
So we’ve seen both these teams sweat a little. France looks like that team capable of beating any opponent on its day, but it seems like it must be a day on which Olivier Giroud is on his game – and that already happened against Switzerland.
Paul Pogba stepped up a notch against Nigeria, and this would be the perfect stage for him to further his reputation as perhaps Europe’s best young midfielder.
The Germans will be missing Shkodran Mustafi, who was lamed against Algeria, but he was only starting because Mats Hummels had flu and Philip Lahm MUST start in midfield. Expect the lineup to revert to four big men at the back, with Hummels returning to the center of defense and Jerome Boateng shuffling over to right back, because Philip Lahm MUST start in midfield.
Or it may be a brand new lineup, since the squad reportedly is nurturing a flu epidemic, and no one is entirely sure who is affected and how seriously (all we know is Hummels is feeling better).
Germany is in a bit of a slump by its standards: it hasn’t won a World Cup since 1990 or a European Championship since 1996. The national team’s standard at the World Cup has typically been to threaten to win the whole thing for a couple of tournaments, before taking the title at the third attempt: runners up in 1966, third in 1970, champs in 1974; then back-to-back finals in ’82 and ’86, before lifting the trophy in 1990.
After another losing appearance in the 2002 final followed by third place in 2006, Germany was due to win in 2010, but ended up third again. So the Germans are behind schedule, which is ominous because we are led to believe this is a nation which values punctuality.
For France, the World Cup has historically been treated as an occasion to be very good or very irrelevant. Since 1954, the French have either been awful (five times out at the group stage; five times not qualifying at all), or been in-it-to-win-it (five times in the semifinals or better).
Les Bleus are also due a good show, based on past performance: they won this thing back in ’98, crashed out in ’02, bounced back to the final in ’06, and flamed out at the group stage again in 2010. You see the pattern.
So there is fuel for those who like to talk about a team’s destiny for whichever of these sides wins this match.
The build-up suggests the French are angry and the Germans are sick – and there is a score to settle here for Les Bleus (no, not that one…pipe down, Clemenceau).
Back in March, France lost to Germany in a friendly in Paris. It triggered a run of losses against the sort of teams expected to do well in this World Cup: Spain, Uruguay, Brazil – each walked away a winner.
Those results are part of the reason few were expecting much of the French in this tournament: sure, they can put six goals past Australia or eight past Jamaica, but against the true contenders they came up short.
With the Germans a little under the weather and outside their Northern European comfort zone, this is an uncommonly good chance for France to set the record straight. Of course, if “possible” hardens into “expected”, that is exactly when Les Bleus have recently tended to transform into Les Blew-it.
3 pm (Chicago time) Brazil vs. Colombia
Los Cafeteros have already won more games in this World Cup (four) than they had in all four prior tournaments for which they qualified put together (three). Unsurprisingly, therefore, this is their first quarterfinal at this level.
Colombia is traditionally a modest achiever in big tournaments: it has only won Copa America once – in 2001, when it was the host nation. And the country’s football team has a reputation for ducking the big occasion – as the golden generation of the 1990s did repeatedly.
This time around, it was reasonable to expect Colombia to get this far: their group looked very winnable, and the assumption was they’d get a second round match with a slightly uncomfortable UEFA team – England or Italy. As it was, they got a tremendously uncomfortable Uruguay.
But Los Cafeteros have managed to both meet expectations and exceed them by getting to this quarterfinal. There are a great many reasons 2010 World Cup semi-finalist and 2011 Copa America champ Uruguay wasn’t really able to keep up against Colombia, but the most important one was pretty simple: La Celeste was not as good.
Colombia is playing expansive, creative, attacking football. There have not been many opportunities to lament the team’s loyalty to 38-year-old Mario Yepes at the heart of defense, nor has Falcao’s name been mentioned too frequently. He simply has not been missed.
As soon as Los Cafeteros get knocked out, the stories about what might have been had Falcao been fit will be written. But right now, it is all about James Rodriquez, and the alarming thought that a couple of guys who were playing for Philadelphia Union back in 2011 – Faryd Mondragon and Carlos Valdes – might be part of the best team in the world in 2014.
Colombia has been playing with the swagger of a world champion, but has yet to beat a team in this tournament of sufficient reputation or form to add substance to the style.
Brazil is an opponent of substance, and one appearing a little under-cooked so far at this tournament. Chile balked at the chance to win their second round match, but – just like Mexico had done in the groups – looked well able to hold their own against the hosts.
And reports from Brazil’s training ground suggest Phil Scolari is a little concerned. There has been mention of Maicon being brought in to bolster the right side of the defense, and maybe a three-man back line. The biggest issue, however, is whether Scolari will get a performance out of whomever (probably Paulinho) he selects to deputize for the suspended Luiz Gustavo.
The midfield battler has been an essential figure in Brazil’s exertions to date. He may not be entirely replaceable.
The home team looks vulnerable. But it is also undefeated, and will have the crowd – and the occasional referee – on its side.
If the mark of a champion is to win without reaching your best, Brazil has this tournament in the bag.
Austin Fido is OTF’s USMNT and CONCACAF editor. Follow him @canetop.