Brazil 2014: Quarterfinals – Argentina vs Belgium & Costa Rica vs Netherlands – preview
Austin Fido looks at what the second day of World Cup quarterfinals might have in store…
No surprises in the opening pair of quarterfinals: Brazil and Germany were favorites to make the semifinals; without appearing convincingly better than their opponents, both are through.
France forgot how to finish against the Germans, though that perhaps is harsh on Manuel Neuer’s quite brilliant work in goal. And Brazil set out to neutralize the Colombian creative threat by hacking down James Rodriguez, and pretty much Colombian who stood still long enough, with the apparent full approval of the referee – who didn’t start handing out cards until it was too late, everyone had got carried away, and Juan Zuniga broke Neymar.
Feckless refereeing managed to cost the tournament two of its brightest young stars.
Next up are the games we expect to deliver an Argentina vs. Netherlands semifinal on July 9, and which we hope will see no more players needlessly damaged.
11 am (Chicago time): Argentina vs. Belgium
This one could be a lot of fun.
Whether by design or simply because Lionel Messi running with the ball at pace is a tough thing to contain, Argentina has faced a number of opponents who have sat deep and tried to stifle La Albiceleste.
It has worked in the sense that there is an abiding impression Argentina is not playing as well as expected; it hasn’t worked at all in the sense that Argentina has won four out of four.
Perhaps sitting back and challenging Messi to do something spectacular is not the best approach to dealing with this Argentina. Although the Swiss came very close to forcing their round of 16 match to penalties, the closest any team has come to really standing up to La Albiceleste has been when Nigeria managed to match them goal for goal for roughly 45 minutes in the group stage.
The Argentine back line looks a little slow, but it is well shielded if the forwards can keep the ball at the other end of the pitch.
The Belgians, for their part, have been relishing the memory of their second round, and playing an opponent – USMNT – who (as they saw it) sought to play them without fear and allowed an open game.
Belgium, of course, turned their share of possession into a barrage of shots on goal – but still needed extra time, and the fresh legs of Romelu Lukaku, to get by the US. And they would likely be enjoying the memory of the game from their respective homes had Chris Wondolowski netted his chance at the end.
There is incentive to let the quarterfinal turn into a shootout for Belgium, who are entering a game in this tournament as underdogs for the first time, though Marc Wilmots will have to trust his forwards to be less wasteful than they have been to date.
If Argentina’s attack stands accused of under-performing, it has still managed one more goal than the Belgians, who would appear to need plenty of chances and tiring opponents to find the target: all of their goals have come after the 70 minute mark, and four (out of six) of them have been scored by substitutes.
There is no shame in that: goals have to come from somewhere – most of Argentina’s have come from Messi. But, as USMNT nearly showed, if you continually leave it late to assert yourself, you risk being caught out by a counter-punch from which you have no time to recover.
Belgium has more options than most off the bench; Argentina will have better players than most, at least up front, from the start.
This is an Argentina squad in its prime: not a single player under the age of 24; just a handful of guys over 32, none of whom have featured significantly in the tournament to date.
That may be about to change, however. Starting left back Marcos Rojo is suspended, and he will most likely be replaced by Monterrey’s Jose Basanta, a three-time CONCACAF Champions League winner – but 34-year-old Hugo Campagnara is an option. 33-year-old Martin DeMichelis has also been getting consideration in training, as a potential swap for center back Federico Fernandez.
Further forward, Sergio Aguero is expected to be out, as he has been since the 38th minute of the game against Nigeria. His injury may not be as severe as first thought (he is back in training) but it has created an opportunity for Ezequiel Lavezzi to join the attack.
If coach Alejandro Sabella is in a more cautious mood than he has been to date (unlikely, he knows this squad’s strength lies in having the ball in the final third), he may sacrifice Lavezzi for Maxi Rodriguez.
Wilmots has more positive problems: Steven Defour back from suspension, and Thomas Vermaelen reportedly available for selection after injury kept him out of the second round. Vincent Kompany has been carrying a groin strain, which he will presumably continue to carry until his team no longer needs him.
And for the first time in this tournament, he can be certain he will be facing a team that will push forward – Argentina doesn’t really have much other option with Messi in the side.
An early goal for La Albiceleste, or simply the Belgian coach’s intuition that his team will be able to give as good as it gets, could bring an open, attacking game featuring some of the best attacking players of this generation against some of the best of the next.
Although Argentina is favorite, because Messi, the Belgians have enough up front to get goals, and in Thibaut Courtois and Vincent Kompany, they have a ‘keeper and captain who can figure out a way to repel the Argentine attack.
3 pm (Chicago time) Costa Rica vs. Netherlands
Let’s not sugarcoat it: the Dutch are better than Costa Rica. Their stars are more starry: Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben. The reserve striker, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is just a couple of goals behind Dennis Bergkamp for third on Holland’s all-time scoring list (van Persie is at the top).
The Netherlands were the runners-up in the last World Cup. This is their tenth appearance in this tournament: they’ve made the semifinals or better on four occasions, and the final on three of those trips into the last four.
Conversely, this is Los Ticos fourth tournament, second time beyond the group stage, and first appearance in a quarterfinal.
Of course, the past counts for nothing: it’s about the two teams playing each other in the 2014 World Cup. Well, the Dutch have won four out of four games played. They have thrashed Spain, beaten Australia and Chile, and sneaked by Mexico on a dubious penalty. Costa Rica has drawn its last two matches, and only scored once in those games. The Dutch have scored 12 in the four games they’ve played today (Los Ticos‘ total output is five goals).
Better players, more wins, more goals: this quarterfinal is the Netherlands’ to lose.
Perhaps. Costa Rica will have noticed the Dutch have fallen behind in three of their four matches. Los Ticos‘ strength in this tournament has been defense: yes, they came back against Uruguay; but they clung on to a one-goal lead against Italy, were not broached by England, and…well, they did let Greece back into the game at the death – but, in fairness, they were down a man at the time.
There are a few gaps in the Dutch armor. Nigel de Jong’s tournament is done, and it may be no coincidence the game the Netherlands came closest to losing was the one he had to leave early – against Mexico. And the fall-out from Arjen Robben’s last-gasp embellishment to sell the penalty that won the game may prove sufficient to diminish the referee’s tendency to side with the favorites on most of the important decisions in this tournament.
Costa Rica, however, has the bigger personnel issue. The Dutch will have come in to this tournament with a contingency plan for de Jong’s absence – not for fear of injury, as happened, but because he is arguably most famous for trying to put his foot through Xabi Alonso’s chest in the last World Cup final.
But the Costa Rican success in this tournament has been fashioned from a disciplined, astute defensive unit, and the ability to nick goals on the counter and from set pieces. There isn’t a great deal of depth in the team: it is much diminished up front if Joel Campbell, Cristian Bolanos or Bryan Ruiz goes missing.
Similarly, at the back, the balletic synchronicity of Los Ticos‘ defense can only withstand so many absences. Oscar Duarte will be out, serving his suspension for the red card he got against Greece, and Roy Miller – presumed to be the first-choice replacement – is injured.
As happened against Greece, we will likely see Johnny Acosta step in for Los Ticos – and we’ll find out whether Costa Rica’s problems in the latter part of that game were entirely due to being a man down.
This is a match up between the tournament’s best defense and its most prolific attack, but only the former is significantly weakened heading into the game.
So there are many reasons to believe the Netherlands will win this match, not least of which is the on-paper favorite has prevailed in every game played in this World Cup since the knockout rounds began.
Austin Fido is OTF’s USMNT and CONCACAF editor. Follow him @canetop.