Brazil 2014: Semifinal 1 – Brazil vs. Germany – preview
Brazil versus Germany in a World Cup semifinal! Feel like you’ve seen this before? You haven’t – not at this stage of the tournament. Austin Fido previews the first time these teams have met in the second-to-last game of the World Cup…
If this feels like a familiar set of semifinalists – Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Netherlands – it’s because it is: there has never been a World Cup without at least one of these four teams in the semifinals.
Actually, there has only been one World Cup without either Brazil and/or some iteration of Germany in the semifinals. That was the first one, in 1930, and fortunately Argentina stepped in to assure the validity of the opening paragraph of this post.
This tournament has passed through a number of phases: it was thought to be the World Cup of CONCACAF; for a moment it seemed like it was Colombia’s time to shine; at the very least, when Costa Rica was running undefeated through a slew of former champions and Belgium looked like it might be finding a rhythm, it felt like it might be a World Cup of new challengers.
But it’s turned into a World Cup for nostalgics: familiar faces clustered at the final stage, and only one – the Dutch – unfamiliar with the experience of actually lifting the trophy at the end.
Football has got along just fine with the usual suspects at the top of its tree. Everyone likes a frontrunner: they tend to be good at what they do. So we’ve got four of the best national teams in the history of the game, none at a historic high, but they’ll bring pedigree and narrative and that should be enough to see us through to a satisfying conclusion to the tournament.
Here’s a look at the first two contenders…
3 pm (Chicago time) Brazil vs. Germany
Eleven semifinals, seven finals, five World Cup titles: Brazil knows this territory pretty well. Germany is even more familiar with the final four – as a whole or a West, it has made 12 semis – though of its seven finals, it has only got around to winning it all on three occasions.
So its a twelfth and thirteenth semifinal respectively for two teams gunning for final number eight, and the favorite is Brazil. Home advantage has helped an occasionally vulnerable team out of some tricky situations so far – most tellingly, perhaps, in the last round, when the referee appeared to share Brazil’s view that there was nothing wrong with bringing a bit of the rough stuff to Colombia’s skilled, but slight, playmakers.
James Rodriguez got quite a kicking, but the prevailing irony of the tactic and the referee’s reluctance to reach for a card or two in the early stages of the game, is that it was Brazil who suffered most.
Yes, the home team won, but at the cost of its talisman – Neymar. Felled by a knee to the back, he’s out for the rest of the tournament. Rash tackles can happen any time, but this particular game devolved predictably into a tit-for-tat hackfest as soon as the Colombians realized they would be allowed to give as good as they were getting.
Further irony: the other missing man for Brazil, captain Thiago Silva, is suspended for an infraction in the quarterfinal that had very little to do with the game’s violence. He decided to obstruct Colombia’s ‘keeper and drew the first yellow card of the match for a challenge that was merely insolent. Perhaps the referee was alarmed at the lack of clear intent to knock anyone over.
Silva is easier to replace in the lineup than Neymar, who has looked the only reliably creative player in the team to date. At the back, there is a platoon of mononyms ready to step in: most likely Dante, possibly Maxwell, even Henrique. But up front, the pressure is on a group of forwards which has appeared monolithic thus far: Fred, Jo, Hulk. One of them will need to shoulder a greater burden, even if it is simply getting the team set pieces in the final third, which was the way Brazil cracked Colombia.
On the bright side, the hosts should welcome back Luiz Gustavo, who was suspended for the quarterfinal. Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has to find an attacking spark to replace Neymar somewhere, but it is unlikely he will opt to do so at the expense of one of his most reliable players in this tournament – particularly if the back line is a tad unsettled by Silva’s absence.
In the other camp, Scolari’s opposite number, Joachim Low, has been talking about the need for more authoritative refereeing, after seeing the violence wreaked upon Colombia.
He ought to be mindful of the opposite problem: until the Neymar incident, the signature moment of home-team favoritism in the tournament was Brazil’s ability to win a penalty in the opening game for Fred’s theatrical collapse under the weight of a touch that would scarcely have been sufficient to swat a fly from his shoulder.
Still, these teams can play, and hopefully the game flows in a way that keeps the officials out of the limelight.
The obvious tactic for Scolari to deploy, as Low’s comments indicate, is similar to that used against Colombia: get stuck into the Germans early and look to disrupt any passing the rhythm the side tries to build.
This isn’t quite the Germany we’ve come to expect from Low – who has historically been associated with a technically adept team capable of getting close, but not close enough, to the passing fluidity of the all-conquering (until 2014) Spanish.
Until the quarterfinal, we saw an all-center back defense. The team’s virtues are now most frequently summarized by the old tropes about German soccer: organized, solid, efficient.
It is also thought the defense, even with Philip Lahm dropping back from midfield to the full back, is a little slow. Mats Hummels was reportedly passed over by David Moyes and Manchester United because “he can’t run”.
Of course, Moyes is looking for a new job and Hummels scored the goal that took his country to its thirteenth World Cup semifinal, so maybe the scouting report on these Germans could use a little update.
On recent evidence, this looks like an oddly uninspiring match-up. Yes, these are two titans of the game. Yes, between them they will field 22 of the best players in the world, and as many as six of the best substitutes any team could hope for.
But with both coaches seemingly intent on addressing this tournament with pragmatism rather than flair, and the sparkiest players on both sides either missing (Neymar) or so far uninspired (Mesut Ozil), the match looks likely to be decided in the manner both won their quarterfinals: through set pieces and grimly outlasting the other team.
Austin Fido is OTF’s USMNT and CONCACAF editor. Follow him @canetop.