Brazil vs. Holland Will Set Off the World Cup’s Fireworks

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The World Cup final is supposed to offer the thrilling climax to a month long tournament that has enthralled billions of people across the planet, but more often than not, it’s a pretty dull game — Italy’s 2006 penalties win came after a bore draw in which Zidane’s red-card earning head butt of Materazzi was the high point; Brazil’s 2002 triumph over Germany was elegant enough, but the result was rarely in doubt; France’s 1998 win over Brazil may be an exception in that it was against the odds, although Brazil hardly seemed to show up that day; Brazil’s 1994 win on penalties after a draw with Italy may have been the most soporific game the final has ever served up, etc. (I honestly believe the last time the final game served up a genuine nail-biting thriller was the 1978 showdown between hosts Argentina and Holland.) The best action at the World Cup typically comes in Quarter- and Semi-finals, which means we’re in for a real treat over the next week, starting with this weekend’s round of quarterfinals.

Friday, July 2: Brazil vs. Holland — An Orange Upset?

Brazil entered the tournament as favorites, and have looked the part in every match without really breaking a sweat. They cruised past Chile with consummate ease, and that without two first choice midfielders, Felipe Melo and Elano. The Brazilian engine is purring on all cylinders, as Bill pointed out, just as able to choke the life out of the opposition with a solid defensive possession game as to devastate their defenses with the exquisite quick and intuitive passing triangulation between Kaka, Robinho and Luis Fabiano, or through the openings created by the raids from fullback of Bastos and Maicon. But they’ve yet to face a stern test, Chile’s heroic exertions notwithstanding; coach Dunga is demanding more from his men, and it’s not hard to see why — they’ve been able to largely coast home until now. So purring, but yet to really step on the gas.

The same, of course, is true for Holland: The Dutch were once known as “the Brazil of Europe” because of their “total football”, a sublime improvisational European version of Brazil’s “joga bonita” (beautiful game) — go to the tape of the 1974 World Cup final and what’s notable there is that the first time the Germans literally touch the ball is to fish it out of the back of the net. But today’s Dutch team, like today’s Brazilians, are a far more pragmatic outfit, prioritizing winning over entertainment. While they have a 100% record at the tournament, like Brazil, they’ve scarcely gotten going, having cruised past all comers. For the Dutch, this is perhaps psychologically more important than for the Brazilians, because the Dutch have tended to get vertigo when they peak too early: Most of their players involved in that ’74 final against Germany concede that their real problem was that they scored in the opening minutes and seemed to be running away with the game – before conceding twice to the Germans, and then failing to convert their dominance into any more goals. So, nobody in Holland is worrying about the side not having gotten into top gear yet. But, of course, that’s where they’ll need to be by Saturday.

Like the Brazilians, the Dutch build their system around two defensive midfielders, Nigel de Jong and Mark Van Bommel, although their fullbacks are not as adventurous as Brazil’s. (Defensively, they’ve conceded two goals over four games; the same as Brazil — although Brazil’s record is slightly poorer, having drawn one of their group games against Portugal.) The key to their attacking ability has been the combination of midfield playmaker Wesley Sneijder and the Arsenal striker Robin Van Persie, sometimes assisted by the hard working Dirk Kuyt or one of the wide men. And then, of course, there is Arjen Robben, who made his first start of the tournament against Slovakia, and scored a goal that reminded us of the danger he offers down Holland’s right wing — being a left footed player, he loves to cut inside and bring the ball onto his stronger foot to shoot, which he did with devastating effect against the Slovaks. Robben could hurt Brazil, whose left back, Michel Bastos, is traditionally used as an attacking midfielder by his club in France, and is less accomplished defensively.

Holland, like Brazil, plays a possession game, and when they lose the ball, they are particularly adept at pressing the space available to the opposition to win it back — like basketball’s full-court press, that involves all of their players getting tight on opponents at the same time, to deny them time on the ball and forcing into errors that turn over possession. They’ve been efficient rather than scintillating in the tournament until now, but it will take something special for them to upset Brazil. The last time the two sides met at a similar stage of the World Cup was in 1994, and Brazil had just enough to get past the Dutch in Dallas. But 20 years before that, in the semi-final of 1974, Brazil was reduced to rugby-tackling Holland’s Johan Cruyff in a vain bid to stifle the Dutch masters. It’s going to look nothing like that this time, and Brazil goes in with an edge in most departments. We’ve not yet seen the best of either side in South Africa, and both have been criticized in their domestic press for being too cautious and pragmatic. But if both bring their best game, expect fireworks — and even, possibly, an upset.

Friday July 2: Uruguay vs. Ghana — It’s Anybody’s Game

Uruguay have been one of the revelations of the tournament, shedding their cinderella status in Latin America to sweep aside all opposition on their way to a quarter-final showdown with Ghana. With Luis Suarez and Diego Forlan offering perhaps the most deadly strike partnership at the tournament, they’ve scored six and conceded only once in their four games until now. Still South Korea exposed some defensive vulnerability, and Ghana’s forwards could find plenty of opportunity. But the Uruguayans will fancy their chances of shutting the Black Stars down and then hitting them on the break, particularly if they can notch an early lead.

Ghana started more slowly, losing a group game to Germany and drawing with Australia, but beating Serbia. In contrast to their opponents whose strikers have been the most notable players, it has been Ghana’s midfielders who have given them the edge — none more so than Kevin-Prince Boateng, the box to box battler who has assumed the responsibilities of Chelsea star Michael Essien whose injury kept him out of the World Cup. Boateng’s contribution in every Ghana game has been nothing short of titanic, and his opening goal against the USA was a reminder that besides winning the ball in midfield, he loves bringing it into the box to create scoring opportunities. The bad news, of course, is that Boateng’s thigh injury may prevent him from playing against Uruguay. Lively midfielder Anthony Ayew is suspended, as is key defender Jonathan Mensah. And with key defenders John Mensah and Samuel Inkoom also on the treatment table, the news that striker Asamoah Gyan suffered an ankle injury in training is potentially devastating — although he swears he’ll be fit to face Uruguay. Gyan had struck twice from the penalty spot before the USA game, but his, and Ghana’s, failure to score from open play before that raised concerns about whether the Black Stars were once again saddled with the problem that plagued their 2006 World Cup outing, when the absence of a goal-scoring striker had cost them dearly. Then came Gyan’s exquisite injury time winner against the Americans, taken on his chest and turned away from defender Jay De Merit in a single fluid motion, keeping his balance despite De Merit’s nudge and then lashing a left footed volley past Tim Howard. If Gyan and Boateng are fit to start, Ghana has a fighting chance. But the odds are slightly stacked against them.

Neither of these teams is a heavyweight, but as any fan of boxing in the 1980s remembers, the middleweights often provide the most compelling bouts.

Saturday July 3: Argentina vs. Germany — One for the Ages?

The only pity is that the gods of football have contrived to make the two teams that have offered the most entertaining attacking football at World Cup 2010 meet in the quarterfinals. Both of these teams have played with the kind of verve that seduces the neutrals — of Germany’s nine goals scored, four came against Australia and another four against England. And they’ve conceded only twice (one of those in a loss to Serbia) — although England fans will always claim they scored a second, in a vain attempt to blame bad officiating for England’s palpable failings. Argentina have scored one goal more than the Germans, but conceded one more as well — although theirs is a 100% record in terms of results.

That, and the form book, would make Argentina slight favorites for this game, although their defensive capabilities have not yet faced the kind of stern test that the current fun-loving German side will present. Until now, coach Diego Maradona has eschewed the sort of twin midfield anchor option favored by the likes of Brazil, Spain, Holland and most other top top teams, relying on Liverpool’s Javier Mascherano to play that role alone behind a sparkling array of forwards and attacking midfielders. (He has three times now relied on winger Jonas Gutierrez to double as a right back when the opposition has the ball, a prospect that, if repeated against the Germans, would have Lukas Podolski licking his chops, because Jonas is not a defender…) Going forward, of course, Argentina’s options are terrifying to defenders: Messi, Higuain, Tevez, Maxi Rodriguez, Veron, Di Maria, Aguero and Millito. But Germany may fancy its chances in a midfield battle against Mascherano (who, any Liverpool fan can attest, has a habit of collecting red cards when things get really heated) and by its young guns Mueller, Ozil and Podolski running the ball at Argentina’s aging and sometimes static defense to create chances for themselves or the eternally efficient Miroslav Klose.

Maradona will hope his attacking threats will keep Germany’s right back Phillip Lahm in his own half, because the German captain is up there with Maicon and Sergio Ramos as the World Cup’s best attacking fullbacks. The Germans will be hoping that Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger can prevail in the middle of the park, because Argentina has more than enough attacking power to overwhelm the German defense. Then again, Klose, Podolski, Mueller and the magnificent Mesut Ozil can do the same to Argentina’s. The Latin American side has the advantage in experience, although the vim and verve of youth may help Germany. This is a delicately balance contest, too close to call, and could well produce one of the most memorable games of the tournament. (And I say that not simply because I’ll be there — indeed, the one key feature available to the TV audience missing at the live event is the instant replay of anything that could be vaguely controversial — when the TV feed cuts to the replay, the screens in the stadium freeze, so as to avoid showing anything that might cause the referee or linesmen to begin doubting his own judgement, or enrage any section of the crowd. And as Mexico can attest, when they do show a replay by mistake, all hell breaks loose.)

Saturday July 3: Spain vs. Paraguay — How do you say “Cakewalk” in Spanish?

Paraguay’s failure to prevail in 120 minutes of football against a limited Japanese side was telling; although they scraped through on penalties, the match showed that the quarter finals — reached, perhaps, largely by virtue of Italy’s implosion, is likely to be their ceiling. (They drew with Italy and New Zealand, and beat Slovakia 2-0 before drawing 0-0 with Japan.) Anything is possible in a game of football, but it’s hard to imagine the Paraguayans putting one over Spain. Indeed, this game is more likely to be an opportunity for coach Del Bosque to give a run out to some of his talented squad players, such as the exquisitely gifted Cesc Fabregas, who haven’t been able to get a game. More importantly, it may also be an opportunity to test some alternatives to Fernando Torres up front, because the Liverpool player has been a shadow of himself at the World Cup, and in a semi-final showdown with either Argentina or Germany, he may opt to play Villa alone up front, and use a wide man like the impressive Jesus Navas to provide something different.

So stay tuned on Friday and Saturday for what could be some of the most entertaining games of World Cup 2010.