Thoughts on the World Cup Semifinals

Luiz Felipe Scolari says he has not been put off managing again in England

The US Men’s National Team may no longer be involved in this year’s edition of the World Cup, but that most certainly does not mean we will be ignoring the rest of what the tournament has in store. In fact, it would be quite foolish to pass on watching the few remaining games in Brazil because a) it will be four long years until the next one and b) if the USA wants to be considered a world power in the sport, these are the teams with whom we will have to compete. With all that said, let’s talk a little about the respective fates of the four semifinalists.

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I’m no expert in Brazilian malaise, but I did watch the semifinal match. So I guess I’m as qualified as anyone to try and put the 7-1 loss in perspective.

First, that wasn’t a loss. That was a demoralizing soul-sucking. Germany didn’t just plunge the knife into the neck of the hosts. After the deed was done – and it was done within 25 minutes – those robotic Group G winners paraded their lifeless victim around for all to see. While the story is obviously Brazil, Argentina should be mighty scared of a German side playing even half as well as it did today.

But back to Brazil. Because while it’s great to observe from a distance – great to lament and pity the hosts that could not keep a national promise they so desperately wanted to fulfill – it’s slightly fruitless. Probably more than slightly. It’s really an exercise in futility. As much as we want to, we cannot understand the horror of this.

ESPN, in a departure from its fine coverage of this World Cup, tried to fashion a comparable LeBron situation to provide some context. No dice. This is not a story cut from an American sports cloth. This is not “Permian losing to Dallas-Carter” (for all you fans of the movie Friday Night Lights) heartbreak. This is not Bill Buckner disbelief. No matter where we look, fictional or not, we have no answers for what happened out in Belo Horizonte this evening. No one, except for the 200 million or so followers that belong to the Church of Jogo Bonito, can feel the true depths of this horror.

The ending to the match was actually surreal. As the whistle blew, the players seemed genuinely lost, as if the shrill sound awoke them from some hypnosis. They were footballers. Brazilian footballers, in fact, ones who had just come up agonizingly short in the most tortuous way possible. Some cried. Some lay on the pitch, attempting to piece together 90 minutes of shock. There were a few notables whose first move was to offer a quick prayer. For what – forgiveness? pity? strength? – is a darn good question.

Out of the endless possibilities, the lasting image of the pillaging of Brazil came right before the whistle to start the second half. An older Brazil fan was pictured clutching his replica World Cup trophy airtight to his chest. He looked off into the nothingness in front of him. Physically, he was there. He witnessed the despair. Mentally, though, he was nowhere to be found. No one was. If your worst nightmare played out before your eyes, would you even know what to do? — Peter Barston

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I’ll spare you all the obvious German war references that were all over Twitter during and after the game. Anyone who saw the game doesn’t need to be reminded of the hundredth time they saw the word “blitzkrieg” applied to the Germans’ 7-1 shellacking of host Brazil.

I mentioned efficiency and being able to grind out wins in our discussion of the quarterfinals. Well, Germany remained efficient, but there was no grinding in this game. Take a look at Germany’s shot chart from the first half, when the pedal was to the floor like a Porsche on the Autobahn, as compared to Brazil’s (visualization courtesy of FourFourTwo.com):

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It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the Germans were incredibly sharp with their finishing in the semifinals. But look at where those shots were coming from. All five of the first half goals came from very close in and in front of the goal. Sometimes when a team loses big, it can take some solace in great individual play from one or two of the opposing team’s players. This was not one of those games.

And it would not be fair to completely ignore Miroslav Klose. His strike in the 22nd minute finally pushed him past the great Ronaldo (coincidentally, another Brazilian getting surpassed by a German) for the most goals scored ever at the World Cup with sixteen. That seems like a lot of goals, and something that would be very difficult to do.

You would be right, but it is quite possible that Klose’s record might not stand past Russia 2018. Why? Well, he happens to have a teammate on this German side that has scored ten goals in his career at the World Cup. This player is 24 years old. And his name is Thomas Müller. Yes, the Bayern Munich stud could very well pass Klose’s mark at the next tournament in Russia (hopefully this does not jinx him in any way).

He could quite possibly score a goal in the final, which would leave him needing “only” five goals to equal Klose (assuming that Klose does not grab another in the final himself). But even if Müller does not match Klose’s total in Russia, it would not be a surprise to see Müller included on the roster for the 2022 World Cup at the age of 32. While 30 is an age where many soccer players start to decline, Klose is 35. So if Müller has a chance to break that scoring record, don’t be surprised to see him on the squad. And with how deep this German team has gone into the past three World Cups, he should have plenty of opportunities to score. — Carl Yedor

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Despite finishing in second place at the 2010 World Cup, the odds seems stacked against the Netherlands this time around. Their group featured both Spain and Chile, yet the Dutch didn’t bat an eyelash. In their first match, they throttled the former world champions, exacting a dose of revenge for that match in Johannesburg. From there, getting out of the group was all but a formality.

In the Round of 16, the Dutch found themselves trailing Mexico 1-0 for a large portion of the second half. Despite Arjen Robben’s best efforts, Mexican goalie Guillermo Ochoa constantly denied the Dutch from getting an equalizer. It was not until Wesley Sneijder sent one blasting into the back of the net in the 88th minute that the Dutch scored the goal they so desperately sought. And they would go onto win the game because their best player, the aforementioned Robben, has mastered the art of the flop. At the slightest touch of his leg or foot, Robben falls to the ground as if hit by a truck. In the third minute of stoppage time against Mexico, his performance was enough to “earn” the Dutch a penalty kick and send them through to the quarterfinals.

Against Costa Rica, the Dutch just could not find the back of the net yet again, having to settle for two shots that hit the crossbar instead. Louis van Gaal made the bold decision of substituting keeper Tim Krul in for Jasper Cillessen. The gamble paid off when Krul made two monstrous saves to get the Dutch to the semifinals.

This all leads us to Wednesday’s match. The Netherlands, who had peppered opposing nets with shots to this point in the tournament, only had three shots on goal during the two-hour affair. Robben’s performance in the tournament was enough to warrant discussion for the Dutchman to win the Golden Ball, but his play against Argentina lacked the flair and creativity we had seen from him in earlier matches. Sneijder, who scored against Mexico and hit the crossbar twice, could not hit the side of a barn yesterday. Robin Van Persie played but left no impact on the game. The young Memphis Depay, who van Gaal opted to bench, left more of a mark, but it was not enough for a breakthrough. For 120 minutes, both teams played cautiously, hoping to avoid mistakes. They worried that aggressive tactics would lead to holes in their defense and a goal for the opposition. So, the sound of the final whistle could not have been sweeter.

Or so the Dutch thought. When PK’s began, Krul was still left on the bench because Van Persie’s substitution was the third and final one for the Dutch. Against Costa Rica, Van Persie stepped up to the plate first, but this time it was Ron Vlaar. Vlaar was a peculiar choice, especially with noted striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar as a viable first option. Both Vlaar and Sneijder missed their spot kicks, which will certainly make their plane rides home all the more disappointing. Cillessen would probably want second attempts at saving those penalty shots as well, as he saw a few Argentine shots enter the net just inches from his grasp. With the game on the line, Maxi Rodriguez took a PK just to the side of Cillessen. Cillessen could have clearly made the save, but the ball bounced off his hands, then the crossbar, and wound up in the net.

It was not the exit the Dutch deserved, but soccer can be a cruel sport sometimes. No matter what happens Saturday, Robben and Van Persie will go down in soccer lore for their tremendous feats in the past two World Cups. Both will be 34 when World Cup play resumes in Russia, so there might be a chance of one more chapter for the dynamic duo. For Dirk Kuyt, this is almost certainly the end of the road. The versatile player found himself in many different roles over the years and always stepped up when the Oranje called upon him. It appears that Memphis Depay will be the new face of the Dutch attack, leading the Netherlands into a new era of soccer. No matter what happens over the course of the next four years, the Netherlands must be proud of their team and their accomplishments. Coming from behind in 2010 and beating Spain 5-1 this year are results that the players can look back on for a long time. The World Cup trophy still eludes the hands of the Dutch, but it is only a matter of time before the right squad comes along and leads them to victory. Who knows what they have in store for 2018? — Nick Barton

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The story of this game is best told by the fact that the first real chance on goal came in the 75th minute. The center of the Dutch defense—in particular Ron Vlaar—did a great job of stopping Lionel Messi from getting anything going in the final third. Playing without their main winger in Angel Di Maria and unable to penetrate the middle, the Argentines opted to let Ezequiel Lavezzi create out wide, but the Netherlands shut this down as well. The game was a constant back-and-forth of five-to-ten minute spells of possession, and both sides were so well organized defensively that no good counter-attacking opportunities arose.

One particular moment worth discussing was Bruno Martins Indi’s yellow card on Messi just before halftime. It was the first time I can remember a yellow card being given for a foul in which the receiving player (in this case, the best player in the world) didn’t go to the ground and writhe in pain to sell it. That says something about the culture of diving that has permeated world soccer. Messi beat the Dutch defender, who in retaliation reached his foot out and clipped his opponent’s ankle to prevent a diagonal run on goal. Messi just stood there, having clearly felt the contact, and attempted to beat the next defender. Ultimately, advantage was not given and the foul was called, but it gives us a little better idea of the mindset of Messi versus that of, say, Arjen Robben or Neymar. That instance aside, Argentina’s strategy of drawing fouls as close to the box as possible and letting Messi launch free kicks on Jasper Cillessen was quite remarkable.

When you’re watching a boring, punchless, fundamentally sound game between two equal sides, you begin looking for the small things that would otherwise go unnoticed in more exciting, goal-laden matches. In this game, I caught notice of the difference in goalkeeping styles between Holland’s Jasper Cillessen and Argentina’s Sergio Romero. Cillessen is a catcher and Romero is a puncher. Time after time, Argentine and Dutch wingers would float balls into the box, hoping to find the head of a streaking striker, and in nearly identical instances, Cillessen would jump up and catch the ball, while Romero would punch it 30 yards downfield. While there are obviously advantages to each approach, it’s fascinating look into how different keepers think when they’re called upon to step up and make a play. Romero will have to be extra careful with his punches in the final though because Thomas Müller lives for popping up in unexpected spaces to pounce on opportunities (like the goal he scored after a Tim Howard save in the Group Stage). — Matt Bell

Images courtesy of Skysports, FourFourTwo, The Guardian, Football.co.uk, The Telegraph, ndtv.com

Follow Carl on Twitter: @CarlYedor61
Follow Matt on Twitter: @mjbell16
Follow Peter on Twitter: @peatebutterston
Follow Nick on Twitter: @TriniNick_James
Follow GSABR on Twitter: @GtownSports
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