And then there were eight

By: Fernando Durate

Don’t let the simplicity of the draw fool you. The 2014 World Cup has been a unique tournament in which the more established football nations are still reigning, just like we predicted a couple of weeks ago. But boy didn’t they have to fight for it. Out of the eight matches in the round of 16, only two were resolved over 90 minutes — and that is more than blatant evidence that those matches were very balanced. That suggests we are in for a batch of mouth-watering quarterfinals come Friday and predicting the outcomes might be hard even for the most daring fortunetellers.

But let’s start with a quick review. The round of 16 was opened with a battle between Brazil and Chile that the hosts were lucky to win on penalties. The Seleção looked out of ideas against one of the most surprising teams in the competition and they must be still shaking by Mauricio’s Pinilla’s thunder of a shot in the dying minutes of extra-time. The crossbar spared the Seleção a shocking exit in the round of 16 that would have thrown Brazilian football in disarray.

On Friday, Brazil will lock horns with exciting Colombia, whose 2-0 win over Uruguay was one of the two games that didn’t require extra time or extra sweat. Despite the obvious caveat that is the absence of Luizito Suarez, the Colombians ruled the game and must be fancying their chances of making even more history in Brazil. They had never gone so far in a World Cup and now they can smell a place in the semifinals. However, the likelihood of Brazil playing another match as poorly as they did in Belo Horizonte last Saturday is very little. And Colombia have yet to face one of the big boys so far.

France and Germany will make the other duel on this side of the draw. Both must have put their feet up in the last few days after two grueling matches against African opposition. France struggled with Nigeria’s pace but it was never really in doubt they had more quality to settle the tie. Once again we need to remember that Didier Deschamps’ squad arrived in Brazil with many pundits already writing them off thanks to Franck Ribery’s injury. Le Bleus, however, cruised in their group and one has to think they might be relishing another World Cup meeting with their Germans foes, who had the better of them in the 1982 and 1986 semifinals.

As for Germany, they are breathing with relief after Algeria gave them a proper game. Once again Manuel Neuer had to play as an extra defender to make it up for a shaky back four. Touted by many to be a dominating team here in Brazil they are finding life much harder but there is enough quality in this side for them to feel confident against France. We are talking here about a game between two European giants, where nobody will play without responsibility. My hunch? Germany squeezing through.

Costa Rica have been another great side story in this tournament so far and their penalty victory over Greece has been cheered worldwide thanks to the fact they do not play the ugly brand of football proposed by the Greeks. One cannot stop thinking that the battle against Greece in Recife must have been tough on the Central Americans, who now have to find spirit and heart to beat Holland in the quarterfinals. Once again it will be a game in a hot and sunny place (Salvador), which the Dutch have to be dreading after their ordeal in Fortaleza against Mexico.

It was heartbreaking to see Miguel Herrera’s men capitulating after drawing first blood, but in all fairness the Dutch comeback punished their decision to sit back instead of going for the kill. They were undone by Louis Van Gaal’s decision to revert to a 4-3-3 that pushed his own players to the limit. But it paid back not only with the result; Wesley Sneijder seems to have got his confidence back and his strike to equalize the game was as sweet as it can get.

Argentina have also been living dangerously and things against Switzerland could have gone really sour. Lionel Messi once again saved them, this time by hitting a precious pass to Angel Di Maria’s winner. So far Messi has made the difference for Argentina in all their four games and that has some omen-like memories related to another short and skillful player so crucial in their last World Cup win — Diego Maradona in 1986. It remains to be seen if lightning can strike twice.

Belgium survived the spirited Americans and the vision of Marc Wilmots celebrating Eden Hazard’s winner almost on the halfway line shows how much the result meant to them. They have survived the weight of expectations and now stand with a chance to inflict damage to Argentina. They will be aware of Messi’s threat and in my opinion Belgium look the perfect match for Argentina because they will not respect Argentina as other teams would. Expect Eden Hazard to fancy giving Argentina’s back-four a scare.

If the quarterfinals are anything as good as the last eight matches have been, this World Cup will be unforgettable. As much as supporters’ nerves and hearts must be battered now…

(Fernando Duarte is a Brazilian football writer and author of “Shocking Brazil: Six Games That Shook the World Cup” Birlinn Books.)

 

 

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