This World Cup is coming to a complicated resolution.
In some ways, this final four is utterly predictable, maybe with the exception of Holland. In my family’s pool, everyone picked Brazil, Germany, and Argentina in the semi-finals (with Italy and Spain as the not-insane alternatives to the Dutch). World Cup’s have a tendency to coalesce around the dominant teams by this point, and 2014 appears to be no exception.
Holland are certainly the outsiders in the semi-finals. Despite being 2010 runners-up, they didn’t get a lot of respect in their group with Spain and Chile. They’ve looked amazing at times (against Spain, certainly, and also Chile) but they’ve looked vulnerable, as well (against Australia, for 85 minutes of the Mexico match, and in the Costa Rica match, where they were pushed to penalties). Still, they’ve gotten the results they’ve needed, even if it hasn’t looked very commanding.
The pre-tournament favorite Brazil has had a path to the semi-finals that can only be described as a national trauma. Brazil limped out of the group stage ahead of Mexico on goal difference, went to the wire on penalties against Chile, and kicked the crap out of Colombia in an ugly performance reminiscent of Holland’s against Spain in the 2010 final. Reaping what they sowed throughout that match, they now face Germany without Neymar and Thiago Silva.
The joy of the early part of this tournament has given way to a grim opportunism. Unless you can muster any romanticism for Arjen Robben and the Dutch, winning the Cup for the first time after failing in three finals, it’s down to a hobbled five-time winner Brazil, a resolute three-time winner Germany, and Messi looking to put two-time winner Argentina back on the podium.
On to the matches:
This is a hard one to figure out. On the surface, you’d have to feel like Germany are the strong favorites against a Brazil missing both their defensive and offensive talismans. Germany has just incredible belief and desire to win at this point, and they can clearly see a path to the trophy. Their consistency and mental strength are, in my opinion, more powerful than the Brazilian crowd. And that crowd will know that the only way Brazil are going to win is if they can breathe life and spirit into the motley collection of Fred, Jo, Hulk, Paulinho, Oscar and Willian and get them to score.
An in-form Brazil, at full strength, with the crowd and nation behind them, would have a great chance in this match. But that is just not the Brazil we are going to see. I think Brazil needs to score twice to win, and probably needs an early goal as well to bring the crowd into the match. If Germany can manage to strangle Brazil like they did to France in the quarter-finals, taking the crowd out of the match, and shaking the Brazilian attackers belief, they should win easily. I think Germany will win. I also think the ref will be under a lot of pressure to keep Brazil in the match, which could make it unpredictable.
Despite Argentina being heavily favored, this feels like a very even match to me. Argentina finally put it together against Belgium, looking good on defense (particularly their midfielders tracking back) and getting some attacking support for Messi from Higuain. But still, they only managed to win 1:0. And they lost Di Maria to injury.
Meanwhile, Holland could not put Costa Rica away, despite getting their tactics right and despite getting the psyche job / coaching master-stroke when they replaced their starting keeper with Tim Krul for the penalty shootout. Regardless of what you think of him and his theatrics, Robben looked incredible throughout that match — he was running like a teenager in the 120th minute. They got good play from Blind, Sneijder and Kuyt, but Van Persie looked out of sorts.
It will probably come down to how well the Argentina defense handles Robben, and how well the Dutch defense handles Messi (particularly without hard-man De Jong in the lineup). I’d give the slight nod to Argentina, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see this one go to extra-time.