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Tuesday, 8 July 2014

World Cup 2014: Mineirazo

Football is a game of constant surprises, a sport where the scoreline can obscure what actually happened in the game. A 0-0 draw can be a dour affair, or it can be the most balletic display of athleticism ever seen (Germany vs Italy from 2006 is my prime example of this). At other times, however, like in today's match between Brazil and Germany, the scoreline can be a pretty accurate reflection of the game's ebb and flow.

As I've noted in previous posts, I fully expected Brazil to win this game. Sure, they'd been a bit dour in the previous rounds, but they'd always struggled through. Germany, meanwhile, had also been less than their usual swashbuckling selves, and had ground out a difficult 2-1 win against Algeria and a pretty unconvincing 1-0 against a France team that looked like they'd rather be anywhere else. With the weight of history and the support of 200 million citizens, surely we were in for another ground-out match that would be settled either in the earliest stages of the game, or the latest.

And if you were truly cynical (moi?), you'd guess that even if the Germans played Brazil off the pitch, then at least the referee would make reprehensible calls in the hosts' favor - as they've been doing throughout most of the tournament.

So, uh. That 7-1 tonking, then. Who saw that coming?

It actually started pretty well for Brazil. They pressed high, had a few chances, and generally made nuisances of themselves. It looked like the last couple of games of really intense anthem-singing was going to pay off.

Frankly, even when Brazil went 2-0 down it didn't look hopeless. But it was that span of ten minutes, starting at about minute 20, that did it. In a continuation of a shameful trend, Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar found himself constitutionally unable to hold onto a shot, and the three defenders in front of him may as well have been foosball men, for all that they were able to cope with the Germans' passing game.

I did say "three defenders", didn't I? Yes, while Brazil was nominally playing with four men at the back, wide shots of the screen typically showed no more than three hanging back by the keeper's box. Marcelo, over on the left, seemed to have gone walkabout, which was - ironically enough - the exact point of entry that the Germans seemed most able to exploit. Although the entire back 3-or-4 was hapless - witness my favorite picture of the game, as Müller puts in the first goal.

Marcelo, in that picture, looks like a cartoon character. He looks like a man having one of those nightmares where you show up to school and realize you've managed to get there wearing only underpants. To put it in SF terms, it's like his consciousness has been possessed by a talented footballer for the past several years, and the link broke down only in that moment, leaving a bewildered man facing Germany in the World Cup.

But let's look at the positives

On the other hand, I did get to see Miroslav Klose bag his sixteenth goal to move clear of Ronaldo (for whom this match must have been even more of a shitter than that awful final he had against France in 1998). I'd been a little apprehensive about Klose starting, as he'd been largely anonymous against France, but Löw's faith in him was rewarded when he pounced to slot him the rebound off Cesar's hands. I suppose that's why Joachim Löw coaches the German national team and I'm sitting here blogging about it.

It's possible he might even get a chance to add a seventeenth, since Germany's going on to the final now. That'll be important, because the record looks like it'll be broken again soon, by yet another German - Thomas Müller.

Müller, it turns out, is now on 10 World Cup goals in his career, spread across two tournaments, thanks to the five he's scored just in Brazil. And he's 24, so assuming he stays fit and keeps getting picked, he could have another three World Cups in him. It's fanciful to suggest he'll keep to that average of five goals per tournament (which would give him a nigh-unassailable 25 in total), but then again, he has one more game in Brazil to add to his tally, and could get even better by the time 2018 rolls around.

If he's still playing at the age of 32 or 36 (as Klose is doing), then he won't even need to start every game to challenge for the record. He'll just need to come on every once in a while to slot in a convenient goal.

Playing the odds

So who will Germany face in the final? My money is still on Argentina beating the Netherlands. This is based on a number of factors - the main one is the Dutch team's propensity to implode at key moments. The final in 2010 springs to mind as a good example, but so does Euro 2008, when they romped almost joyfully through Italy and France (incidentally, picking up the same goal difference as in today's game) before losing tamely to Russia in the first knockout round. There's no good reason to assume that it'll happen again this year - but then, there never is. If it doesn't happen against Argentina, the odds will be greater that it happens against Germany.

Another key point is the Netherlands' strength in depth. The Dutch attack boasts three of the finest players in the world - Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder - but the rest of the midfield and the defense may not be as incisive. We simply haven't seen them properly tested - Costa Rica hardly troubled the Dutch defense, and while Mexico scored, the Netherlands held them to just one, which was enough for the Dutch to score two late goals and progress to the next round.

Of course, you could say the same about Argentina. They boast some amazing attacking players - including a Lionel Messi who's finally living up to his potential - but the rest of the team is deeply suspect. I've generally gone for the South American teams over the European ones in this tournament, and think that even an unconvincing Argentina is stronger opposition than what the Netherlands has faced so far. But I wouldn't be surprised if the Dutch do manage to get to the final.

Although if today's display is anything to go by, I wouldn't fancy them against Germany, whose only blot on today's record is not the goal they conceded in the 90th minute, but the fact that they weren't able to get the entire team on the scoresheet. That said, it's good to remember the words of Yogi Berra: "That's why they play the games."

I'm looking forward to finding out what happens next.