Sunday, 6 July 2014

World Cup 2014: No Surprises Left

If the group stages of this year's World Cup held a bunch of surprises (and goals), the knockout stages in Brazil have gone in an altogether more traditional direction. Only three matches in the round of 16 were settled in the regulation 90 minutes, with powerhouses like Germany having a lot of trouble against upstarts like Algerian. In the quarter-finals, two matches were settled extremely early on, and only one featured more than one goal. And, more tellingly, the upstarts have finally all fallen away.

Colombia, which had lit up the group stage with flowing, fun, attacking football, found themselves played off the pitch by a Brazil team that was nowhere near its best, but turned out to be still too good. France, meanwhile, disappeared without a whimper against Germany, while Belgium hardly gave Argentina cause for concern. In fact, the only game that looked up in the air at any point was the Netherlands' win against Costa Rica, and that only because it went to penalties.

So at this point we're left with four heavyweights of World Cup soccer - Brazil plays Germany on Tuesday, in a repeat of the 2002 World Cup final, while the following day Argentina plays the Netherlands in a repeat of the 1978 World Cup final. The deja vu doesn't end there, either - Germany and the Netherlands both made it to the semi-finals last time, and of the four remaining teams, only the Netherlands has never won the tournament. Brazil, Germany and Argentina are all multiple winners, to boot.

Pura vida, indeed

Last time I talked about various plans to increase the number of teams outside of the big two confederations - Costa Rica was the only team in the quarter-finals to come from outside of Europe or South America, but now there are none. If the Tikos had made it to the semi-final, it would have been the first time a CONCACAF team made it since 1930, when the bronze medal went to none other than the US (I know, wtf, right?).

They played a good game against the Dutch, although the gulf in quality was pretty apparent throughout - they may have stopped Robben, van Persie and co. from scoring, but Costa Rica never really looked like finding the net themselves, other than at the very end.

It's hard to see how they can repeat the feat, though. Of the 23 men named in the squad, only 7 will still be under 30 by the time the next World Cup comes around. That doesn't mean the rest will all have retired by then - Keylor Navas should expect to play next time, assuming his form holds up - but of course, some of the players will no longer be available, for whatever reason, and it's impossible to tell who will replace them.

Most of them play outside Costa Rica, as well, and none of these players is on the books for the very best clubs of Europe (said with apologies to Levante, PSV and Olympiacos, of course). It's impossible to tell what kind of youngsters the national team set-up in Costa Rica has to work with, which will be another question mark over the team making an impact next time.

And as a final comment - and not to detract from their achievement in any way - the Tikos were lucky to be placed in a group that turned out to be so abject, despite its "Group of Death" billing. The expectation before the tournament started was that Costa Rica would end up being the whipping boys. They may also have been lucky to have avoided Luis Suarez in their first match against Uruguay, and to have played a worn-out Italy and England for the next two.

All this is to say that while I hope this isn't the last we see of Costa Rica, my fear is that the odds are against them repeating this feat in four years. But I hope they do make it (although ideally not against Italy).

The great man theory

Of course, as I suggested above, the remaining teams are all groups that we can expect to see again (and again, and again...). I still believe that Brazil will get stronger as they progress, as they'll be even more determined to win after the Maracanazo of 1950, and as the fans get even louder in support of the home team.

The loss of Neymar will be a tough one, though probably not catastrophic. It's true that this year's Brazil team isn't the most amazing collection of players, but they're also a better team than, for instance, Argentina. If Messi were injured and out for the rest of the tournament, Argentina would be robbed of its most gifted playmaker - almost all of the goals the team has scored have involved him in some way.

(This makes Argentina, perversely, potentially the weakest remaining team. However, equally perversely, this works in their favor, because as the opposing teams all crowd around Messi to stop him playing, his team mates are freed up to do their own thing. Which is why I still believe Argentina will make it to the final.)

Pace my friend Dave, who insists that the team cohesion effect has been debunked, Brazil's great strength is their ability to play together. Goals, for example, have come from all over the team, with defenders like David Luiz and Thiago Silva getting on the scoresheet. Which is why, despite being weakened by Neymar's loss, they'll still be in better shape to score goals than Germany.

The Germans, remember, have only brought one "recognized" forward, Miroslav Klose - two if you count Lukas Podolski, but I seem to be the only one counting him (and anyway, he's been out injured too). Their goals have come from a variety of players too, but I think they've also been slightly weaker at the back when playing Philip Lahm out of position - and anyway, Manuel Neuer may be able to come haring out of the box and play sweeper against the likes of Algeria and France, but the Brazilians will make him pay for that.

Still, it seems clear that as the teams get more evenly matched, we'll see more games like the previous ones - slightly dour, slightly rough, but the better team snatching it either super-early or super-late. It could even be nothing but penalties from here on in. It'd be a shame, but still in keeping with what we've seen so far.