Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Posted: 07/3/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0
The World Cup of upsets, hockey scores and wild entertainment has become the World Cup of defensive suffocation, anxiety and extra time.
Apparently the eight teams remaining in the tournament learned their lesson during an unpredictable group stage that saw many of the supposed superpowers -- Spain, Italy, England and Portugal among them -- dropped at the first hurdle.
Whereas fire-wagon, attacking football was the theme of the competition's opening phase, goalkeeping and organization defined a very cautious second. In hindsight, it was a predictable development.
With the trophy up for grabs like never before, the round of 16 winners progressed into the quarter-finals by taking as few risks as possible. Five of the matches went into extra time; two required penalties.
And in none of them did we see the sort of swashbuckling, take-no-prisoners approach that had previously produced so many unexpected results.
What that means is we're likely in for a series of very cagey matches on Friday and Saturday, each punctuated by a decisive moment of individual brilliance. For while the daring of the group stage is well and truly behind us, we still have a collection of megastar players with history on their minds.
And none more so than Brazil's Neymar.
The 22-year-old has already scored four goals at this World Cup, taking his international tally to 35 and putting him above the likes of Tostao, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo on the country's all-time list.
He has magic in his boots, and leading Brazil to a first title on home soil and sixth overall would see him immortalized in the pantheon of great Brazilian footballers.
Opposite the Barcelona forward will be tournament goal-scoring leader James Rodriguez, who scored both goals -- including a delightful half-volley from distance -- in Colombia's 2-0 win over Uruguay last weekend. Also 22, he has been the competition's best player to date and is an early favourite for the Golden Ball.
The France-Germany quarter-final could also come down to a single piece of genius.
Karim Benzema, who has scored three goals in Brazil, could well be the man to provide it for France, and with Mathieu Valbuena and Antoine Griezmann getting in behind Germany's makeshift fullbacks, he could have more than one opportunity to make it happen.
Thomas Mueller -- already one of his country's most prolific World Cup goal scorers -- will be Germany's most reliable threat on Friday.
He failed to find the back of the net in the round of 16 against Algeria, and he'll be extra motivated to get back amongst the goals in the quarter-finals.
On Saturday, Netherlands attacker Arjen Robben will look to extend his exceptional form against Costa Rica. Manager Louis van Gaal's tactical changes against Mexico allowed the 30-year-old to grow in effectiveness as the match progressed, and he already has a reputation as a big-game player.
On the other side of the ball, Ticos captain Bryan Ruiz scored his side's normal-time goal against Greece and then converted from 12 yards during the penalty shootout. A difficult club campaign now well and truly behind him, he'll no doubt cause the left-hand side of the Dutch defence plenty of problems.
Finally, the Argentina-Belgium showdown will showcase two of football's finest dribblers: Lionel Messi and Eden Hazard.
Messi, who had often been criticized for failing to deliver on the big stage for his country, arrived in Brazil on a mission and he has so far scored four goals and assisted on the winner against Switzerland. This may well be his time, and you can tell he senses that.
Hazard, meanwhile, has had a mostly quiet World Cup so far, but Argentina's defence has looked wobbly at times, and if he can attack it at speed he stands a good chance of breaking out and putting Belgium into the semifinals.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 3, 2014 D4
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