Holland took out Brazil this morning in what was a tale of two halves. The dutch managed to stay in the game although Brazil scored early. Brazil dominated the first half, but failed to generate more scoring changes. Once the teams came out of the locker room for the second half, it was completely different. Brazil's Felipe Melo's own goal on a beautiful cross from Wesley Sneijder knotted things up. Melo was later sent off after stoping on a thigh. The Dutch scored again on a classic corner kick to the near post that was flicked on to Sneijder for a gorgeous goal. Holland was able to recover from an early goal and they were able to maintain ball possession in the second half after they addressed schematic issues during halftime. The only set back from this game for the dutch is that they will be without defender Gregory Van Der Wiel and midfielder Nigel De Jong for the next round because of a 2nd booking.
...and then there were eight.
Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Ghana, Netherlands, Paraguay, Spain, and Uruguay. Among them 12 World Cup champions and 10 runners-up. This group of 8 has some of the most intriguing match-ups and story lines you will see at a World Cup.
I fully expect Friday and Saturday's matches to be must-see television. If you aren't a fan of soccer, give this weekend a chance. The best players in the world will be on display playing for nothing less than pride of country in what, to some, is the only shot of their entire career to reach the pinnacle of success in the sport. I'm not exaggerating when I say that careers will be defined & legacies cemented in just a few days. Here is a preview of the games, predictions, and more...
First, a history lesson. Most World Cup critics will tell you that all the games from now on go to penalty kicks. While penalty kicks are an unfortunate necessity, recent history tell us that this claim is simply not true. Over the last five world cups dating back to 1990, 30% of the quarterfinal matches have gone to penalty kicks (6 out of 20 quarterfinal matches). Most likely one of the games this weekend will be decided by a shootout, but its highly unlikely that 2 or more are not decided by the end of overtime. This time around, Argentina vs Germany is the one that I think could go to a shootout (again).
Odds to win the tournament:
1. Brazil - the best combination of offense, defense, goalie, and bench. Scheme fits their talent perfectly and they have a fairly easy draw from this point forward. Brazil dominated Uruguay in the qualifying and Ghana wouldn't stand a chance, so it appears to be 'beat Netherlands and they are in'.
2. Spain - only real rival to Brazil's balance of offense & defense. After getting off to a shaky start, they showed why they won the European Cup and have absolutely dominated international play for the last couple of years.
3. Tie - Germany & Argentina - Argentina is the slight favorite this Saturday, however its going to be a tight match and could easily go to PKs. Germany would have the better shot to beat Spain and get through to the final.
4. Netherlands - If the dutch manage to take down Brazil, they would be favored to beat the Uruguay/Ghana winner.
5. Uruguay - Lightning in a bottle right now, let's see if they can keep it up as the sides start to get tougher in a hurry.
6. Paraguay - they face Spain and then the winner of Germany/Argentina just to make it to the final. Congratulations on the showing so far, now its time to exit stage left.
7. Ghana - a fortunate draw against an under-achieving USA gave allowed them to get this far. Forlan won't let these get past Uruguay.
So without further ado, here is a look at Friday's matches...
Brazil vs. Netherlands, Friday 9:00 AM Central - Match History: Series tied 1-1-1 in World Cup play
These two teams most recently hooked-up in the semifinals of the 1998 World Cup in France and the game went to a shootout following a 1-1 tie. Brazil went on to win the PK shootout, and lost to France in the final. If the match history is any indication, this will be a very competitive match as well. This will be the best of the two matches on Friday, so if you can't wake your ass up by 9, or if you actually have a real job like me make sure you DVR this thing.
Brazil's ability to seemingly find an extra gear in the knock-out stage is predicated on their defense, and not their offense as most casual observers would believe. The jogo bonito is a lot easier to execute when you have the reliability of the Brazilian backline, perhaps the best and most athletic backline in the tournament. Brazil never keeps more than four players back, and only occassionally do they really use more than two or three. Yet, time and again you will see Brazil's defense snuff out counter-attacks, disrupt long runs and deep passes, and from time-to-time make a goal saving foul. No one is more familiar with this strategy than the ever-present Brazilian coach Dunga who has crafted this team in his own unassuming image.
On the other side of the ball, the Netherlands style of play is eerily reminiscent of a South American side. The dutch will go as far as Wesley Sneijder, Dirk Kuyt, Arjen Robben, and Robbin Van Persie can take them. This combination of forwards and midfielders is arguably in the top two or three when it comes to combined talent left in the tournament. Sneijder is the key to this offense. His deft passing, steady ball control, and range make him a formidable opponent in midfield. I expect Brazil will keep at least one defender in his pocket at all times.
Brazil will win if: Make no mistake, Brazil is favorite from this point forward. If Brazil keeps Sneijder off the ball and limits his touches to areas of the pitch where he cannot be dangerous, Brazil could feel reasonably comfortable to win this game 1-0. However, Sneijder is a savvy player who is very familiar with the big stage and faces star talent all the time. Not to mention, Netherlands didn't earn the nickname Mechanical Orange from displaying a lack of scheme. I expect Sneijder to get his touches and create a couple of scoring chances. Therefore, Brazil will need Julio Cesar to come up with a couple of saves. On the other end, Brazil will mix up their approaches to the goal and employ aerial crosses, close touch passes, and long distance shots to keep the dutch backline honest. If Brazil is able to keep their possession % above 55%, I expect this will translate to enough shots on goal to win this one in regular time.
Netherlands will win if: The Netherlands are an athletic bunch that play the game with schematic superiority and style. Given that they come from a country smaller than Bevo's ass which wouldn't exist without a network of dams, its hard not to root for these guys. The dutch can win this game, but its going to be a tall order. The first key is to not get into a track meet with Brazil. Holland will need to take their time and patiently develop their offense. The more they can keep Brazil off the ball, the better chance they have at winning. There are very few teams in the world that can spot Brazil a goal and come back. Although the dutch are definitely one of those teams, they cannot afford to give up a goal before the 30 minute mark of the first half. If they do, Brazil could have 2 before halftime. Next, Holland has to limit Robinho and Luis Fabiano's touches near the box. Netherlands will apply tight pressure, and will have to foul in the midfield to slow the Brazilian attack. If Kaka gets behind this defense, watch out.
Shoot-Out Advantage: Brazil has the better goalie and an abundance of guys adept at PKs.
Prediction: Brazil 2-1
Uruguay vs. Ghana, Friday 1:30 PM Central - Match History: no previous meetings
This match-up pits the two Cinderellas of the elite eight. However, both teams have proven that they belong in this round.
Uruguay is an extremely talented side with an underrated striker in Diego Forlan, an up-and-coming talent in Raul Suarez, an extremely good defense, and a first rate goalie. If you saw Uruguay beat South Korea last week, there was no way you could have not been impressed by their team. The fact that this was South America's last qualifier goes to show you how good the South American region is. Uruguay is skillful with the ball in the midfield, and the chemistry between Forlan and Suarez is palpable.
On the other side, Ghana is athletic and, as we saw against the USA, their goalie is pretty unshakable. Still, Ghana will have its hands full with Uruguay because the South Americans can create more scoring opportunities than Ghana's previous World Cup opponents. Ghana is also having to deal with an injury to Asamoah Gyan, the hero of the game versus USA. Gyan is expected to play, however his tender ankle could ground an attack that already has enough trouble generating scoring chances as it is.
Ghana will win if: On paper, I don't see very many ways that Ghana can win this match-up. Its easy to say that they need to stop Forlan and Suarez, but realistically they don't have the talent to do it. Although they only gave up one goal to Germany, the Germans posed less of a threat to Ghana than Uruguay because Germany relies on deep passes to generate scoring chances. Ghana's athleticism was able to keep pace with the German legs in that match-up. This time, Ghana will be playing its first opponent that can really move the ball quickly with short and intermediate passes, heel taps and toe flicks. Its a completely different animal for Ghana to handle, and one that I expect they will have trouble with. Ghana will have look for ways to generate penalties in the box, the same way they managed to beat Serbia and tie Australia and they will have to hope that their goalie can continue to make game saving goals like he did last Saturday. The continent of Africa will be pulling for these guys.
Uruguay will win if: Uruguay is the better squad in this match, and as long as they play within themselves they should see enough opportunities to score a goal. Knowing that Ghana does not have the ability to build-up an attack, Uruguay just needs to keep their backline from allowing forwards to make a break for the goal unimpeded. Uruguay should try to use the offsides trap, and they need to be willing to make a tough tackle even if it means a card. On offense, just keep doin' what you're doin'. Uruguay will do to Ghana for 90 minutes what they US should have done for the last 45 - use quick passes to move the ball faster than the defense can adjust and relentlessly attack the goal.
Shoot-out Advantage: Uruguay.
Prediction: Uruguay wins this one 2-0.