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Diary: Kickin ' it with Brazil's next superstars

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Jul 2, 2014

Lessons learned in the round of 16

Tim Howard is likely to return to the U.S. to a hero's welcome after his 16 saves against Belgium, but Belgium defeated the U.S. in extra time. With plenty of goals scored thus far, it's been the goalkeepers who've highlighted the Round of 16.

So it's on to the quarterfinals with all eight of the table toppers still standing, albeit many of them with a slight wobble.

The next round will have a tough act to follow in terms of rollicking entertainment and bite-your-fingernails-to-a-bloody-stump drama.

And the soccer wasn't bad, either.

Pyrrhic victories aren't everything, they're the only thing

It began with the high-speed, slick-passing, goal-post-unlucky Chile's loss to the host nation, and occurred repeatedly thereafter. Mexico, Nigeria, Switzerland, Algeria and the United States each played beyond their pedigree and supposed talent level, only to exit in achingly painful ways.

For the winning teams, however, the amount of energy expended could well have later-round repercussions, with the notable exceptions of Colombia (which easily topped a toothless Uruguay) and Costa Rica (which did lovers of entertaining soccer everywhere a huge favor by sending home Greece, a side that plays a game so numbingly dull and unrecognizable that it can only be described as "jogo incognito").

Costa Rica deserve your applause for sending home yawn-inducing Greece.

This isn't Stanley Cup hockey

Has there ever been a more glorious display of fast-twitch acrobatic goalkeeping than we witnessed these past four days? Guillermo Ochoa began the "did you just see that save?" trend as Mexico performed its quadrennial second-round choke-a-palooza, albeit one that was greatly aided by Portuguese referee Pedro Proenca's benevolent attitude toward Honest Arjen Robben's gravity-defying shenanigans. (Although Robben was adamant that his diving was limited to the first half and that the penalty he was awarded was legitimate.)

Then Nigeria's elastic man, Vincent Enyeama, bent, twisted and hurled himself bungee-style to almost spectacular effect (well, there was that flap on the first goal) in his side's defeat against France. Switzerland's Diego Benaglio and Algeria's Rais M'Bolhi did much the same against Argentina and Germany respectively.

But nobody was more stand-on-your-bald-dome-astonishing than America's Tim Howard, whose 16 saves against a rampant Belgium was a World Cup record -- probably because nobody ever bothered to count that high before.

Unfortunately for all five keepers, their heroics were in the service of losing efforts, thus ruining the old hockey adage that a hot goalie helps you win in the playoffs. Then again, these guys were just plain cool.

Van Gaal previews what's to come at United

If FIFA gave the refs permission to call water breaks every 30 minutes or so in Brazil, can you imagine the timeline when the Cup is held in 125-degree Qatar eight years from now? There'll be enough water boys on the field to keep Adam Sandler making movies for years.

- Macintosh: World Cup player stocks
- Carter: Countdown to the Golden Boot

While the couch-surfing wags made jokes about orange slices, Dutch manager Louis van Gaal showed his future Manchester United chops by changing up his formation during the final fluid-replenishment period, switching the flailing Dutch from a 5-3-2 to a 4-3-3. Combined with his courageous decision to yank my onetime Arsenal man crush Robin van Persie, Van Gaal showed he has the tactical acumen to be an instant force in the English Premier League.

It's just not a party without you-know-who

If you go anywhere outside the streets of Uruguay, you'd be hard-pressed to find a fan who is truly sympathetic with Luis Suarez's plight. But regardless of your feelings for The Man Who Wasn't There, his ban really left his nation blunt in attack against Colombia.

Without Suarez, Uruguay was forced to rely on the overhyped skills of Edinson Cavani and pray that 2010's hero, 35-year-old silken-haired Diego Forlan, would Ponce de Leon it. Alas, Cavani played down to his brand, while Forlan complained more than an Italian with teeth marks.

The dream final remains a reality

The holy trinity of soccer remains intact as we head into the quarterfinals, with perennial continental rivals -- Brazil and Argentina -- on a collision course in the final that only poets and Sepp Blatter could dream up.

A pathway is paved to see Neymar and Brazil take on Leo Messi and Argentina in the final.

The Argentines -- or Lionel Messi and the Others, as they are known to opponents -- have had an oddly tough time scoring in this tournament, and if Belgium's relentless attacking display against the U.S. is any indication, Messi's going to need one of those 10 other guys to step up before the 117th minute, as Angel di Maria did against the Swiss.

Standing in the way of those two superpowers is a formidable trio -- those pesky Germans, who always make the quarters of late but then typically stall like an old, rusted-out Volkswagen, or the free-scoring but inconsistent French, who under Didier Deschamps have banished the ghosts of their 2010 World Cup farce and look more like Les Bleus of 1998.

And looming in the semis are the Dutch divas -- or is it divers? -- who are playing with increasing self-belief that this is the year they finally shed their image as the Buffalo Bills of world soccer.

Still, dates with destiny tend to trump rational predictions in sports, and if the Brazilians can hold their nerve and rediscover their signature guile and artistry against James Rodriquez-powered Colombia on Friday, then July 13 just might bring us a South American final of Homeric proportions.