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Jul 6, 2014

Previewing the World Cup semifinals

The ESPN FC crew recaps all the action from Saturday's quarterfinals and looks ahead to the World Cup semifinal matchups.

A World Cup that has provided so many surprises and veered so delightfully off script began its regression to the mean at the quarterfinal stage. Four games, no upsets and, perhaps tellingly, just five goals in total.

Was it a reminder that when the stakes get this high -- for all the intent and best will in the world -- bolts start tightening and fear of failure sets in? Probably. And it wasn't just the lack of goals as much as the fact that two of the four games -- Argentina vs. Belgium and Germany vs. France -- simply weren't that good regardless of whether your chosen metric is entertainment or performance.

A sign of things to come for the semifinals?

One would hope not, because on paper, Argentina vs. Netherlands and Germany vs. Brazil offer up arguably the most pedigreed lineup of semifinalists ever assembled. Among them, these four nations have won 10 of the 19 World Cups and supplied 21 of the 38 finalists (40, if you want to be pedantic and count all four teams in the final group stage as finalists).

These nations have written recent World Cup history. In the past 40 years, Germany have reached the final five times; Argentina, Brazil and the Netherlands three each.

You wanted big names with history and tradition to boot? You got them.

Brazil and Germany will meet for the second time in a competitive game. Their first? The 2002 World Cup final.
Brazil and Germany will meet for the second time in a competitive game. Their first? The 2002 World Cup final.

You get a replay of the 2002 final between Germany and Brazil, the only time that these two sides -- the two most successful nations in World Cup history -- have faced off in a competitive game. And you get Argentina vs. Netherlands, a clash that harkens back to 1978, a very different World Cup, one played under the watchful eye of a military dictatorship and the last hurrah of Total Football.

What you also get is an interesting contrast. Three nations (largely) carried by a superstar: Neymar for Brazil, Arjen Robben for the Netherlands and Lionel Messi for Argentina. And one, Germany, which -- playing to stereotype a little bit -- has been far more about the collective.

The twist, of course, is that Brazil's superstar is gone and with him, at least for the semifinal, their captain and defensive stalwart, Thiago Silva. How Luiz Felipe Scolari copes may be the biggest test of his managerial career thus far. This means he'll be tested in terms of personnel and tactics in the way his three other semifinal colleagues already have been. Alejandro Sabella had to rejigger his team to find the right balance for Messi, Joachim Low ditched possession football to overcome France and Louis van Gaal has been juggling schemes and individuals to paper over the many cracks in his Dutch squad.

Louis van Gaal's trickery worked against Costa Rica. What will he scheme in order to stop Lionel Messi and Argentina?
Louis van Gaal's trickery worked against Costa Rica. What will he scheme in order to stop Lionel Messi and Argentina?

The other common thread, peculiar to this World Cup, is that we haven't had an outstanding team. These four have played well only intermittently. They may have won 14 of 20 games in the 90 minutes, but that total includes injury-time winners (Netherlands vs. Mexico, Argentina vs. Iran). Indeed, the only truly dominant performances and gaudy scorelines -- yes, it's subjective -- were Germany vs. Portugal (Low's crew played against 10 men for 53 minutes), Brazil vs. Cameroon (the African team were already eliminated) and Netherlands vs. Spain (though for the first 40 minutes, the defending world champions looked in control and found themselves ahead).

It's not a knock on the semifinalists at all. If anything, it underscores how level the playing field has been in this tournament and how the difference between victory and defeat is often down to mental toughness and superstars delivering brilliance. These four teams have both.

Here's a breakdown on how things might pan out.

Germany vs. Brazil, Belo Horizonte, Tuesday (4 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN)

Do we get the "new" possession-oriented Germany of the first four games or the quarterfinal version, which is actually the old Germany, with a more muscular midfield and a more direct style? That's one of the big questions Low must resolve. Across the way, Scolari has even more on his plate. Without Neymar, do you keep the 4-2-3-1 and have someone else try to impersonate the resident superstar or do you batten down the hatches, go with three workmanlike midfielders (Paulinho, Fernandinho and the returning Luiz Gustavo) and hope for the best?

Germany's high line should encounter fewer issues against a more cautious Brazil and you sense that Scolari is more comfortable with a blue-collar approach, anyway. If that happens, the game will likely be won or lost in the middle of the park.

Argentina vs. Netherlands, Wednesday (4 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN)

Van Gaal has used just about every formation and approach in the book to squeeze every drop of potential out of a thin, unbalanced squad. Short of using Tim Krul as a target man, you don't know what more he's going to pull out of the hat. The extra bodies at the back will need to contain Messi, while at the other end, he'll have a big call to make with Robin van Persie, who has contributed something close to nothing in the past two outings. Robben has yet to come up for air; if his breathless performances continue, it could be a long day for the Argentine defense.

On the other hand, Argentina are growing, especially the much-maligned back four and Javier Mascherano in midfield. The loss of Angel Di Maria and his ability to play Tonto to Messi's Lone Ranger will hurt, but now that Gonzalo Higuain is showing signs of life, at least there is a scoring alternative to you-know-who. The hope is that Messi isn't treated by the Dutch defense the way James Rodriguez was handled by the Brazilian midfield (and conversely, that Robben isn't hacked by the Argentine back line).

Gabriele Marcotti

A London-based journalist and broadcaster who covers world soccer, he is the author of three books, the world soccer columnist for The Times of London and a correspondent for the Italian daily Corriere dello Sport. You can catch him on ESPN FC TV and read him here twice a week.