Countdown to the Golden Boot
The race for the Golden Boot -- the top scorer at the World Cup -- is something that dominates headlines and column inches every four years. Ever since Argentina's Guillermo Stabile netted eight goals in 1930, the prize for the tournament's top goal getter is something that fans simply love to discuss. Sometimes, as with Just Fontaine in 1958 or Gerd Muller in 1970, it is a runaway, but 2014 has a number of the world's top stars vying for contention.
Since 1978, the winner has scored an average of six goals. As we enter the quarterfinal stage in Brazil, we already have three players with four goals, and one outstanding star with five.
If you had said before the tournament that a 22-year-old South American was going to be topping the goal charts by this stage, you probably would have meant Brazil's Neymar. Not so: Colombia's young star James Rodriguez (five) has stepped up to become one of the players of the tournament. Showcasing his heading skills as well as his technical gift in the group stage, he bagged three goals before a double in the round of 16 -- which included one of the goals of the tournament against Uruguay -- putting him one ahead of the chasing pack. With Brazil up next, it gives the Monaco man a chance to go head-to-head with his continental adversary.
Coming from behind
Germany had arguably the best draw of the round of 16 as they were paired with African minnows Algeria. A landslide victory was predicted, but Les Fennecs pulled off something of a shock to force the game to extra time at 0-0, and were only beaten 2-1 as tired legs were unable to keep out the German charge. However, they did manage to stop Thomas Muller (four) from scoring, which is quite a feat given his record at World Cups. Currently, the Bayern man has nine goals in his World Cup career -- five in 2010 -- and is rapidly closing on the record of teammate Miroslav Klose, who recently equaled Ronaldo's record in the competition by netting his 15th goal. A good game against France and the gap could close even further.
Level with him are two men who continue to save their underperforming sides: Neymar and Argentina's Lionel Messi. The South Americans are arguably two of the best in the world, and while the home pressure is on Neymar to succeed, Messi has his own demons to overcome as he tries to win the trophy for Argentina on hostile ground. Neither was able to break through during their respective round-of-16 challenges -- Chile and Switzerland -- although both did their bit to ensure progress. Sadly, penalties in shootouts and match-winning assists do not count toward this score.
Netherlands have rather tapered off in the goal-scoring stakes, too. They started off so well with Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie each with three after two games. A quarterfinal against Costa Rica could open up the door again -- although to underestimate the Central Americans would be foolish.
France striker Karim Benzema (three) is in the running as well, despite failing to net in the 0-0 draw with Ecuador or the 2-0 round-of-16 win over Nigeria. The Real Madrid man looked like he might be back to his very best earlier in the competition, but will need to fuse his speed against a ponderous German back line if he is to add to his goal tally in the next round.
Colombia's Jackson Martinez (two) didn't fire for the first two games and then came to party with two goals against Japan in the final game of Group C. He played a watching brief as Rodriguez continued his fine goal-scoring form in the round of 16, but now faces Brazil with his team on a high. It would take a magnificent effort from the Porto striker to get into contention for the prize now, but you can never rule anything out for this Colombian team.
Memphis Depay (two) is probably the strangest name on the list, but he deserves his place for netting twice for the Netherlands in group-stage action. Now with Costa Rica on the horizon, the PSV Eindhoven midfielder will be keen to add to his tally and help seal progress into the semifinals.
Out of the running
Now that the second wave of teams have been eliminated, Switzerland midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri (three) won't have a chance to challenge. In tears after the late Argentine winner that knocked his side out of the round of 16, Shaqiri impressed during this World Cup, although all of his goals did come in one game against Honduras.
The U.S. failed to advance past Belgium, not for lacking of trying, so Clint Dempsey (two) drops out of the running, too. Some real grit was shown from the USMNT in extra time and Dempsey had one final chance to shine, but saw his effort saved.
Already out from the group stage is Ecuador's Enner Valencia (three), although the striker did much to improve his reputation before his exit. Also eliminated is Uruguay striker Luis Suarez (two), who wouldn't have been able to increase his goal total even had his team advanced because he's serving a nine-match ban for biting Italy's Giorgio Chiellini. Another favorite entering the tournament was Cristiano Ronaldo, who wasn't in top form and only managed one goal before his Portugal team exited.
You know you've had a good tournament when you have outscored, and sometimes outplayed, Messi, but Rodriguez now has the eyes of the world upon him as he bids to drive his Colombia team past the host nation in the quarterfinals. This is what pressure is all about, but so far the young midfielder has shown he is up to the task. At the tender age of 22, his five goals have made him the outstanding player of the tournament, and if you follow the form book, then he is sure to have an impact against Brazil.