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 semi stage in Brazil, we already have three players with four goals -- one of whom has now been ruled out -- and one outstanding, departed star with six.
Colombia's young star James Rodriguez (six) has taken the world by storm. When not attracting giant insects, he managed to score in every one of the games he played in during this World Cup. He bagged three goals in the group stage before a double in the round of 16 -- which included one of the goals of the tournament against Uruguay -- and a coolly taken penalty in the defeat to Brazil. Rodriguez was the subject of some rough treatment during that game, which hindered his ability to take control. However he still showed his class in bursts and got himself on the score sheet once more. Now, following his departure from the country, his six-goal tally is there to be beaten.
Coming from behind
The story of the three men still stranded on four goals for the tournament is, sadly, about the one who will no longer play a part. A broken vertebra in his back suffered in the quarterfinal clash against Colombia means that Brazilian favourite Neymar will not get a chance to add to his tally, the Barcelona winder robbed of a chance to make history on home soil.
Still, the other two avoid each other in the semifinal draw, which raises the tantalising prospect of Germany's Thomas Muller and Argentina's Lionel Messi going head-to-head in the final for the biggest prize in world football -- and the World Cup trophy of course.
Muller's nine goals in his World Cup career -- five in 2010 and four here -- mean he is rapidly closing on the record of teammate Miroslav Klose, who recently equalled Ronaldo's record in the competition by netting his 15th goal. He hasn't struck a goal since the group stages (in which he bagged a hat trick in the opening game against Portugal) so may feel slightly like he's out of practice, but once again he will be key against the host nation, although whether coach Joachim Low opts for Klose up front, or Muller as a false 9, remains to be seen.
Messi, meanwhile, has stopped scoring for fun and saving his team, instead opting to provide assists and darting runs to open space for his teammates to take some of the burden off him. Two 1-0 wins against Switzerland and Belgium haven't improved his goal tally, but there's still a feeling that this is his tournament, and for the semifinal against Netherlands he will surely be back in goal-scoring form.
Playing catch-up, Netherlands have rather tapered off in the goal-scoring stakes. They started off so well with Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie each netting three after two games, but they have not improved on that. A quarterfinal against Costa Rica failed to trouble the scorers -- penalty shootouts don't count -- and it will now be an uphill struggle for the Dutchmen if they are to close the gap now.
We're going to play a bit of a guessing game now. Clearly with only a potential two games left for the players -- one of which is the less prestigious, and therefore more likely to see a hatful of goals, Third Place Play-Off -- it would take a monumental effort to jump to the top of the leaderboard from here.
Dutch youngster Memphis Depay (two) is best placed in the goal stakes as he needs only four from his remaining games to make an impression, while David Luiz (two) seems to be channelling the spirit of his country to make his case. Naturally it would be a huge surprise to see a centre-back net four in two games, but if there are any more free kicks handed to Brazil from 35 yards out, don't bet against him adding to his tally.
German centre-back Mats Hummels (two) has also been embarrassing the strikers in this tournament, but if you want a long shot who could actually force his way into the reckoning in these final few games then look no further than Argentina striker Gonzalo Higuain. With a goal against Belgium getting him going, the Napoli striker could well play a big part in the direction of the Golden Boot, and also the trophy.
Out of the running
We're down to just four teams now, so the list of those out of the running is considerably longer than the list of those who are still in it. With Brazil's Neymar a high-profile casualty, the other big name on the list from the quarterfinals is France striker Karim Benzema (three) who looked like he might be the real deal in the group stage, but didn't really turn up (although neither did his teammates) in the knockout stages. He departs without troubling the scorers any more.
From the round of 16 goes Switzerland midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri (three), although all of his goals did come in one game against Honduras. So too, American midfielder Clint Dempsey (two), who gave his all in the losing cause to Belgium.
Long gone 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 favourite entering the tournament was Cristiano Ronaldo, who wasn't in top form and managed only one goal before his Portugal team exited.
Front-runner: Lionel Messi
With James Rodriguez making a tearful exit from the World Cup, the eyes of the world now fall back upon Lionel Messi. He could have closed the gap had he buried that last-minute chance against Belgium, but with potentially two more games left (one definitely) you have to feel that the Barcelona striker will get back among the goals. Rodriguez has done sterling work this tournament, but the onus has to be on the man still in it and Messi has the chance to seal his place in history if he can find the net and help his team to the Maracana.