World Cup ups and downs, Part 5
And then there were four. After a tense set of quarterfinals, Iain Macintosh tells us whose reputation has just been enhanced and whose has taken a bit of a dip.
Indomitable at the back and unstoppable at the front, Mats Hummels gave a near-perfect performance for Germany in their quarterfinal clash with France. Even more impressive, he did it all after missing the second-round battle against Algeria with the flu. You have to feel sorry for Raphael Varane. As the French defender moved in to contest Toni Kroos' lofted free kick, Hummels simply rolled him away as if he were moving furniture and powered home the match-winning header. Germany's enormous stock of attacking midfielders is the envy of most of Europe, but the defenders aren't too bad, either.
This Argentina side may not be the most exciting or expressive we've ever seen, but you would not want to mess around with them in the middle of the park. That is where the shadows lie. Javier Mascherano was so mobile against Belgium that he was essentially his own defensive midfield partnership. Every time Belgium broke through the middle, the wild-eyed Barcelona man was there to shut them straight down. Any discussion on Argentina is obviously dominated by Lionel Messi, but if you're looking for one player who really encapsulates this team, you're looking for Mascherano.
After a miserable run of four games without a goal, Gonzalo Higuain finally scored against Belgium, and nearly added another later on. Manager Alejandro Sabella has been unstinting in his support of his misfiring striker who has been swiping and hacking like a first-time golfer all summer. His loyalty has been vindicated. Higuain's finish, a kind of vengeful swipe as the ball went past, was lovely. His near-miss later could have been even better. If you've ever wanted a clear indication of the effect of confidence on a striker, Higuain's gleeful nutmegging of Vincent Kompany, followed swiftly by a vibrating crossbar, was it.
Jose Mourinho doesn't like him, but Brazil don't care. David Luiz is the heartbeat of this football team, and a walloping 35-yard free kick certainly went a long way to securing his popularity. But he's not just included here for the goal -- he's here for his increasingly solid defending and the effect he has on his teammates. Luiz is always there, cajoling, encouraging, lifting the people around him. Perhaps that relentless positivity is one reason that Paris St. Germain were so keen to pay 50 million pounds for his services this summer. You'd certainly think that Mourinho would have settled for far less.
In retrospect, slapping an 8 million pound release clause on Keylor Navas was probably underplaying his value a little. Levante's power brokers will have a long time to regret that decision. Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid, Liverpool and Everton have all been linked with the Costa Rica goalkeeper over the last few days, and at that price, no wonder. Navas is agile and quick-witted, as any goalkeeper should be. He's strong and brave, as most goalkeepers would like to be. His judgement, most pertinently, is almost impeccable. On the evidence of what we've seen in Brazil, Navas could play for almost any team.
A steady presence in the "UP" column after the second round, an anemic performance against Germany brings Paul Pogba crashing back down to earth. The growing reputation of the Juventus star was so impressive that Joachim Low reshuffled and reinforced his own midfield to neutralise his capabilities. And it worked. Few of the French players performed when they needed to, especially Blaise Matuidi and Yohan Cabaye, but Pogba was the real disappointment. Perhaps, in our hurry to crown him as the best midfielder in Europe, we forgot that he's still only 21. He'll learn from this.
After a disappointing season spent clattering around hopelessly at the back of Manchester United's midfield, Marouane Fellaini must have hoped that the ordeal was over. Alas, it had only just begun. Watching him trying to catch Lionel Messi was like watching a sheepdog trying to catch a wasp. If he takes nothing else from this summer with Belgium, Fellaini will be gratified at least to have proved beyond all doubt that he is no defensive midfielder. He belongs up front, as a great big target for great big long balls. All of which makes Manchester United's investment in him look even stranger.
The Colombian had to dip sooner or later. James Rodriguez, the man who was featured in the "UP" column for three consecutive features, was finally less than world class this week. Admittedly, this was partly because he spent much of the night being kicked in the air by the Brazilians, but there was also a nervousness to his play that affected his game. Rodriguez completed just 66 percent of his passes and created only a single chance in open play. Yes, he converted his penalty, but that was as good as his night got. He remains the star of the World Cup so far, but finally he showed himself to be human.
After his excellent performances in the early stages of the World Cup, the word was that Arsene Wenger was keen to give the Costa Rican a run in the Arsenal first team. He may need a bit of a rest first. Campbell looked exhausted against the Netherlands and toiled with scant reward until his inevitable early withdrawal. The lung-busting, turf-scorching runs of last month were little more than a memory. Wenger would still do well to make him a part of his squad, but we haven't seen enough here to suggest that he's anything more than an occasional impact substitute.
Long distrusted by supporters of both club and country, Karim Benzema made the sort of start to the World Cup that seemed to signal a defiant riposte. Unfortunately, by the time France reached the quarterfinals, that defiance had dwindled into something approaching acceptance. Benzema had seven chances against Germany, but never looked likely to convert any of them. He was sluggish throughout and appeared to lack any kind of belief. His weak shot on the turn just before halftime, easily collected by Manuel Neuer, rather summed up his contribution. When it mattered most, Benzema fell short.