A wonderful evening of quarter-final action awaits us on Friday with bitter European rivals France and Germany going head-to-head in Rio and Colombia and Brazil doing battle in Fortaleza. Tadhg Creedon previews the two massive encounters.
Game 1: France v Germany, Rio de Janeiro (5pm).
The quarter-finals begin with a European grudge match between two sides capable of playing wonderful football but whose credentials for winning the tournament are still up for debate. Like every other team that have reached the quarter-finals , both France and Germany struggled for much of their last-sixteen encounters before coming away with late victories.
Four years on from their debacle in South Africa , Didier Deschamps’ squad look much more united , focused and capable of big things. But this is Les Blues’ biggest test yet sand they face a German side that will be desperate to progress to a third straight semi-final.
France made light work of an easy group and edged past a gallant Nigeria. Germany set the benchmark against a hapless Portugal in game one but have stumbled against Ghana , USA and Algeria since. Deschamps has tinkered with his lineup throughout but Olivier Giroud could be dropped to facilitate Karim Benzema in a more central role and Antoine Griezmann’s trickery out wide. Impressive defender Raphael Varane is a slight doubt after his stint in hospital with dehydration.
Germany will be pleased to have Mats Hummels back, but Shkodran Mustafi has a torn hamstring. Bastian Schweinsteiger should be fit to play but there are rumours that underperforming Mesut Ozil could be dropped.
The key matchup in the game will be the midfield battle between Paul Pogba and Bastian Schweinsteiger. The man who dominates the engine room will go a long way to deciding who wins the encounter. Other players who could have a major impact in Rio include Les Bleus livewire Mathieu Valbuena and with rumours of Ozil being dropped for Germany, it may present a massive opportunity for the more direct and pacy Andre Schurrle to impress.
France have been criticised for their robust defending thus far, while Algeria and Ghana provided a blueprint for exposing Germany’s defensive frailties. Manuel Neuer’s anticipation off his line has spared his wobbly backline’s blushes but a red hot Karim Benzema will be ready to pounce should they falter again, even with Hummels returning.
Germany also need another midfielder to step up like Toni Kroos or Mario Gotze to offer a penetrative threat to compliment Thomas Muller. Taking a browse over the paper-talk before the big game, Jogi Loew’s side have been heavily criticised for their performances in the tournament so far by former captains Michael Ballack , Lothar Matthaeus and Oliver Kahn, deriding the Algeria performance in particular as the worst in years.
Verdict : Germany to win on penalties after 2-2 game.
Game 2: Brazil v Colombia, Fortaleza (9pm).
This irresistible South-American bonanza pits the hosts against one of the tournaments greatest crowd pleasers – and the buildup for both couldn’t be more contrasting.
There’s a feeling of anxiety in Brazil over the side’s unimpressive displays so far – while Colombia (led by James Rodriguez) have set the tournament alight with some eye-catching flair and silky celebrations. Jose Pekerman’s side are in their first World Cup since 1998 but boy are they making the most of it even without Radamel Falcao.
Brazil’s journey began by topping Group A ahead of Mexico, but they could have easily been defeated by Chile in the last 16 if not for a divine intervention by lady luck. Colombia breezed past Ivory Coast, Japan and Greece and then overcome the stern challenge of Uruguay with stunning efficiency.
Looking at the expected lineups in Fortaleza, the suspended Luiz Gustavo should be replaced by Paulinho in midfield for Brazil in the only expected change but Scolari may change things further.
Brazil were spotted tinkering with a 3-5-2 formation at training , with defender Henrique replacing Fred and Maicon taking over from Dani Alves at right-back.
The crucial matchup of this game will be the battle of the number 10s. Neymar v Rodriguez. The Brazilian maestro has embraced the pressure of a nation’s expectant eyes so far while Rodriguez has been simply majestic. The man who stands tallest on Saturday will go a long way to deciding this huge game.
It is also worth taking a look at Brazil’s Oscar who needs to perform much better to take the pressure off Neymar, and Juan Cuadrado of Colombia , who is a joy to watch and could be in for a breakout game.
The big question for Brazil is who will score other than Neymar?
Will Fred finally perform? Unlike every other World Cup in their history, it is up front where Brazil have struggled the most thanks to the lack of a top-class striker.
For Colombia, it is a matter of uncharted waters. How will they cope?
The week’s paper talk has been dominated by the news of Scolari getting the side’s psychologist to work overtime this week in order to get his under-pressure squad mentally ready for what awaits, while Los Cafeteros are hoping to commemorate the tragic death of Andres Escobar 20 years ago in the best way possible.
Verdict : Brazil 2-1 Colombia.
Tadhg Creedon , Pundit Arena.
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