And then there were four. The quarter-finals followed the Round of 16 with the favourites to win coming out on top in each of the matches but after an almighty scrap – limp French exit aside – and with little to spare.
The goalfest of the group stages is a distant memory as teams are remembering that it is often the side with the best defence and not necessarily the best attack who lift the game’s biggest prizes. With this in mind we’ve gone with a 4-2-3-1 formation and have included two destructive holding midfielders for which we make no apologies; pragmatism and the ability to negate your opponent’s biggest threats will be key for progression from here on in.
While Manuel Neuer has claims for the gloves due to his sheer presence and the confident aura he continues to provide for his defence, they again must go to Keylor Navas. The Costa Rica keeper was again outstanding, pulling off a number of top-quality stops and more than anyone ensuring his side remained unbeaten as they depart the competition.
Almost saved a couple of the Netherlands’ penalties with the pinpoint precision of their kicks preventing Navas being the hero again.
Honourable mentions: Manuel Neuer (Germany), David Ospina (Colombia), Tim Krul (Netherlands)
Lining up on the right side of the defence is Philipp Lahm. Joachim Low moved the Bayern Munich man from centre-midfield back to his original position of right-back and Lahm responded with his usual assured display, recording the highest pass completion of anyone on the pitch and steadying a German defence which was less than secure against Algeria.
A player who will be a huge loss in Brazil’s semi-final on Tuesday is Thiago Silva. Brain-dead late booking aside, the Brazil captain was superb against Colombia, holding the defence firm against Colombia’s late onslaught and popping up with the crucial opening goal to settle his side’s nerves. Will be sorely missed against Germany.
Heroic against the Netherlands, Giancarlo Gonzalez just pips David Luiz for the second centre-back slot. Anyone wondering why Robin Van Persie was again ineffectual only has to look at the Columbus Crew player’s display, giving the Manchester United forward little space to operate in and still finding time to make several important blocks and tackles.
Our left-back is a player who hasn’t overly impressed in the tournament but Benedikt Howedes was excellent against France. The Schalke man made nine tackles, four effective clearances, two interceptions and ensured France found precious little joy down his flank.
Honourable mentions: Mats Hummels (Germany), Vincent Kompany (Belgium), Michael Umana (Costa Rica), Pablo Armero (Colombia), David Luiz(Brazil)
Tasked with crowding the space from which James Rodriguez has been so effective in Brazil was Fernandinho and the Manchester City midfielder fulfilled his duties to almost perfection. Disappointing against Chile in the Round of 16, the 29-year-old was outstanding against Colombia, keeping Rodriguez quiet until the latter stages and he was intelligent and careful in his distribution.
Joining him in a destructive centre-pairing is Argentina’s Lucas Biglia. Drafted in by his manager to play a similar role to Fernandinho, the Lazio player was at his destructive best, disrupting Belgium’s rhythm and preventing Eden Hazard, among others, from developing any fluency in their play. Not pretty but hugely effective and will surely be retained with Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder waiting in the semi-finals.
Honourable mentions: Toni Kroos (Germany), Bastian Schweinsteiger (Germany), Javier Mascherano (Argentina).
One of the standout players of the tournament, Arjen Robben was excellent again on Saturday night and with a less lenient referee, the Costa Ricans would have finished short a player or two such was the regularity and increasing reckless nature of their attempts to stop him. Everyone knows what he’s going to do but no-one has yet discovered a legitimate way to stop him.
Anonymous for large parts of the game, Wesley Sneijder burst into life late on, hitting the woodwork twice as he led the Dutch charge for a place in the semi-finals. The 30-year-old has had – late equaliser against Mexico aside – little impact for a player of his gifts but the last hour or so against Costa Rica was reminiscent of his brilliant best from South Africa four years ago.
Completing this trio is Lionel Messi. The little maestro’s display against Belgium summed up his tournament so far; brilliant in parts but anonymous (by his highest of standards) in others. Displayed his full repertoire of tricks, flicks, feints and dummies while his long pass for Angel Di Maria deserves to be watched again and again. Not at his overall brilliant best but his many brilliant moments are navigating Argentina towards their dream of a final in their biggest rivals’ backyard.
Honourable mentions: Thomas Muller (Germany), Memphis Depay (Netherlands)
With the traditional out-and-out striker once again struggling in the quarter-finals, the temptation was to pick a team without one but Gonzalo Higuain just did enough to earn a starting berth. Anonymous the entire tournament, the Napoli forward was extremely fortunate to make the starting XI but repaid his manager’s faith with a cracking strike for the winning goal while he almost doubled the lead when striking the woodwork in the second period.
Honourable mention: No-one. The overall trend of recent years – which did appear to be reversing last season – for out-and-out strikers being unable to impact the biggest games seems to be continuing at the business end of this tournament too.
Has to be Louis Van Gaal and if we need to explain why, you weren’t watching the action over the weekend.
Honourable mention: Joachim Low (Germany)
Cian O’Callaghan, Pundit Arena.
Featured Image By copa2014.gov.br [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.