The four matches that made up the Quarterfinal round of the 2010 World Cup were each brilliant, unique examples of what makes the sport great; you couldn't have asked for a more diverse display of strategy, tactical success and failure, drama, thrills and heartbreak. It was as if each match built upon the tension of its predecessor, compounding the stakes and changing emotions, until, by the 86th minute of the final match between Spain and Paraguay, you felt like the whole of South Africa might simply melt down. I'm not sure I've seen a spectacle like this ever before, with penalty kicks in the dying moments, comebacks, last gasp action, miracle red cards and an absolute thrashing of an incredibly talented team all taking place withing 36 hours, but this was the moment when the World Cup got serious and decided to put on a show. It was worth the wait.
The Netherlands 2-1 Brazil
My Prediction: Brazil
Poor Felipe Melo. Well, not really, but what a day the Brazilian midfielder had on the pitch in Friday's 2-1 loss to The Netherlands; a perfect through ball in the 10th minute to Robinho puts Brazil up 1-0 and Melo is on top of the world. History was on his side as well; Brazil had never lost a match after going ahead and with one of the most defensive-minded teams they've ever fielded, a loss to The Netherlands was unlikely. Brazil dominated the half, keeping the Dutch on the back foot and controlling possession. But a funny thing happened on the road to "never been beaten"; Arjen Robben, who I mentioned in my match preview was the player to watch, started getting under Brazil's skin, falling down easily, drawing fouls against Michel Bastos and company, and earning free kicks and corners. Anything can happen from a set-piece, and it did; in the 53rd minute, Wesley Sneijder whipped in a ball toward the goal, Melo climbed to head the ball, only to flick it past the fists of an onrushing Julio Cesar and into the corner of the net. It was 1-1 and initially ruled an own goal to Melo, but in the days since the match, Sneijder was justly credited with a shot on target and thus, a goal. Emboldened by the equalizer, Robben pressed on and continued to give Brazil fits, rolling on the ground, flying over challenges and embellishing just enough to keep Brazil cautious. In the 68th minute, Robben put in a corner to the near post, which Dirk Kuyt flicked on, directly into the path of 5'7" Wesley Sneijder, who buried the header, his first ever headed goal, to put the Dutch up 2-1. If Sneijder couldn't quite believe his luck, Brazil, never having surrendered a lead in the entire Tournament, seemed to lose the plot; hard fouls ensued, and with Robben continuing to frustrate the Brazilians, the favorites began to crack under pressure. Finally, in the 73rd minute, after Melo fouled Robben for the umpteenth time, the Brazilian midfielder put a cap on a miserable day by stamping his cleats into Robben's thigh, which drew an immediate red card. Already frustrated and now reduced to 10 men, there was no way back for Brazil.
Melo Out: Brazil Sees Red (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
What struck me most about this game was not the collapse of Brazil and their lack of presence and discipline on the back line, but more the size of the fight in The Netherlands, who used every trick and tactic they could to try and get back into the match. With Kaká playing too far up the pitch and seemingly afraid to get in for a tackle, it was left to Melo and Gilberto Silva to square up against Nigel De Jong and Mark Van Bommel and in the second half, it turned out to be a mismatch, with Van Bommel able to get forward and influence proceedings alongside Sneijder while Silva and Melo went looking for Kaká and got little help. Brazil, with Dani Alves and Maicon pushing up the right flank, really missed Elano, who tracks back and plays defense far better than Alves, and a natural left winger, who might have opened up the right side of the Dutch defense. Instead, Brazil played a very narrow match, allowing the Dutch to battle in the middle of the park and get the ball into their own wide spaces, with Robben being the most dangerous and Kuyt, as always, running his ass off in support of both the attack and defense. It ended up working and although Robin Van Persie lacked service all day, the set-piece goals from Sneijder ended up being all they would need. A great come from behind upset for the The Netherlands who, undefeated and playing with confidence, keep flying under the radar.
Uruguay 1-1 Ghana (Uruguay 4-2 Ghana On Penalties)
My Prediction: Uruguay
You could live 100 years and never, ever see another match like this one. It seems impossible that Ghana lost this match; after the teams traded wonder goals on either side of halftime (Sulley Muntari's 40 yard gamble that bounced in just before the half was only surpassed by Diego Forlan's swerving free-kick just after), and had played 30 minutes plus stoppage time in extra time, it seemed the match was on its way to penalties. But then, after Ghana won a free kick on the right wing in the 123rd minute of the match, the unbelievable happened. Let's watch it again in slow motion.
When Luis Suárez kept the ball out of the goal with his hands, he was sent off and Ghana were awarded a last gasp penalty on what surely would have been the last kick of the match. Asamoah Gyan, whose penalties put Ghana into the knockout stages and whose terrific strike in extra time knocked out the USA, stepped up to the spot, a place in the semi-finals a mere kick of the ball from becoming a reality... and he missed it.
Ghana went on to lose in the penalty shootout, and this amazing match, one of the harshest losses ever, went down in history as one of the craziest finishes of all time. A lot has been made of Suárez's handball, about whether or not he should only serve the mandatory one-match ban for his red card or whether FIFA should try to make Ghana feel better by banning him from the rest of the World Cup, but I say fuck all of that; it was one of the smartest, best plays I have ever seen in my life. If I was standing on the line and the last-second goal that was about to send me home came hurtling at my face, I would have done the exact same thing. There are those who say it is cheating, comparing it to Theirry Henry's famous handball against the Republic of Ireland which sent France into the World Cup, but I say no way; Henry was never punished, but Suárez was immediately red carded and Ghana were given a penalty. As far as I am concerned, it was an act of absolute genius and completely within the framework of the game; he kept the ball out, just as anyone does who receives a red card for denying a clear goal scoring chance. People take those cards all the time because they know the penalty you give away gives your keeper the chance to make a save as opposed to the goal happening. Suárez did what has been done a million times in football, he just did it in the 123rd minute of a World Cup Quarterfinal. If Gyan had scored, it never would have been an issue; but because of his historic miss and Uruguay's subsequent success in the shootout, somehow Suárez's actions have become notorious. No way; it was a great play that saved his team's chances and ended up allowing his teammates to win the game. Luis Suárez is a hero; if it was your team he saved, you'd love him forever. It was an incredible ending to an incredible match, one of the best of the Tournament and while my heart goes out to Ghana, if Gyan had simply hit his penalty, it never would have happened this way. Tough loss, great win, amazing match.
Germany 4-0 Argentina
My Prediction: Germany
Let me share a quote from the locker room after this match:
"I'm as disappointed as all Argentinians," said Maradona, who cast doubt on his future as national coach. "To see my country lose a football match is very hard for someone who has worn the shirt."
Really? Hmmm. There is so much to say about Germany's 4-0 dismantling of Argentina that I don't know where to begin, but I guess I should start by offering all praise to the victors; Germany have come to this World Cup, playing loose, incredibly fluent attacking football, and their manager Joachim Löw has been the crucial component in their success. Laid back, efficient and never too excitable, Löw has taken his best players, put them in positions where they play their best football, and allowed their disciplined and competitive approach to the game to be the fuel that drives the team forward. It has been a joy to watch him keep ego out of the team; they simply tell it like it is, look at the opposition with a calm, clear eye, exploit the hell out of the opponent's weakness and efficiently execute their game plan; this is an environment in which I would KILL to work.
So, how did Germany take apart Argentina 4-0 without allowing the Argentinians as much as a whiff of scoring? The answer lies in the weakness of Argentina, and that weakness was Diego Maradona. I have been shaking my head and my fists at the heavens watching them play, watching this coach skate by lesser opponents on the talent of his attacking players, but I never ever doubted that Maradona would come up against it in the World Cup because he simply made too many tactical mistakes. And come up against it he did; his decision to play Lionel Messi in the midfield while not picking proper midfielders to give support and shape to his team was, as I always said it would be, the undoing of Argentina.
I recently read a rumor that the reason Maradona didn't take Esteban Cambiasso, the fucking heartbeat and engine of treble winning Inter Milan, and Javoier Zanetti was because they don't get along with Maradona's "buddy" Juan Sebastian Veron, the 35 year-old
bench warming waste of space midfielder who was supposed to be the playmaker and distributor of the ball that would allow Messi to run forward and attack. By the second game of this World Cup, with Veron spraying balls backward and into touch, it was clear he wasn't fitting in on the pitch; by the time Germany came calling, Maradona decided not to play him. This meant instead that Maxi Rodriguez, a left winger, and Lionel Messi, a forward, were being put into the heart of the midfield to help the destroyer Javier Mascherano keep the midfield's shape. This was a failure from the word go; with Messi not up for tackles and midfield battles and Maxi played out of position, German midfielders Sami Khedira and especially the rampant, brilliant Bastian Schweinsteiger were allowed to absolutely overrun the Argentina midfield. In the 3rd minute, Schweinstieger swung in a free kick that Thomas Müller glanced in off of the top of his head to put Germany up 1-0. But with Argentina playing an older, less mobile back four and with the midfield missing Esteban Cambiasso or Veron or anyone with a pulse who could play centrally to win and distribute the ball, this was always going to be a long day for Argentina.
If Germany couldn't believe their luck, it didn't show; Schweinsteiger was bossing the game, swinging the ball between Müller, Podolski and Özil, who pinned back the Argentina defense time and again. When the ball headed the other way, Messi would usually pick up the ball just inside the German half, too deep and way away from his best spot on the field (20 yards out from goal), allowing Germany to bottle him up. With Tevez scurrying all over the pitch and Higuain starving to death for service up top, Maradona's "attack first" side were in the death grip of a tactically astute German side, who suffocated them slowly until, in the 68th minute, Miroslav Klose put them out of their misery by starting the rout, tapping in from one inch away when Lucas Podolski's through ball was placed perfectly onto his foot. Another German counter attack, another goal; this time Arne Friedrich, the German defender who had never scored a goal, couldn't help but score in the 74th minute, when he latched onto a low driven ball and bundled it in over the challenge of a defender. It ended in the 89th minute, when Özil, whose touch and play are absolutely drool-inducing, lofted a ball that ended up right on Klose's foot again; he drove the ball low and into the far corner to make it 4-0. It was no less than Maradona deserved; if his countrymen can't see the
forest for the trees with the legendary player and his politics and attack first mentality as a manager, well, they're as crazy as he is.
First Goal? You Get The Photo: Friedrich Scores For Germany (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
Spain 1-0 Paraguay
My Prediction: Spain
David Villa is on fire. He is the last gasp assassin, a goal scorer who finds a way to get the crucial touch at the crucial moment and win the game. Villa's excellence at getting a result for Spain is hiding a deep deficiency in the Spanish side; while Spain have been passing the life out of the ball up the field, holding onto possession like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, they have been less than impressive inside of 20 yards, struggling mightily to play the ball in from wide areas and allowing defenses to pack into the middle of the park to disrupt the small-ball one-twos that Spain use to break through the heart of every defense. With Villa out wide left and a struggling Fernando Torres playing as a central striker, the team looks lost for a final touch, unable to penetrate and allowing opponents to stay compact. Paraguay, one of the best defensive teams in the World Cup, gave Spain everything they had for sixty minutes until all hell broke loose and the penalty spot became the home to some really unlikely drama.
In the 59th minute, with Paraguay pressuring the ball all over the park and Spain completely out of rhythm, Gerard Pique pulled down Paraguay's Oscar Cardozo in the box, earning Paraguay a penalty. Cardozo, the hero whose cheeky final penalty beat Japan just a few days earlier, stepped up to the spot and waited an eternity for the whistle; when it came, he drove the ball low and straight into the hands of a diving Iker Casillas, who smothered the shot and kept Spain's hopes alive. One minute later, Villa was brought down in the Paraguayan box by Antolin Alcoraz; Xabi Alonso stepped up and buried the penalty to put Spain up 1-0, but Guatemalan referee Carlos Batres, who often calls matches in CONCACAF and who is always persnickety and likes to be the star of the show, called the penalty back because a Spain player had stepped into the box before the ball was struck. Alonso stepped up again and saw his second attempt saved by Justo Villar, who spilled the rebound to the feet of an onrushing Cesc Fabregas. Villar brought Fabregas down in the box but no penalty was given, as Sergio Ramos tried to score from a tight angle, his shot was cleared off the line. Two minutes, two saved penalties, another penalty that should have been given and a goal line clearance; the score remained 0-0. Insanity.
No Whistle, No Penalty: Villar Chops Down Fabregas (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)
Twenty minutes of nail-biting tension went by as Spain stepped on the gas, but nothing seemed to be working until the breakthrough; Pedro received the ball at the top of the box and hit a low shot off the far post, which caromed to Villa, who curled the ball off of the right post, across the goal line, off of the left post, and into the net. Three seconds, three posts, Spain lead 1-0.
Spain only had to hang on now, but saw a Paraguayan counterattack in on Casillas, who bobbled a low driven shot from Lucas Barrios and then dove with his feet to save the rebound from Roque Santa Cruz and keep Spain in the lead. In the end, Villa pulled Spain through again, but some problems at the back, with Pique giving up a penalty and Casillas spilling a ball (not to mention a razor thin offside call in the early moments that could have lead to a Paraguay goal), seem to put Spain on very thin ice. Add to that the problem of Fernando Torres and his lack of form at the moment and Spain have a lot of thinking to do as they get ready for Germany; should Villa start up front in the middle? Should Fabregas come into the side? If you move Villa into the middle and with Jesus Navas being relatively ineffective on the right in his appearances, how will Spain get any width to force their next opponent to open up? A lot to figure out for Spain...
What Does It All Mean?
Simply, really; we're down to the final four.
The Netherlands play Uruguay on Tuesday July 6th.
Germany play Spain on Wednesday July 7th.
The winners meet in the Final. The losers play for third place.
Up Next: Predictions: Semifinals