Friday, July 4th
Brazil vs Colombia
In the team sense of the word, Colombia have been more fluid than Brazil. In James Rodriguez they have playmaker and match winner rolled into one, one of three left-footers miles ahead in the race for tournament MVP (the other two are Arjen Robben and Lionel Messi).
For combining creativity and industry, Juan Guillermo Cuardado is unrivalled and has been the provider for the goals of Rodriguez and strikers Teofilo Gutierrez and Jackson Martinez.
At the back Mario Yepes, one of several players at this World Cup who always seem to play better for their countries than their clubs, has been protector and leader supreme, assisted ably by fellow Serie A-based defenders Cristian Zapata and Juan Camilo Zuniga.
It is obvious that Brazil are going to have to improve on previous showings if they are to negotiate this, their toughest hurdle yet, because being host, having history on your side and good fortune can only carry you so far.
One irony is that the much-criticised defence has been their better department despite keeping only one clean sheet (no shame in conceding to Croatia and Chile), because the midfield has not been able to control games and the attack has not been able to kill them off (Cameroon aside).
The absence of Gustavo, their Mr Consistent, will not help matters, and the changes that are supposed to be inspired by that and the unconvincing displays thus far will not come from the rigid Felipe Scolari.
What they must do to give themselves a chance against Colombia is reduce on the frequency of long balls as seen against Chile so that they can play the ball into Oscar’s feet and exploit his incredible football brain, especially since ther the man who has carried them up to this point, Neymar, might not be fully fit.
And more than ever they are going to need big contributions from Hulk and Fred, because attack will be the best defence for them.
That way the Selecao will sneak it after Extra Time.
France vs Germany
In the heat of the earlier kickoff on Friday, France are going to have certain advantages because of their physicality, pace and work-rate, as epitomised by the tireless running and toiling of their midfield four of Blaise Matiudi, Paul Pogba, Johan Cabaye and Mathieu Valbuena, and the full backs Patrice Evra and especially Mathieu Debuchy.
The lack of pace at the back from Per Mertesacker, Jerome Boateng and Benedikt Howedes is yet another achilles heel that strikers Karim Benzema, Olivier Giroud and on running midfielders (Antoine Griezmann comes to mind) will look to exploit, and it is hard to see keeper Manuel Neuer getting away with all the out-of-box sweeping he did against Algeria without once being caught out this time.
But Germans were impressive in being able to find another gear against a stubborn and inspired Algeria, and their better midfield inter-play, smoother transitions and coordinated link-ups with the forwards will hold them in good stead too.
The key for them will be in controlling the game and slowing it down when need be, and then the qualities of Toni Kroos, Bastian Schweinsteiger (if fit), Sami Khedira, Mario Gotze, Mesut Ozil and the amazingly slippery Thomas Muller will come to the fore. They will be better served with Phillip Lahm at right back than in midfield though.
This one too is headed for Extra Time.
Saturday, July 5th
Argentina vs Belgium
The Argentines have been leaving it very late before relying on the wizardry of Lionel Messi to sneak games on a single moment of magic.
But they have only got away with this repeatedly because their opponents have not managed to take the lead in those games.
The downside for Belgium is that, even if they have been extremely mean at the back, they are not likely to have the collective defensive application all across the field that Bosnia, Iran and Switzerland used to keep Messi and co at bay for so long.
The upside is that Belgium are much better equipped to take that lead against this Argentina than any of the teams the South American hopefuls have faced to date.
If Belgium take the lead they will win it (and being on the same pitch as Messi is going to arouse Eden Hazard into working to ensure exactly that), but the longer it drags out the more the stage will set itself out for Messi to decide it.
Yet I somehow feel the Albicelestes have a date with destiny. Argentina win
Holland vs Costa Rica
One of the hallmarks of past Dutch sides has been their ability to out-pass the opposition and dictate play throughout, but not this one.
Louis Van Gaal’s preference for two defensive midfielders and three at the back has meant that they have relied instead on the wingbacks to get the ball forward from wide areas, and then on the pace, skill and creativity of the front three of Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Robin Van Persie to do the damage in the final third, the help coming from energetic young substitutes Memphis Depay and Jeremain Lens.
Van Gaal’s tactical superiority has however been further showcased by the ability to read the changing demands of games, resulting in his curious choices for substitutions all having an impact.
It has not been just Depay and Lens, but the introduction of defender Paul Verhaegh today and midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum tomorrow, the choice of Leroy Fey for one game and Klaas-Jan Hunteelar the other.
The Dutch master will pit his wits against the impressive Jorge ‘The General’ Pinto, whose Costa Rica will run Holland rugged, drag men out of position and create all sorts of chaos.
But even if Costa Rica have the advantage of having overachieved and with nothing to lose, I feel the
Dutch will find a way to finally end this Cinderella fairytale. Holland win
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