The World Cup — looking ahead to the semi-finals

When the World Cup is played in Europe, we tend to get predictable semi-finalists, consisting mostly of the highly touted European teams. In 2006 (in Germany), the last four were Italy, France, Germany, and Portugal. In 1998 (in France), they were France, Brazil, Holland, and one surprise package — Croatia. In 1990 (in Italy), Germany, Argentina, Italy, and England reached the semi-finals.
But when the World Cup is held elsewhere, the big European teams make much less of a mark, and there are usually at least two surprise packages in the semi-finals. In 2002 (in the Far East), the surprise semi-finalists were Turkey and South Korea, joining Brazil and Germany. In 1994 (in the U.S.), international minnows Sweden and Bulgaria were among the final four, along with Brazil and Italy. In 1986 (in Mexico) three big teams made the semis — Argentina, West Gemany, and France — but they were joined by unfashionable Belgium.
So how do things look this year in South Africa? There clearly will be one minnow and it will be a non-European one — either the U.S., Ghana, Uruquay, or South Korea.
However, it will take a major upset to prevent big teams from filling the other three spots. Spain has the inside track on one of them, although Portugal (a borderline big team, in my view) may have a thing or two to say about that (the other possibilities are Paraguay and Japan, one of whom will assume the role of underdog in the quarterfinal against the Portugal-Spain winner). England, Germany, or (most likely) Argentina will almost certainly grab another semi-final place (Mexico is the other possibility). The other spot will likely go to Holland or Brazil, whose chances of getting by Slovakia and Chile, respectively, are very high.
By the way, if Holland and Brazil meet in the quarterfinals, the winner of that match would face the minnow in the semi-finals. So expect to see Brazil or Holland in the finals. Brazil is the favorite on general principles, and because Holland has looked far from overpowering against so-so opposition. But the Dutch should get a lift from the return of their best player, Arjen Robben, who made his first appearance of the tournament as a sub in Holland’s final match of the group stage.
Finally, what about tomorrow’s match between the U.S. and Ghana? It’s quite an even match-up, in my estimation. The U.S. had a slightly better record in the group stage, but Ghana was in a tougher group. On the other hand, Ghana had the benefit of playing part of the Australia match against only ten men.
The U.S. had two good goals taken away, but were gifted a goal by England goal-keeper Robert Green. Ghana is playing in its own continent, but the U.S. is coming off as uplifting a victory as one could imagine at this stage of the tournament.
Ghana has an impressive team, but a young one. Seven of its usual starting 11 were born after 1984, and four in 1988 or later. For the U.S., the corresponding numbers are four and one. I think that’s a plus for the U.S. (we are not old, by any means — no starter was born before 1979, though four were born that year). But the U.S. back four looks shaky without key man Oguchi Onyewu in form, and Ghana has a pacy attack (though they haven’t finished well at all).
Still, I’m thinking that Tim Howard will come up big behind the back four and that, in front of it, coach Bradley will get his central midfield pairing right before halftime, for a change. Therefore, I like our chances.

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