The World Cup is down to its final eight teams. Five of them — Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Germany, and Holland — are genuine contenders for the Cup. The chances of the remaining three teams — Uruquay, Paraguay, and Ghana — seem de minimis.
However, only three of the big five (at most) will advance to the semi-finals. That’s because Holland faces Brazil in one quarterfinal and Argentina takes on Germany in another.
The Holland-Brazil match-up at this stage is unfortunate for me, since they are my two favorites among the remaining teams. The good news is that the winner will likely make the final, since its semi-final opponent will be either Uruguay or Ghana.
Brazil gave us “the beautiful game” (joga bonito) and Holland gave us “total football.” Neither is quite living up to their heritage this time around. Brazil has a defense-first coach in Dunga, the defensive midfielder who as a player led Brazil to victory in the 1994 World Cup. Holland has a suspect back line which probably requires it not to attack “totally.” I like center back John Heitinga (who plays for Everton), but no one is going to confuse him with Ruud Krol.
Brazil and Holland haven’t forged the kind of bitter transcontinental rivalry that exists between Germany and Argentina. Yet, they have played three huge World Cup matches.
In 1974, Johan Cryuff’s “clockwork orange” team ran circles around Brazil in a semi-final match that featured uncharacteristically cynical play by the Brazilians.
Brazil took the Dutch out of successive World Cups in the 1990s. In 1994, Dunga’s team downed Holland in a thrilling 3-2 quarterfinal match, one of the best of the tournament. Brazil held a 2-0 lead, but Holland tied it up before Brazil scored late on a Branco free kick. Dunga, Branco, and then-coach Carlos Alberto Parreira have all singled out this match as the key to Brazil ultimately lifting the Cup.
Four years later, it took a penalty kick shootout to separate the sides, as Brazil won another classic. The teams were tied 1-1 after 120 minutes. Phillip Cocu, now an assistant coach for the Dutch, missed one of the penalty kicks.
What should we expect this time? We know that both teams, despite their fairly cautious play, are strong in attack. As for the defenses, neither has really been tested, since both have dominated possession. This will change for at least one team, and probably both, tomorrow.
Holland’s back four will likely struggle to meet the challenge. Heitinga is a fine club player, but no one’s idea of a world class center back. Left back Giovanni Van Bronckhorst is 35 years old. Midfielders Nigel de Jong and Mark Van Bommel provide good cover, but with the way Brazil moves the ball, it seems inevitable that they will be able, at times, to isolate members of the suspect Dutch back four. Brazil, though, will be without Elano and Ramires in midfield. Dani Alves is normally a great replacement for Elano, but he has seemed subdued so far in this tournament.
Brazil’s back four is far less suspect than Holland’s on paper. The center back pairing — Juan and Lucio — may be the best in the tournament. Four years ago, that pair was done in by France because aging fullbacks Roberto Carlos and Cafu couldn’t cope on the flanks. Now, Brazil has Maicon, considered the best right back in the world, but the defensive quality of left back Michel Bastos is subject to question.
Holland should provide a thorough examination. Arjen Robben, now apparently fit, is arguably the best winger in the world. Dirk Kuyt on the other flank isn’t a true winger, but he’s a major threat. Speedy Eljero Elia has looked good as a substitute.
The Dutch team wouldn’t be itself without dissension in the ranks. Fortunately, it’s not racial this time; instead, it seems, that star playmaker Wesley Sneijder and star forward Robin Van Persie can’t stand each other, and Van Persie is angry that he was removed instead of Sneijder towards the end of the last match. By Dutch footballing standards, this is nothing.
In the end, Brazil clearly must be favored based on its superior defense. But if Robben, Kuyt, Sneijder, and Van Persie are all on-song, my next post might be about how overrated Brazil’s defense was.
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