World Cup preview — The Quarterfinals

So far, this World Cup has delivered almost everything a soccer fan could want: lots of scoring in the Group Stage, plenty of matches decided by late goals, star performances from most of the tournament’s superstars, the emergence of major new stars, seven tense matches of the eight games played in the Round of 16, and six or seven formidable teams remaining in the tournament’s last eight.

The only thing the tournament hasn’t yet delivered is top teams playing up to what we assume their potential to be. All three of the remaining giants in the tournament — Brazil, Germany, and Argentina — have underperformed. France, the next team in the pecking order, has underperformed at times. Only Colombia has played at the level we expect of a World Cup winner, and it has yet to face a high quality opponent.

I should note, however, that nearly every World Cup winner is unconvincing at some point in the tournament. Spain, one of the great teams in the history of international soccer, did not play up to its ability in most of its 2010 matches. Spain even lost a game (its opener against Switzerland), something none of the teams in this year’s Final Eight has done.

And there is still time for the underachieving teams to take their game to the next level, thereby giving the tournament the clashes of titans required to put the icing on the cake of this World Cup.

This weekend’s quarterfinals (played on Friday and Saturday) would be a good time for the underachievers to step up. Indeed, most of them will probably have to in order to keep their World Cup alive.

In Saturday’s matches, Holland should handle Costa Rica. Both teams favor a back three with wing backs, which may cause them the “cancel each other out” to some degree. But ultimately, what is Costa Rica’s answer to a front three of Robben, Van Persie, and Depay (off the bench)? Indeed, what is its answer to Robben?

Meanwhile, Argentina will be favored over Belgium. But Argentina struggled mightily against Switzerland. Belgium, which showed signs of living up to its potential during its match against the U.S., is better than Switzerland. So Argentina probably will have to step things up.

Both teams seem weak at the fullback position, which invites wing play from the opposition. Belgium has been strong on both wings, whereas Argentina has been strong only down the left (when Di Maria plays there). But Argentina has Messi and it has the World Cup experience, and that’s sufficient to make it the favorite in this contest.

Friday’s matches are more compelling and seem more difficult to call. In-form Colombia will likely present Brazil with a huge challenge. Brazil’s fullbacks have not been responsible on defense, and Colombia is the perfect team to exploit this problem (there’s talk that Dani Alves, Brazil’s right back, will be replaced).

Colombia’s fullbacks also like to go forward in search of adventure. But Brazil’s wing play has been spotty, and Colombia covers well for the fullbacks with two tigerish defensive midfielders. Brazil has had only one effective defensive midfielder — Luis Gustavo — and he is ruled out of tomorrow’s match.

What, then, is the case for Brazil? Mostly, it’s the advantage of playing at home, where Brazil hasn’t lost a competitive match (as opposed to a “friendly”) in decades.

But Brazil might also benefit from playing a flair attacking team like Colombia. In an open game, perhaps Brazil’s attackers will suddenly start playing the way we expect Brazilian attackers players to. On the other hand, unless Brazil’s manager, Scolari, has confidence in his defensive midfield platform, we might see a fairly cautious Brazil tomorrow.

The Germany-France match looks like a toss-up. Paradoxically, this probably makes Germany the favorite, since the Germans tend to win toss-up contests, especially against the French (if one regards what happened at the World Cup during the 1980s as relevant).

The match is hard for me to analyze because Germany’s lineup is still unsettled. We know that Hummels will be back in central defense, which seems absolutely vital. But what will the fullback pairing be? Will Lahm move from midfield to right back, his natural position, as he did in the second half against Algeria when Germany suddenly began to click? Will he move to left back, which he has also played effectively, and where Germany may need the most help?

Or will Lahm remain in midfield? And if he is in midfield, who loses that place, Khedira or Schweinsteigger? Both seem to be less than 100 percent healthy.

The French midfield features the all-action tandem of Pogba and Matuidi. Germany must find a pairing that matches the vigor of those two. But it must also select a left back who can limit Valbuena, through whom so much of what France accomplishes in attack emanates.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about tomorrow’s matches is that giants Brazil and Germany are still searching for the proper player at several positions. When the dust settles, one of two things will probably be true: (1) they will have finally found the right combination and be peaking just in time for the semifinals or (2) they will have crashed out of the World Cup.

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