Cream rises to the top
The fancied teams have all made it to the quarter-finals and they had to do it the hard way. Sopan Joshi on the tactical battles that lie in store
There were no upsets in the last-16 round. The favourites went through in all the eight games. Yet only two teams — Colombia and France — looked assured. The six other games were too close to call right till the end. Brazil and Costa Rica went through on a penalty shootout. Germany, Argentina and Belgium made it through only after added extra time after goalless games. The Netherlands equalised two minutes from full time and won because of a dodgy penalty in injury time.
The knockout round is when you know the carnival — and the goalfest that generated it – is over.
This is the business end of the World Cup. A few inches here or there, a second too early or too late, a mistimed tackle, an extraordinary save, a refereeing error of judgement can make or break dreams. For the most part, the knockout stage is about heartbreak, for the victor is determined by luck. There are those who say luck favours the brave. Then how do you explain what happened to Chile?
In the David-versus-Goliath encounter with fancied Brazil, Chile’s men played way above themselves. They showed more commitment and greater cohesion as a team. Brazil, by contrast, was relying on magic from its superstars, Neymar in particular. Chile’s intensive pressing, which made it difficult for Brazil to find space and time on the ball in the midfield, was a reminder of the manager who shaped Chilean football between 2007 and 2011: Marcelo Bielsa, regarded by many as the biggest influence on current football styles. In fact, several football tacticians say football has entered an era of ‘Bielsafication’.
Chile’s current manager Jorge Sampaoli played for Newell’s Old Boys, a club in Roasario, where Bielsa had also played before him. Sampaoli has continued Bielsa’s work with the Chile squad. The result was on display against Brazil in their last-16 match. Had Mauricio Pinilla’s thundering shot in the closing minutes of extra time gone into the net instead of bouncing off the crossbar, Brazil would have been eliminated. Instead, there was a penalty shootout, which is the saddest way to settle a game of football. Because of their high-tempo pressing in terribly hot and humid conditions, Chile’s players were clearly more tired than their Brazilian counterparts.
The intense heat also played a part in Costa Rica’s face-off with Greece. A lacklustre game with only a few moments of enterprise, it seemed both sides were content to go into a shootout.
The heroes in the last-16 matches have cut a tragic figure, because they have ended up on the losing side. Goalkeepers, in particular. Nigeria’s ’keeper Vincent Enyeama had made more saves than any other stopper till now, but could not deny France. Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa had emerged a sensation in qualifying, but could not stop a late penalty that should not have been given. USA’s Tim Howard was the man of the match against Belgium, and was the only man standing between the goal and a marauding Belgian side brimming with attacking talent. Three stellar performances in a losing cause, all three cutting tragic figures at the end of the game. No wonder, football makes for such irresistible human drama.
The greatest stage of this drama can never miss out on some theatrics. With Luis Suarez banned for biting an Italian player, the World Cup needed the histrionic abilities of Arjen Robben to keep the tabloids in business. For several years now, Robben has been turning out diving acts that qualify him for the Diving Hall of Fame, whose undisputed chairman has to be former German captain and current US team manager Jurgen Klinsmann (remember him from the 1990 World Cup in Italy?). The remarkable thing about the Klinsmanns and the Robbens is not that they transform into such talented actors in the penalty area. It is that referees continue to fall for their melodrama and award controversial penalties. For all his creative ability and speed, Robben is more likely to be remembered for his theatrics.
The Dutch resurgence towards the end of their game against Mexico was impressive, but Mexico was the better team that evening. That penalty awarded in extra time for Mexican captain Raphael Marquez’s tackle on Robben was a travesty, and all neutrals felt for Mexico.
For all the goals that the Netherlands have scored in this World Cup, it is their manager Luis van Gaal who is their greatest asset. A tactician and man-manager par excellence, his influence can be seen in the success of his former assistant Jose Mourinho, now the manager of Chelsea and the world’s highest-paid football coach. Seeing what van Gaal has done with this largely inexperienced Dutch team, the coming season of the English Premier League promises great drama, for he has been appointed manager of Manchester United.
Like van Gaal, Costa Rica’s manager Jorge Luis Pinto has favoured a defence of three centre-backs assisted on the flanks by more attack-minded wing-backs. Their quarter-final will be watched keenly for the tactics that they deploy.
All eyes on Scolari
Brazil’s Luiz Felipe Scolari is also a highly successful manager. After lifting their game in the last group stage encounter, Brazil have gone back to looking unimpressive. That lift happened with the substitution of the out-of-form central midfielder Paulinho with Fernandinho. As expected, Scolari chose Fernandinho as the midfield fulcrum against Chile. But even Fernandinho disappointed. Given the frail nature of Brazil’s defensive line, the team’s midfield woes make Scolari’s job much harder. His decisions in the quarter-final against Colombia will be under intense scrutiny, for Colombia have looked the most composed and complete squad this World Cup, along with France.
Everybody and his neighbour has fallen in love with James Rodriguez’s stunning strike against Uruguay, and his team spirit while celebrating his second goal in the same game — he ran towards Juan Guillermo Cuadrado, who had provided the assist. Cuadrado, too, has risen to stardom with his enterprise and skill in the middle of the pitch, embodying the swift transitions from defence to attack (which Brazil have lacked). With the emergence of these new stars, it is easy to forget that all the players in Jose Pekerman’s team looked comfortable in their positions, and turned out commendable performances. This is looking like a very well-drilled squad with a great atmosphere in the dressing room — mind you, the most famous Colombian player, Radamel Falcao, didn’t even make it to the World Cup due to injury.
What the Brazilians will remind themselves, though, is Colombia’s victories have come against Japan, Greece, Ivory Coast and Uruguay — not quite the minnows, but hardly the contenders in the best team bracket. The Colombians will tell themselves those teams looked so weak because of how well they played. Which is why this quarter-final will be such a draw, matched only by France’s encounter with Germany.
France have looked compact and comfortable, and manager Didier Deschamps has come in for much praise. Like Colombia, they are yet to face a top-rated team; they had beaten Honduras and Switzerland before beating Nigeria in the last-16 (France drew against Ecuador). Germany, meanwhile, came through tougher games. Their last-16 victory came against Algeria, Africa’s top-rated team. Germany have better attacking options of the two, though they have looked vulnerable in defence, with Per Mertesacker, Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng lumbering about disconcertingly. France’s defence has looked more compact, but then the team have not been tested by an attack like Germany’s.
Belgium will not find the going as easy against Argentina as they did against the USA, where it seemed it was Belgium against Tim Howard. As the tournament has progressed, Argentina have looked better. They still depend on Messi, but then which team would not depend on a player of such calibre? In the last-16 game against Switzerland, Messi kept appearing in varied attacking positions to lose his markers. He produced a magical run and released Angel di Maria to score the only goal of the game late in extra time, when a penalty shootout was looking inevitable. But the goal had a bigger lesson to offer.
A bulk of the game happened in the Swiss half, with Argentina trying to pry into a crowded box and failing. The only goal came as a result of a swift counter-attack. Perhaps, Argentina have a plan B (Plan A is, simply, Messi). If they can defend resolutely and lure out the opposition, that may create the gaps that Messi and di Maria need.
The quarter-finals are unlikely to continue as the goalfest that this World Cup has been thus far. The invested viewer will now watch out for the close tactical battles. The more general viewership will be held in thrall by the drama.