World Cup quarterfinals preview
Brazil look like the favorite, but has injury concerns in central midfield
Argentina's all-out attacking approach will be tested by Germany's counter attack
Spain is still not functioning to the best of its capabilities
A quick look at the quarterfinal matchups that begin Friday:
Along with Argentina, the Netherlands is the only other team to have won its four matches although you would not guess as much from the media and fans' reaction back home. There is a sense of disappointment that the swashbuckling offensive play of Euro 2008 is no more, while Johan Cruyff's ideological 4-3-3 system has been deserted to allow two holding midfielders in the side.
Coach Bert van Marwijk's pragmatic game-plan should be no surprise. Holland won all eight of its World Cup qualifiers playing in the same way, well enough to win but without doing much more. "If we keep playing at this level we will crash out soon, so we need to improve," warned former international Willem van Hanegem in his AD newspaper column.
There's every chance that will happen against Brazil, who has only conceded one goal in its four matches, but struggled to break down North Korea and Portugal. The Portugal game will be a marker for Van Marwijk, who will rely on his defense remaining solid (no easy task, even if goalkeeper Martin Stekelenberg's displays have stopped the talk about missing Edwin van der Sar) and hope to counter. The key battle will be between Arjen Robben and Michel Bastos, the least-experienced player in Brazil's lineup, a left back who normally plays left wing.
Brazil came through the Chile test with flying colors and coach Dunga now has a selection dilemma on his hands: Elano and Felipe Melo are injury doubts and Ramires is suspended, so who from Kleberson, Josue or Julio Baptista to partner Gilberto Silva in holding midfield?
This fixture may have been a World Cup classic in tournaments past but with both coaches swapping style for substance, it's more likely to be a tight encounter with a set-piece or one moment of magic separating them.
Predicted winner: Brazil
Both sides are on the verge of making history: Uruguay is the first South American team other than Brazil or Argentina to reach the last eight since Peru in 1978, while Ghana is only the third African side to get this far in the tournament, equaling the achievement of Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal in 2002.
Uruguay has looked a different side since coach Oscar Tabarez changed formation after the opening-match goalless draw with France. He brought in Edinson Cavani to allow strikers Luis Suarez and Diego Forlan more freedom, and the front three now switches from a 4-3-3 with Forlan on the left, to a 4-3-1-2 with Forlan in the hole.
Uruguay will have to be at its best against a well-organized Ghana side whose progress should be no surprise to those who saw it reach January's African Nations Cup final. Back then it coped without Michael Essien, Stephen Appiah and Sulley Muntari and, barring the odd substitute appearance from the latter two, is doing the same now. Its tournament experience comes from the five players who lifted the Under-20 World Cup last year, one of whom, Andre Ayew, is suspended against Uruguay.
Against the U.S. in their Round of 16 tie, Ghana scored two goals in a game for the first time in 13 matches, a run going back to last Novemberıs 2-2 draw with Mali. The absence of Ayew and the possibility of Kevin-Prince Boateng missing out through injury leaves Ghana even more reliant on Asamoah Gyan for goals. Uruguay has only conceded once in its four games so far, and that defensive solidity may just give it the edge in a closely-matched affair.
"I want to pull on the shirt and play this game myself," said Argentina coach Diego Maradona and well he might, given his history in this fixture. Maradona was captain and set up Jorge Burruchaga's late winner to make it 3-2 in the 1986 final success over West Germany, and four years later he wept when the Germans won the 1990 final 1-0. Four years ago, a new chapter was written when Germany, despite being outclassed for much of the match, beat Argentina on penalties in the quarterfinals.
Then, like now, both teams had looked impressive up to that point and there is a feeling that this match has come too early in the competition.
Both sides have shown defensive weakness but Argentina's philosophy under Maradona is, "If we concede three, we will score four." Certainly it has the goal threat to trouble Germany: even though Lionel Messi has yet to break his duck for the tournament, Carlos Tevez scored two magnificent goals in the last round against Mexico while Gonzalo Higuain is the tournamentıs joint top-scorer with four goals.
Germany captain Phillip Lahm, on the other hand, has claimed the team is still fresh and physically ready for Argentina, thanks to the three American fitness coaches from Athletes' Performance embedded in its camp. "The fitness coaches have prepared us not for three games but to go all the way," said Lahm. Whoever is responsible for the turnaround in form of Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose, whether its coach Jogi Low or the U.S. backroom boys, deserves enormous credit.
Germany's pace on the counter-attack will be a danger although a repeat of the tactics that undid England, when Klose's movement constantly drew John Terry out of position, may not be so successful: Martin Demichelis may not be the best defender in South Africa, but in front of him, Argentina captain Javier Mascherano is unlikely to desert his post as willingly as England's midfield. Expect a thriller.
Spain will be big favorites for this game and if it wins it will have at least equalled its best-ever World Cup finish, fourth place in 1950. But the European champion has higher targets, even if there are still doubts following the 1-0 win over Portugal.
Striker Fernando Torres still looks only half-fit and has not scored for Spain for 12 months; Xavi Hernandez is playing nearer the goal in Spain's double-pivot formation and has less time and space to pick out his famed passes; while goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas looks as shaky at crosses as he has ever done. Even the superb form of David Villa is a worry: he has scored four of Spain's five goals, but the team don't want to be reliant on him. Fernando Llorente, excellent as substitute against Portugal, may even start in place of Torres.
As soon as Villa scored against Portugal, though, Spain dominated possession and looked comfortable. Its big test, then, will be to break down a Paraguay defense that has gone over five hours without conceding a goal (and its strikers have not scored for over three-and-a-half hours as well). This is the game where Spain will have to remember the lessons learned from that opening-game defeat to Switzerland, who soaked up the pressure and hit its opponents on the break.
While Paraguay boss Gerard Martino is a self-confessed disciple of Chile coach Marcelo Bielsa, he has some way to go to emulate his mentor's attacking principles. Paraguay has some excellent offensive players, but too often Martino has played them out of position. It did pay off when three centre-forwards Lucas Barrios, Nelson Valdez and Oscar Cardozo were still on the pitch to score penalties in the shootout win over Japan, but it's unlikely Spain will allow them to reach that point on Saturday.
Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.
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