Europe dominates semifinal lineup
Uruguay is the last remaining South American team in the tournament
Europe has three representatives with Germany, Spain and the Netherlands
Germany is the new favorite after convincing wins over England and Argentina
So much for South Americans dominating this World Cup. Three sides from the continent were eliminated in the quarterfinals, leaving Uruguay, the last team to qualify for the competition after a playoff win over Costa Rica, as its only representative. In similar fashion, the demise of the European nations appears to have been exaggerated, with Germany, Spain and the Netherlands advancing to the final four. Here's a quick look at the semifinals:
Uruguay takes on the role of outsiders in the last four -- villains in the eyes of the hosts after Luis Suarez's last-minute handball against Ghana helped deny Africa a first-ever semifinalist. However, it's also the romantics' choice given its history, as winner in 1930 and 1950, and now in a semifinal for the first time since 1970. By beating Ghana, this Uruguay side has also conquered its recent fear of penalties, after losing the last two Copa America semifinals in shootouts to Brazil, and missing out on the 2006 World Cup after defeat on penalty kicks to Australia.
FIFA showed sense in sticking to its rules and suspending Suarez for one game for his handball, but his absence could be costly against Holland. Diego Forlan might replace his goals and move into the No. 9 position, but that reduces the impact of his link-play. Sebastien Fernandez, a left winger, is a more likely replacement than Sebastien Abreu, whose "Panenka-style" game-winning penalty dink against Ghana, befitting of the player's "El Loco" nickname, might prove the memorable swan song to his international career. The excellent Jorge Fucile is also suspended, and captain Diego Lugano is an injury doubt.
The Netherlands' missing list is far less worrying. Demy de Zeeuw and Khalid Boulahrouz will come in for the suspended Nigel de Jong and Gregory van der Wiel, respectively, while Robin van Persie and Joris Mathijsen have recovered from knocks to play. Holland╣s biggest problem will be reining in its euphoria following the win over Brazil, but coach Bert van Marwijk was quick to remind the players of the 1992 European Championships, when Holland beat Germany 3-1 in the quarterfinals, only to lose on penalties to unfancied Denmark in the semifinals.
"We have to keep our focus as we haven╣t won anything yet," he said.
His team is unbeaten in 24 games and has won its last 13 competitive matches. Which makes it strange that only the Brazil result has united supporters struggling to embrace its pragmatic approach.
"Holland is winning by displaying the very things they always affected to despise," David Winner, author of Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, told SI.com.
There is also a mental strength to this group. It did not panic after conceding an early goal to Brazil (unlike the Brazilians after the equalizer, or, indeed, Argentina against Germany) and clawed its way back into the game, admittedly with some assistance from its opponent.
"This current Oranje squad has an arrogance, a confidence, with guys like Sneijder, [Robin] Van Persie, [Mark] Van Bommel and also unflappable players like [Arjen] Robben and [Dirk] Kuyt," former Holland winger Marc Overmars said. "And that's why they all really believe they can win it."
They might just be right.
PREDICTED WINNER: Netherlands
If you need a bit of luck to win a World Cup, Spain might have used up its portion already. First the draw looked to be opening up when the Netherlands upset Brazil, the only team the Spaniards were concerned about facing; then Oscar Cardozo missed Paraguay's penalty in its quarterfinal as the referee ignored Spanish players' encroachment into the area (he was not so generous at the other end); and the ball somehow hit the post three times before going in for David Villa's late winning goal.
So now Spain faces Germany, whom it beat in the 2008 European Championship final. Back then, Spain changed from the Villa-Fernando Torres strike force to just one up front at the semifinal stage, and its chances on Wednesday could depend on a similar switch. It was injury that forced Villa out two years ago, and injury has restricted Torres so far in South Africa. No matter how much his teammates talk up his value, it cannot be coincidence that Spain's last two winning goals have come after Torres had been replaced (by Fernando Llorente against Portgal, and Cesc Fabregas against Paraguay).
The big decision for coach Vicente del Bosque will be whether to keep faith with Torres or start with Fabregas or even Pedro Rodriguez against Germany. Whatever the decision, German coach Joachim L÷w will have a strategy for it.
For all the talk that Germany is the most entertaining side still in the competition, it is also the best prepared, from a tactical and fitness perspective. Against England in the round of 16, L÷w told his players to lure John Terry out of central defense to create space behind him, while against Argentina in the quarterfinals, L÷w targeted Diego Maradona's decision to play two center backs in the fullback positions. Right back Nicolas Otamendi, in particular, had a rough time and three of Germany's four goals came from his flank.
"You plan for success with hard work," Low said.
He will have to put in some extra planning given the suspension of Thomas Mueller, one of the revelations of the tournament. Such is Germany's confidence that Mueller's suspension barely received a mention after the drubbing of Argentina, while Mueller said he hopes to play one more match in the tournament.
He might get his wish if one omen is anything to go by: At least one defender for the last six World Cup winners has scored in the tournament (Argentina's Jose Luis Brown in 1986, West Germany's Andreas Brehme in 1990, Brazil's Branco in 1994, France's Laurent Blanc/Lilian Thuram in 1998, Brazil's Edmilson in 2002 and Italy's Fabio Grosso/Gianluca Zambrotta 2006). There is still time for that to change, but so far, thanks to Arne Friedrich's goal against Argentina, Germany is the only side left to tick that box.
"Something kicks in when we play a tournament. We just know how to do it," injured captain Michael Ballack said before the World Cup.
It helps to have a superb coach, a group of players working as a team (easier said than done, if some big nations are any indicator) and bags of confidence. This is Germany's perfect opportunity to avenge the 2008 defeat.
PREDICTED WINNER: Germany
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