It was dramatic enough to suggest that the World Cup 2014 quartefinal line-up was just a twitch here and a move there from being: Chile vs Colombia, Nigeria vs Algeria, Mexico vs Greece and Switzerland vs USA.
Rather thankfully, the showpiece teams prevailed, sometimes by the skin of their collective teeth. We take a look at how those skins were peeled.
Brazil: On his upper arm, supersub Mauricio Pinilla has a tattoo to prove just how close Chile were to proceeding to the quarterfinals at hosts Brazil’s expense. In the 119th minute of the game, the final few dregs of extra time, Pinilla’s long-range attempt crunched against Brazil ‘keeper Julio Cesar’s crossbar. Had that sailed an inch lower, there would have been no penalties and surely, no Selecao. It didn’t, and Cesar lived to make two massive saves in the shoot-
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For the longest of spells in the Chile match, Brazil were second best. Dani Alves didn’t defend, Fred didn’t attack and Hulk didn’t do anything, thus exposing their heavy reliance on Neymar Jr — a boy who has scored half of Brazil’s eight goals in this campaign. Still, through sheer goodwill and sometimes a whole lot of luck, their hopes of winning a World Cup at home are alive.
Colombia: The only team to win all four matches without hiccups and make it thus far. Scissoring oppositions apart, including Uruguay in the Round of 16, is the tournament’s leading light and top goalscrorer with five goals, El Neuvo Pibe (The New Kid) — James Rodriguez. Those in the know, however, will be quick to tell you that James (pronounced Ham-es) is no new kid on the block. Monaco knew and hence forked out £40m for the boy who made his bones in Porto.
The 22-year old is equally adept at making plays by finding yards of space and finishing by finding the back of the net. Just ask Uruguay’s goalie Fernando Muslera and defender Diego Godin, who could do little else but applaud his two dinstinctly different finishes to send Colombia to the last eight.
France: The Super Eagles didn’t get their moniker by being a great defensive unit but Nigeria’s goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama changed all that. Single-handedly, and sometimes with both his paws, Enyeama tightened Nigeria’s resistance at the back and kept an attacking France at bay. As late as the 80th minute, the deadlock was broken by Paul Pogba, who thundered in France’s fourth collective chance in less than a minute.
Apart from Colombia, France are the only side to win their quarterfinal match in regulation time. But don’t be fooled, for coach Didier Deschamps will be the first to accept that the 2-0 scoreline didn’t do that match or Nigeria much justice. Against the German backline in the quarters, he will hope his Algerian-born players manage to do a little more than what the Algerians did in the quarterfinals.
Germany: Philipp Lahm’s team is considered a once-in-a-generation side, peppered with great players who have won every club title there is. Their hopes of hoisting the elusive one this time around nearly drifted away in the stiff Porto Alegre air, where a bunch of starving men, literally, from north Africa brought all of Deutschland to its collective knees.
Three days into the holy month of Ramzan, a fasting Algerian side dominated Germany. Thirty-two years ago in Spain, they had beaten the then two-time World Cup winners (West Germany) in the group stages. For the longest of spells, the match in Brazil seemed like it would end with a similar outcome. Germany scored twice in extra time to finally pull ahead, but the never-say-die Algerians pulled one back a minute before the whistle.
Argentina: So far, so Messi. Lionel Messi has not only scored four times in this campaign, but it was his 118th-minute assist to striker Angel di Maria that kept Switzerland from the quarterfinals. Apart from him, the Albiceleste have been shaky, mainly because the team is in fact three teams rolled into one — a strong attack, a mediocre midfield and a very poor backline.
But they have Messi, as the popular saying goes, and the genius somehow finds a way. Before the tournament began, much had been said and written about the Barcelona star’s lack of creativity when in Argentina’s blue and white. He has silenced some with his performances so far, but the voices in his head won’t stop till the Cup itself is in his hands.
Belgium: You always knew Romelu Lukaku was going to be the difference between Belgium and USA in Salvador. No, not because he is a great striker and Belgium’s big hope upfront in Christian Benteke’s absence but because he came on as a substitute. If you are a Belgian fresh off the bench, you most-certainly score or create. Lukaku did both.
In Belgium’s campaign, four out of their seven goals have been scored by those sent on at a later minute by coach Marc Wilmots. Trailing 1-0 until the 70th minute against Algeria in their campaign opener, subs Marouane Fellaini and Dries Mertens turned it around. Then Divock Origi did the same late against Russia and Lukaku even later against the USA. It made one paper in Brazil suggest that against Argentina, Wilmots should start the game with all 23 players on the bench.
Netherlands: Could this be the year where the Dutch, three-time World Cup finalists, break their trophy deadlock? Getting off the mark is not easy, as they found out against an inspired Mexico in the pre-quarterfinals. For the first 88 minutes, Miguel Herrera’s backline was tighter than a Swiss bank safe. Then, Louis van Gaal changed his team’s shape, from a fatter midfield to a stronger attack and Wesley Sneijder squeezed through to break a million hearts.
Herrera’s heart, though, thumped on for a few more minutes until Arjen Robben fell over it with what is widely considered the ‘Fabio Grosso moment’ of this World Cup. Like Italian Grosso’s leap against Australia in 2006, Robben too earned a penalty in the dying minute, which was successfully converted. Like Grosso in 2006, can Robben take the Netherlands all the way and score in the decider in Rio? We wait with diving breath.
Costa Rica: There was perhaps the longest ‘tap-in’ in World Cup history. There was a late equaliser. There was a penalty-shootout. And there was that token underdog side that had more than survived the Group of Death. Yet, somehow, incredibly, a match that was laced with all the above was the most boring match of the World Cup. Each of the remaining seven teams in the quarterfinals fought off nerves and pressure. Costa Rica battled dullness.
Ranked 28th in the world, Costa Rica are the underdog flavour of this World Cup but that flavour failed to rise in their pre-quarterfinal match as the Greeks doused it with plenty of bland dourness. Still, Bryan Ruiz’s team will be pleased as punch to have made it thus far. They conquered goal-shy Greece, a team that epitomise the art of playing incomplete football. Up next for them are the exact opposite, the incredible practitioners of Total Football.