831 players, 32 teams and four matches per day – following the football World Cup can get a little overwhelming. For the next month, The Indian Express will cut through the clutter and handpick the biggest storyline of the day every morning.
Netherlands vs USA (Round of 16)
8.30 pm, Khalifa International Stadium
During their goalless group-stage draw against England, a chant constantly emerged from the USA faithful: “It’s called soccer! It’s called soccer!”
The USMNT have been quietly promising this tournament. They are yet to concede a non-penalty goal, look well-drilled in midfield, have controlled major chunks of games, and have shown bright sparks going forward.
Captain Tyler Adams has been brilliantly assured on the pitch just as he has been off it, and the likes of Weston McKennie and Timothy Weah have shown promise. Even Christian Pulisic, on the fringes at Chelsea, has looked sharp – his bravery came to the fore in getting the winner against Iran that guaranteed US progress to the knockouts.
Yet, their team is never accorded the same fanfare as other lesser-known nations putting on a show in Qatar. Their results are not heralded in the way Asian and African ‘upsets’ are, their tactics not as astutely analysed, the stories of their players not as publicised.
This may be a result of general disdain for American ‘soccer’ – the use of that word is likely to enrage purists around the world – a European perspective of sporting superiority, that Americans should stick to American sports, not theirs. And few can argue that in the last decade, more than ever before, Europe has become the den of football tactics and player development.
The best leagues, coaches, facilities, and players come from the continent, and so have the last four world champions.
The US has embraced that view too. The English Premier League is just as, if not more, popular in the country as its own Major League Soccer (MLS) and the top talents in this team have all earned their stripes at top clubs in Europe. And now, this promising generation of players looks to break the perception of ‘soccer’ being inferior to football by taking on one of the continent’s giants.
The Netherlands – three-time World Cup finalists – come from a rich football heritage. The possession-based style of football made popular by Dutch teams of the 1970s and 1990s has its fingerprints over all the modern systems of today. And at the helm of this team is one of the great ideologues of that philosophy.
Louis van Gaal, now 71, remains as combative as ever, having fought a battle against prostate cancer to come out of retirement and take charge of this Dutch team. This side has shown classic signs of being a Van Gaal team, characteristic patterns of play, similar criticisms, similar gripes and grimaces in response.
Dutch football has been quite similar to the US in some ways – a lot of control and promising play, but a lack of clear-cut chances and incisive finishing – but they have been held, and given the gulf in talent understandably so, to a different standard. Following their 2-0 win over Qatar on Monday, Van Gaal was particularly incensed by a journalist asking him in the post-match press conference if his team was ‘boring’.
“If you think it’s boring, why don’t you go home,” he said, true to form.
Nevertheless, Van Gaal’s side have the edge on individual ability alone. Virgil van Dijk and Frenkie de Jong remain among the world’s best players in their positions, and Cody Gakpo’s form has led to him becoming one of the breakout stars of this tournament. Memphis Depay’s return to form would be a welcome boost too.
But the US are presented with an opportunity. They can take down a giant of the game bristling with individual quality, but lacking in cutting edge, just like Germany or Belgium have been. The pressure is off, they will not dominate possession and have opportunities against the run of play, and their structured pressing will allow them to isolate Dutch defenders and midfielders on the ball in the opposition half to extract mistakes.
The culture war between soccer and football is likely to rage on endlessly, but by causing an upset, the US can give soccer an equal claim to the game.
Argentina vs Australia (Round of 16), 12.30 am (Sunday), Al Rayyan Stadium
Lionel Messi and co. have gone from strength to strength ever since the opening-day shocker against Saudi Arabia. They had their best outing, by far, against Poland which saw them rely less on Messi for moments of magic and more on chance creation in an attacking team that had incision, rapid movement, and creativity.
Enzo Fernandez’s inclusion in the lineup, slotting in at the heart of midfield and allowing for Rodrigo De Paul to push further forward, helped the balance of Lionel Scaloni’s side who finally looked the part of favourites – which they were touted as before the start of the tournament.
Against Australia, they take on unpredictable opponents. The Socceroos were one of the worst teams coming into this tournament, but they have shown a lot of heart, and defensive resolve, to beat Tunisia and Denmark 1-0 and make it this far. They’re the big underdogs again, but they seem to thrive on that.