The World Cup’s final four has two classic matchups, with European powerhouses taking on equally dynamic teams from South America. Germany and Brazil go first, on Tuesday afternoon, followed by the Netherlands and Argentina on Wednesday. Here is a look at both games.
Fact That Sounds Untrue but Isn’t: While Germany and Brazil have combined to win eight World Cups, and while at least one of them has played in the final four of every tournament since 1938, they have met only once in the World Cup. That came in the 2002 final in Yokohama, Japan. Brazil won, 2-0. Its coach that day? The same one it has now — Luiz Felipe Scolari.
Brazil’s Player to Watch: Dante is expected to start in central defense for Brazil in place of the team’s suspended captain, Thiago Silva, who picked up a yellow card against Colombia on Friday. On paper, Dante for Thiago Silva is a losing proposition for Brazil, but there’s a wrinkle: Dante has played for Bayern Munich since 2012, and since Germany uses as many as six players from Bayern in its starting lineup, that familiarity could be invaluable. (He’s not alone: another hard-edge Brazilian with recent time at Bayern, midfielder Luiz Gustavo, is back from a yellow-card suspension.) Germany midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger seemed to acknowledge that Dante’s availability might help Brazil make the best of a bad situation.
“We know him well, and he knows us,” Schweinsteiger said. “Well, except for Thomas Müller; with him no one ever knows what’s coming.”
Germany’s Player to Watch: Müller has the freedom to go where he wants and do what he wants under Coach Joachim Löw, and that often means he pops up in the perfect position. He has nine goals in 11 career World Cup matches, 1 more than Diego Maradona had and 6 fewer than his teammate Miroslav Klose and Brazil’s Ronaldo, who share the record of 15. It may not be long before they are both looking up at Müller, who is still only 24.
Wild Card: Willian. He practiced Sunday in the position normally played by Neymar, Brazilian’s injured North Star. Willian is a terrific player — Chelsea paid more than $50 million to acquire him last summer — but there is only one Neymar, and the deification he has received in Brazil since a fractured vertebra ended his World Cup will not make it any easier to be his replacement.
Why Germany Can Win: The Germans have seemingly been built for this moment. Six of their projected starters for Tuesday were members of Germany’s 2009 European under-21 championship team (side note: another member of that team was Fabian Johnson of the United States) and the core of the team made the semifinals of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. After cruising past France in the quarterfinals hours before Brazil’s slugfest with Colombia, the German players appear to genuinely believe their moment has arrived. It’s about time: Germany has not won a major international title since the 1996 European championship.
Why Brazil Can Win: Brazil hasn’t lost a match at home since 2002. Any time someone says it has no chance against the Germans, remind them of that fact. Then point out that Scolari has never lost a World Cup match as Brazil’s coach, a record that includes that 2002 title run. Also, it’s Brazil. And Brazil is never overmatched against anyone.
The Man in the Middle: FIFA’s choice of referee for Tuesday’s match, Marco Rodríguez of Mexico, seems an odd one since he completely missed one of the seminal moments of the tournament: Luis Suárez’s bite of Giorgio Chiellini in the Uruguay-Italy match in the group stage.
Neither Rodríguez nor his linesmen saw the play, which resulted in a long suspension for Suárez and worldwide condemnation of his behavior. But Rodríguez also seems a strange choice for another reason: He has a reputation for a quick trigger. In his first two matches in Brazil (Belgium-Algeria and Italy-Uruguay) he issued six yellow cards and one red. That came after he showed nine yellows and two reds in two games in the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, and 12 yellows and 2 reds in two games in the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
With Brazil playing extremely physical soccer in its past two games, and Germany never one to back down, that could be a combustible mix. It would be a shame if a red card decided who goes to the final.
NETHERLANDS vs. ARGENTINA
Fact That Sounds Untrue but Isn’t: The Netherlands has missed more World Cups (nine) than it has played in (eight) since 1950. But when the Dutch do navigate the qualifying process, they are usually a contender. They have been to the semifinals five times since 1974, and to the final three times over that period. Of course, they lost them all, but still.
Argentina’s Player to Watch: It is hard to watch anyone except Lionel Messi when Argentina plays, since he is the engine of everything his team does and the one player left in the tournament capable of something magical every time he has the ball. But on Wednesday, keep an eye on Messi’s attacking sidekick, Sergio Agüero, who is back from an injury just in time to take the place of Ángel di María, who will miss Wednesday’s game with an injury of his own.
Agüero is a lethal finisher with his club team, Manchester City, but he and Messi have not always meshed well for the national team. If they can sort that out in the absence of di María, or at least stay out of each other’s way enough to allow Messi to provide for Agüero’s proven killer instinct, the Dutch defense could be in trouble.
The Netherland’s Player to Watch: One could argue that it is Robin van Persie, who scored three goals in the first two games of the tournament but none since. (On Sunday, van Persie whiffed on a golden chance near the net that might have prevented the Costa Rica game from going to penalty kicks.)
But what the Netherlands really needs against Argentina is a leader. In the past, that might have been a tough midfielder like Nigel de Jong, who could deliver a few well-timed whacks on Messi to set the tone. But de Jong is out, most likely for the rest of the World Cup, and so the leadership role rests squarely on the shoulders of the playmaker Wesley Sneijder. The supremely confident Sneijder has held up in that role so far, providing the tying goal in the 88th minute against Mexico in the Round of 16 and two shots that hit the woodwork against Costa Rica in the quarterfinals. If anyone is in position to get van Persie and Arjen Robben on the score sheet again, it is Sneijder.
Wild Card: The referee, Cuneyt Cakir of Turkey. After a knee to the back knocked Neymar out of the tournament, FIFA named a disciplinarian to watch over Brazil-Germany and Cakir, another strict enforcer of the rules, for the second semifinal. Was that a message that stars might get a little extra protection in the semifinals? Ask Messi, who can sometimes use a little intervention from the referee, or the Netherlands’ Robben, who often tries to exploit it. And then hope that a controversial red card — like the one Cakir showed Manchester United’s Nani in a Champions League game in 2013 — is not what we are talking about when the game ends.
Why Argentina Can Win: Like Germany, Argentina feels it is due for a World Cup title to supplement its crowns from 1978 and ’86, and it surely knows that the seven World Cups played in the Americas were all won by South American teams. Now, with its team finally starting to purr behind Messi, and Brazil weakened by the loss of Neymar, Argentina is feeling its oats. Fans of the team have descended on Brazil by the tens of thousands, and the players have clearly been heartened by the support. They gathered to sing with the fans after beating Belgium on Saturday. A win over the Dutch would extend the party a few more days. If it gets to Rio, Argentina will feel as if it already has one hand on the trophy.
Why the Netherlands Can Win: Well they can’t always lose, can they? The Dutch remain the best team never to have won the World Cup, but maybe this is its time. Every move that Coach Louis van Gaal has made this summer has seemed to work out. Bring a young roster with some unproven names to face defending champion Spain? No problem. Tinker with the traditional system to get some more attacking from the flanks? No problem. Sub in a reserve goalkeeper for a penalty-kick shootout without telling the starter? Well, small problem — the starter, Jasper Cillessen, was not happy to be left out of that discussion — but still, no problem when it works out.
Is there any stopping van Gaal now that he’s close? Don’t bet on it. Not from a man who once told the Dutch club that hired him, “Congratulations on signing the best manager in the world.” That was in 1991.
This article was originally published on the New York Times