[QUARTERFINALS] Will the prospect of an all-South American final four materialize, or can Ghana break new ground by punching through to the semifinals?
Either would be a first. South American nations have contested the final only twice (in 1930 and 1950), and never have they filled all four semifinal slots. Cameroon lost to England, 3-2, in overtime at the 1990 World Cup quarterfinals and Senegal fell to Turkey, 1-0, in overtime 12 years later, but no other African nation been that close.
Paraguay and Argentina are on the opposite side of the bracket from Uruguay and Brazil, and such is bracket drawn that all four can win to get in. Only Paraguay is not regarded as the favorite in its match and to advance must contain Spain. Should even three emerge to reach the semifinals history would be made. In the 18 tournaments held prior to 2010, only five times have as many as two South American teams reached the final four (1930, 1950, 1962, 1970 and 1978).
For the hundreds of millions around the world more or less neutral to who emerges from a section of the bracket that also includes Ghana’s quarterfinal foe Uruguay, Brazil, and the Netherlands, there are enticing possibilities: Uruguay against its old rival Brazil, which it upset, 2-1, in the final game of the 1950 World Cup in the (then) brand-new Maracana Stadium, or a rematch of the 2006 round of 16 meeting between Brazil and Ghana won by the Selecao, 3-0.
URUGUAY-GHANA. The Ghanaians did a lot of things well that day in Dortmund but simple defensive breakdowns presented clear chances that were converted by Ronaldo, Adriano and Ze Roberto. Four years later, the Black Stars again won’t have midfield stalwart Michael Essien, who was suspended for that game and has missed this tournament because of injury, yet are riding the momentum of an overtime triumph over the United States and the hope of a continent.
In Ghana’s path is Uruguay, of rugged defense and a potent attacking trident of Diego Forlan, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Forlan and Suarez have combined to score five of Uruguay’s six goals, and the trio is active and clever enough to penetrate defenses that have a numerical advantage. They have yet to face an opponent as fast and strong as Ghana, which can be caught out of position but closes down space at frightening speed.
In its round of 16 match against South Korea, Uruguay sat on an early goal and tried the soccer version of rope-a-dope, which backfired when Lee Chung Yong equalized midway through the second half. A superb shot by Suarez in the 80th minute that curled just inside the far post restored the one-goal edge. Uruguay held on and perhaps reexamined an approach that nearly blew up in its face.
BRAZIL-NETHERLANDS. Assuming Brazil will beat the Netherlands is a bad idea, especially for the Brazilians, who despite their great World Cup record (five titles) aren’t immune to overconfidence. (Four years ago, they fell to an underdog French team, 1-0, at the same stage.) Both teams have steadily improved since their first group game, and while Brazil may be without injured attacker Elano, flying winger Arjen Robben is healthy after missing the first two Dutch games with a hamstring problem.
Robben, striker Robin van Persie and midfield dynamo Wesley Sneijder are more renowned but perhaps no more important than Dirk Kuyt, the kind of relentless pest that Brazilians, and a lot of other teams, hate to play against. The key for the Netherlands may be shielding center backs Doris Mathijsen and John Heitinga from too many confrontations with Brazil’s Robinho, Luis Fabiano and Kaka.
Yet if center mids Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel can somehow solidify the middle, who takes care of outside backs Maicon and Michel Bastos? Good question.
ARGENTINA-GERMANY. Beneficiaries of asinine refereeing decisions in the round of 16, Germany and Argentina are nonetheless formidable. Argentina’s impressive run – it and the Netherlands are the only teams to win all four of their games – under the guidance of Diego Maradona is fanning suspicion that its coach is crazy like a fox.
The Germans are rolling with their own incisive trio of attackers: Lukas Podolski, Miroslav Klose and Thomas Mueller. Buttressed by midfielder Sebastian Schweinsteiger and feeding on the energy of right back Phillip Lahm, Germany has set aside a 1-0 loss to Serbia in the group stage. Many prognosticators have Argentina atop the final eight, handing Germany a rare underdog role it will cherish against the team it met in the 1986 (3-2 loss) and 1990 (1-0 win) finals.
Maradona’s bizarre exuberance on the sidelines is playing well with his players, and when you can score 10 goals in four matches with Lionel Messi getting none of them yet still slicing up the opposition – he leads the competition with 23 shots -- all is well.
Gonzalo Higuain leads Argentina with four goals. Carlos Tevez has two, including a pulverizing 30-yard shot high into the Mexican net which followed his notorious offside header that the relevant match officials failed to spot. Maradona did the same thing in the 1986 competition – scoring a brilliant goal against England after fisting home the infamous “Hand of God” tally – and Argentina won that tournament, so history may be on Diego’s side.
SPAIN-PARAGUAY. Paraguay’s dour approach in the tournament – it has scored just three goals and eked past Japan on penalties, 5-3, after a goalless 120 minutes – hasn’t been pretty. But after dedicating their performance to forward Salvador Cabanas, who led the team in goals during qualifying and is recovering from a cranial gunshot wound suffered in January, the Paraguayans have earned some respect for getting to this stage for the first time.
Center back Paulo Da Silva anchors the back line, Edgar Benitez and Cristian Riveros are quick and clever attackers. It hasn’t been a good World Cup for forward Roque Santa Cruz, so Lucas Barrios may see most of the service.
Spain has been tightening its play since it opened with a shocking 1-0 loss to Switzerland, yet the terrible form of forward Fernando Torres has marred its last two games: a 2-1 win over Chile to finish group play, and a deserved if not comfortable 1-0 dispatch of Portugal in the round of 16.
Its incredible midfield led by Xavi and Andres Iniesta should throttle Paraguay, but scoring earlier – David Villa netted in the 63rd minute – than it did against Portugal would do wonders for its confidence. And it will need confidence in what could be a final four stacked with South Americans.