Much of the story of this World Cup has been the successes of the South American nations. But the quarter finals saw the Europeans come to the fore
All four matches were entertaining, although in very different ways. We don’t have a semi-final line up that too many would have predicted. But we do have a tournament that is coming to the boil nicely.
Brazil were strong favourites to beat Holland, and when they went ahead through Robinho’s early goal there looked to be no way back for the Dutch. But the match turned dramatically in the second half.
Firstly, a defensive mix up between Felipe Melo and ‘keeper Julio Cesar saw both miss Sneijder’s free kick, which sailed past them and into the net. From being behind and hardily in the game the Dutch were level. The Brazilians suddenly looked rattled. Then Sneijder got his second from a corner to put Holland ahead with twenty minutes left. And finally Melo was sent off for stamping on Robben after losing the ball, making a comeback even more difficult.
The Brazilians never looked like equalising and Holland ran out confortable winners.
Uruguay kept the South American flag flying – but only just with the narrowest of victories against Ghana.
An entertaining first half saw both sides miss chances, then deep into stoppage time Sulley Muntari scored from long range to give Africa’s last hopes the lead. But in the early stages of the second half Diego Forlan struck with a fine free kick to level the match.
Both sides failed to take opportunities to win in the regulation 90 minutes and so extra time was required. Uruguay seemed to tire and the Black Stars looked the more likely to progress. And right on 120 minutes they had the perfect opportunity to win the match when Luis Suarez stopped a goal bound header on the line with his hands, resulting in a red card and a penalty.
Asamoah Gyan was the man given the responsibility and he opted for power rather than placement, but his strike hit the top of the bar and sailed over.
Uruguay took advantage of this unexpected second life to win the resulting penalty shoot-out and progressed to their first semi-final since 1970.
Germany’s victory over Argentina was not a major surprise, but the emphatic nature of their win certainly was. Maradona’s men were brushed aside with contempt in the performance of the tournament as the Germans took control of the midfield from the off.
Muller’s header from a free kick gave Germany the lead on 3 minutes, knocking the Argentinians off their stride. With Messi finding three men around him every time he got the ball, the main opposition threat was stifled and the deadly Argentinian forwards were starved of service.
The second half started with Argentina’s only real period of sustained pressure in the whole match, but they were unable to equalise. And the Germans took advantage with two incisive breaks. Firstly Podolski surged into the box before squaring to give Klose the easiest of chances and then the brilliant Schweinsteiger cut through the defence on the same left wing to give Freidrich the chance to score at the near pos.
The South Americans were out of the game and about to follow Brazil to the airport. There was nothing Maradona could do to change things and Klose completed the scoring in the last minute with a fine finish for the fourth goal.
European champions Spain won the last of the semi-finals by knocking out Paraguay. For a long time the South Americans stifled the Spanish and there were few goalmouth incidents.
Then on 57 minutes the game came to life with a quite remarkable few minutes of play. Firstly Paraguay were awarded a penalty, but Oscar Cardozo’s weak effort was saved by Iker Casillas. And within two minutes Spain were also awarded a penalty.
Xabi Alonso scored coolly, but the referee ordered a retake for encroachment. This time goalkeeper Justo Villar saved the kick and also appeared to foul Fabrigas as he went for the rebound, but the referee was not interested in awarding yet another penalty.
The game calmed down once more and it took until the 82nd minute for Spain to score the only goal of the game. Inevitably it was David Villa who took the chance, scoring his fifth of the tournament with a shot that came off both posts before nestling in the back of the net.
So the semi finals will see three European teams and only one South American side battle it out.
Holland will be strong favourites to beat Uruguay, who will be without the suspended Suarez. Dutch midfielder Nigel de Jong also misses out on the match. Holland may not be the total football side of the 70s, but they are playing well enough to be within touching distance of a third World Cup final.
The only previous competitive meeting between the sides saw Holland win 2 – 0 in 1974, a game in which Diego Forlan’s father, Pablo, played. A repeat scoreline would be no shock.
The second semi sees Germany and Spain clash in what could be a tremendous match. Germany may well be slight favourites but there will be little in it. It could well go to extra time and perhaps even to penalties.
Germany will be without the suspended Thomas Muller, but that is likely to be the only change to a very settled looking side. Spain will have to decide whether to stick with the off form Fernando Torres, and will have to play better than they have so far in this tournament if they are to progress to the final.
This game will be decided in midfield. Before the tournament most observers would have said that meant advantage Spain, but the Germans have the player of the tournament in Bastian Schweinsteiger and his clash with Xavi will be key.
The two countries have met at three previous World Cups, with Germany winning two and the other drawn. But Spain did beat the Germans in the final of Euro 2008 when Torres scored the only goal.
So after the early good form of the South American nations, it looks likely to be an all European final.
Although given the way my tipping is going, Uruguay are probably now the best bet to win the Cup!