Losing Neymar and James is completely unfair
When Neymar and James Rodriguez met up in Fortaleza for the quarterfinal between Brazil and Colombia, the thought was that we'd lose one of the showcase young talents of the tournament. Instead, we're now down both. Brazil won an exceptionally rugged game 2-1, continuing their inexorable march to the semifinals via goals from Thiago Silva and David Luiz, but the ruggedness of said match has also cost us Neymar, who was carted down the tunnel after a vigourous collision with Napoli's Juan Camilo Zuniga and the subject of increasingly depressing news updates.
Neymar has a fractured vertebra that will rule him out of the rest of the tournament, while the last we saw of James had the Monaco star in tears, sandwiched between Dani Alves and David Luiz for support, the latter demanding that the partisan Fortaleza crowd show the proper appreciation for one of the gems of this tournament. James has been the World Cup's best player. Neymar is Brazil's favourite son. And barring a medical miracle in Neymar's case, neither of them will be able to play again before the final.
Needless to say, nobody's very happy about this. But instead of dwelling on the sad bit, let's focus on just how incredible that duo has been. The roar of the crowd whenever Neymar touched the ball, his entire body contorting and twisting as he looked to find a way past the mountainous defenders that tended to confront him. James' cool, collected passing and deft finishing, the through ball to Carlos Bacca that won the penalty, the various brilliant finishes. That goal. That other goal. The rampant katydid. And yes, that goal too.
The duo were hardly unknowns before the tournament. James is one of the centrepieces of an expensively-assembled Monaco team and has been touted as a top prospect for as long as Neymar has (if not quite so stridently), while Neymar was the subject of a pricey and hugely controversial move to Barcelona last summer and enjoyed a solid first season in Europe. But the World Cup is where players make their names on a global stage, and it's no surprise to see the footballing world talking about James as though he had fallen, fully and perfectly formed, from the nearest tree. Neymar, meanwhile, had plenty of time to leave further marks in the semifinal and the final -- or so we thought until the grim truth of his injury came to light.
James and Neymar. This was their World Cup, their chance to break out. Hopefully it will remain so, even if it has to be in spirit. There are still blissful highs, crushing lows and general, brain-melting insanity to be had yet.
Germany keep on smothering
What to make of this Germany side? The generous, positive interpretation -- which is also perhaps the correct one -- says that they've done everything that's been asked of them. Five games into the World Cup: they're undefeated, they've been behind for about eight minutes out of 450-odd, and they're into the semi-finals. Which is, by anybody's reckoning, an acceptable few weeks' work.
More than that, they've been asked a number of different questions, and they've answered them all. Game one asked them to dispatch a half-decent side in an appalling mess, and they duly dissected Portugal 4-0. Game two asked them to salvage something against dangerous opposition, and they scrambled their way to a 2-2 draw with Ghana. Game three, a Mostly Meaningless But Don't Lose special, saw them beat a thoroughly competent USA 1-0.
And so into the knockouts. Game four, and they just about held the line against an ebullient if slightly-scrappy Algeria; then game five, where an early set-piece goal meant they were able to smother the life out of a France side who, despite being plenty talented, had neglected to bring anybody resembling a lockpick. Not an insurmountable oversight, no, but one that means that conceding an early set-piece goal is an even worse idea than usual.
In essence, this Germany side have done all the grubby things you expect from a trophy-winning side. But the nagging, negative voice suggests that the one thing thing they haven't done, at least not yet, is beat a side of around the same quality in the stand-up knock-out have-that-no-have-that fashion. They've not outslugged anybody, Queensberry rules. Of course, they may never have to -- there's only seven games in the tournament, after all, and Neymar and Thiago Silva will be missing the semi-final -- but the fact remains that their progress thus far has been admirable but incomplete. It might take until the final to find out, but we still don't know how they'll react to a (metaphorical) clean right to the jaw. And until we find out, the suspicion will remain: they might just collapse in a miserable, mewling heap.
Valbuena deserved better
Poor Mathieu Valbuena. As if it weren't enough that he's been linked with a switch to West Ham, or to Sunderland, he had to become the brunt of a plethora of social media jokes centered on his height. Or rather, his lack thereof. Some cruel FIFA official elected to pair the 5'5" Frenchman with a mascot that had to be at least 5'3", leaving Valbuena straining to peer over the kid's head as the anthems were being sung.
The playmaker deserves more than this. He's been overshadowed for much of this tournament, with far more ink being spilled on the individual accomplishments of Neymar, James and Leo. But Valbuena deserves credit as well -- certainly beyond links to mediocre Premier League clubs.
During yesterday's defeat to Germany, Valbuena often seemed the only France player possessing even a slight spark of imagination, trying to find ways to slip into space and to create opportunities for his teammates. France's best chance in the first half fell from a Antoine Griezmann cross to Valbuena's feet, forcing a sharp save from Manuel Neuer.
Valbuena is easy to overlook in the pile of big names that ultimately disappointed for France, but it would be rude to say goodbye to les bleus without giving him a proper salute. He scored France's third goal in their 5-2 win over Switzerland, being sure to put the big mean corner flag in its place as he celebrated. Perhaps his talents were best on display against Nigeria, however. Valbuena sent in the corner that prompted Vincent Enyeama's rare error, allowing Paul Pogba to nod in France's first. And it was Valbuena that should be credited with an assist on Joseph Yobo's own goal, confounding the defender into putting it in the back of the net.
France have bigger players than Valbuena, both in name and in stature. But he should be high on the list of players we'll miss watching in this World Cup.