Even injured, Neymar is everywhere
It's not news to note that in Brazil, Neymar is everywhere. But now that's he crocked and his tournament is done, everywhere suddenly seems to be a bigger place.
The day after his injuries, the newspapers offered up what looked, when placed in neat rows on the newsstands, like a storyboard of the Incident: here's the first front page, with Juan Camilo Zúñiga Zuniga rising in the background; here's the second, with Neymar down on the ground; here's the third, a grief-stricken Marcelo kneeling over his colleague's prone body, wailing in anger and fury at somebody, perhaps the arbitro on the field, perhaps the great Arbitro in the sky. At half-time during the first quarter-final, Brazilian television threw live to the national team's training camp to see the stricken forward -- baseball cap carefully in place -- being loaded into a helicopter. Then, during the second, Neymar's tear-jerking address was broadcast to the nation. 200 million people, and not a dry eye to be found.
Even when other teams are actually playing, he still found his way into the heart of things. The World Cup cameramen are now no longer limiting their crowd-trawling to the pursuit of lechery and silly hats; they're picking out messages of support from the fans of other teams. Credit here must go to the Dutch fan who, having snagged the attention of the camera with her #FORCAMEYMAR poster, quickly flipped it round to reveal her other, more personal note: "VAN PERSIE <3"
It's the adverts, though, that are the weirdest moments. Because while everything else is keyed to the national mood of grief, anger, angry grief and grievous anger, the adverts still retain their innocent, pre-lapsarian chirp. Lingering echoes of a sunnier, happier time. Look, here's Neymar drinking some juice and oh God he doesn't know what's going to happen this is unbearable. Here's Neymar with a group of schoolchildren and none of them know that the sun will turn to ashes in the sky. One -- perhaps for some kind of insurance? -- even features Brazil's No. 10 getting absolutely clattered ... then getting up and thrashing the free-kick into the top corner, which you'd have to assume at this point is just going to annoy people.
In short, like Jeff Buckley, Princess Diana and Jesus, Neymar's untimely departure from the World (Cup -- he's not actually dead) has elevated him to a whole new plane of ubiquitousness, to levels of everywhereness thought hitherto impossible. And there are two football-free days looming before Brazil -- his Brazil, no longer his Brazil -- take the field again. Stiffen those upper lips, folks. It's going to get emotional.
Messi's support finally turns up
Daniel Van Buyten.
Marouane Fellaini again.
The Belgium team may have had an advantage in size and in strength, but that matters little when Lionel Messi is involved. Four attempts were made to snatch the ball off his feet. Messi barely looked troubled, easily keeping it close to his body. No wonder Argentina have made it to the semi-finals.
Indeed, a bit of nifty footwork from Messi helped set up Argentina's goal, with little Leo dancing past Kevin De Bruyne and moving with ease past Fellaini. He put the ball through to Ángel di María, who set up Gonzalo Higuaín with a bit of help from Jan Vertonghen, whose deflection allowed the ball to fall perfectly for Pipita's volley.
But what was most noticeable about yesterday's Argentina team is that, for the first time this tournament, they weren't forced to rely on Messi to bail them out. He may have had opportunities to dazzle, but the burden of being his side's savior had eased.
The re-jigged Argentina weren't necessary a team in which neutrals could delight - it was rather more fun to watch them look a little panicked when attackers approached their shaky defense. But yesterday, Alejandro Sabella fielded two solid defensive midfielders and rejigged his backline, making it nearly impossible for Belgium to get in a decent shot (although Marc Wilmots' strange tactics and substitutions didn't help either).
Still, Argentina had their moments of magic, and there's reason to hope they'll continue to do so in their semi-final - even in the absence of the injured di María. Higuaín looks like he's finally healthy, both mentally and physically, and it was delightful watching him nutmeg Vincent Kompany, even if his shot was denied by the crossbar. Ezequiel Lavezzi's bursts of pace remain dangerous, as does his ability to get the ball into dangerous positions. They're still managing to harness the power of Rodrigo Palacio's rat-tail in late-game substitutions.
And there's Messi. There's always Messi. And he somehow manages to shine even more when he doesn't need to fill the entire stage.
van Gaal's great gamble
"We all thought Tim was the best keeper to stop penalties. He is taller and has a longer reach. It worked out. That was beautiful. I'm a bit proud of that."
It's a fairly rare feat to come off looking exceptionally clever after seeing your Netherlands side taken to penalties by Costa Rica in a World Cup quarterfinals, but Louis van Gaal managed it by making an essentially unprecedented decision during the closing minutes of injury time. First-choice goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen was taken off with the third and final Dutch substitution, and Newcastle United's Tim Krul was thrown on in his place.
Krul then stopped two of Costa Rica's five spot kicks, guessing the right way on all of them, while the Ticos' Keylor Navas, manifestly the superior overall goalkeeper, never really got near saving any of the Netherlands five well-taken efforts. Saturday's duel is reminder that being a better pure shot-stopper -- and probably a better penalty saver, if one looks at the duo's career records in that regard -- doesn't actually matter that much in a shootout. With nerves through the roof for both sides, psychology was the main weapon, and the Dutch gave poor Costa Rica everything in their arsenal to book a place in the semifinal.
But while the decision to field Krul for the potential shootout obviously paid dividends, it's interesting to consider the cost of that decision. By saving a substitution for a 120th minute goalkeeping switcharoo, van Gaal was forcing his team to play two hours of football with only two outfield replacements, while Costa Rica had three. While it's still unclear as to just how much value each substitution has, it's obvious that they have some value, and that the Krul move was a gamble.
And although the Netherlands had by far the better of the chances in a match that took goalline scrambles into new and unprecedented regions of artfulness, it's entirely possible that it could have backfired. Deep into extra time, with Dutch limbs dragging, Ticos substitute Marco Ureña wove his way through the Netherlands' back line, worked space to shoot, pulled the trigger and saw his shot kicked away by Cillessen (who wasn't just around to be some sort of sacrificial offering to Krul the Mighty). Had that effort gone in, and it was from a dangerous enough position that that outcome is far from out of the question, van Gaal's decision to withhold a substitution would have seemed perverse.
It is, of course, not fair to assess the moves a manager makes based on hypotheticals -- van Gaal might reasonably have assumed that if any side was going to threaten in extra time, it would be his -- but Ureña's shot is a neat indication of the risks that were being run. This wasn't just about which of Cillessen and Krul was a better choice in the shootout, it was about rolling the dice on losing in extra time to even make the switch in the first place.
Remember that when Saturday's match spawns the inevitable slew of imitators.