After a two day break the World Cup is back with its quarterfinals, kicking-off Friday’s matches with a pair of teams that have forsaken some of their historic style for modern substance, but with players like Kaká and Robinho, Robben and Sneijder, there’s only so much style Brazil and the Netherlands can forsake, no matter the sacrifices Dunga and Bert van Marwijk have made to create more pragmatic sides.
Some of the style that's being spared could be used by Ghana and Uruguay, two teams who don’t have the luxury of choosing between ambition and pragmatism. After the late match today, one of those nations will be improbable World Cup semifinalists, either giving Africa their first country in the final four or reclaiming a piece of the soccer landscape for a one-time power.
Friday’s matches in South Africa, at World Cup 2010:
Brazil versus the Netherlands, Port Elizabeth, 10:00 a.m. Eastern, ESPN
Where They Stand: The Netherlands comes into Friday’s early match as one of two teams who havewon all four of their matches, and with Arjen Robben set to make his second successive start (after playing the first 71 minutes against Slovakia), the Dutch are stronger now than they’ve been at any previous point in the tournament.
Conversely, Brazil will be missing up to three of their midfielders. Elano is out for his third consecutive match, having picked-up a leg injury in group play against Cote d’Ivoire. His likely replacement, Ramires, picked-up a yellow card against Chile and, having carried a card into the match, incurred a suspension. Defensive midfielder Felipe Melo is also a question mark, so we are most likely to see Dani Alves and Josué starting with Gilberto Silva behind Kaká.
Considering the players they are missing, Brazil may get little consolation in having been the better of the two teams in the Round of 16. Brazil’s 3-0 win convincingly eliminated Chile, and with two goals in a four minute span of the first half, they gave South Africa 2010 its first glimpse of Brazil at its most dangerous.
The Netherlands, on the other hand, methodically dealt with Slovakia, scoring an early goal and getting a late insurance tally before a consolation goal make it 2-1.
Player(s) To Watch, Brazil: Kaká is always the most important player for the Seleção, but since Dutch defensive midfielders Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong will have the Brazil star in their cross-hairs, Robinho and Luis Fabiano (in particularly) will have to play well.
Fabiano has three goals in the tournament and will be matched-up against a Dutch central defense that is a relative weakness - a weakness that has gone untested to this point of the tournament. Dunga and Brazil will want to use Fabiano to exploit John Heitenga, provided they can get around de Jong and van Bommel.
Player(s) To Watch, Netherlands: Particularly given he’ll be matched against attacking midfielder-cum-left back Michel Bastos, Arjen Robben - already one of the most exciting players in the world - could win this match for the Dutch. Against Slovakia on Monday, Robben was able to turn the match in a moment, running onto a long ball, cutting in on his left foot and putting in the first goal from 22 yards out. No build-up, no support from teammates was required for a goal that could just as well be scored against Brazil as Slovakia.
Prediction: Brazil is content to play without the ball and take advantage of teams with their counter attack, but with van Bommell and de Jong in defensive midfield roles, the Netherlands has an answer to that approach. Brazil is still dangerous on set pieces and has advantages with Robinho and Fabiano, but the Dutch’s ability to keep the ball will inhibit Brazil’s ability to utilize those edges. The more time the Netherlands spends in attack, the more chances there’ll be for Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder to craft scoring opportunities against a Brazil defense known more for their strength than speed. Many ardent supporters of Oranje culture have predicted a Friday upset, but it’s because this team is not like the Dutch teams of the past that a Netherlands 2, Brazil 1 result is possible.
Uruguay versus Ghana, Johannesburg (Soccer City), 2:30 p.m. Eastern, ESPN
Where They Stand: Ghana is the last African team standing and, with their win against the United States in the Round of 16, has gone as far as any previous African entrant. Against Uruguay, the Black Stars represent Africa’s best chance yet for a semifinalist, but to get there, Ghana will have to overcome yellow card accumulation suspensions to winger André Ayew and defender Jonathan Mensah. Kevin Prince Boateng, who left the match against the U.S. with a hamstring injury, is expected to play, as is striker Asamoah Gyan, who has been dealing with an ankle injury.
Uruguay will be without Diego Godín, who has been dealing with a thigh injury over the last three matches. The central defender attempted to play against South Korea but had to be removed by Oscar Tabarez at halftime. Despite the injury (to arguably their best defender), Uruguay has allowed only one goal in four matches: a second half, set piece conversion by the Koreans on Saturday.
Player(s) To Watch, Uruguay: How far can Diego Forlán take this team? As La Celeste embark on another even match where Forlán will again be the best player on the pitch - again having a chance to sway the match towards his country - the Europa League parallels can be drawn. No, Europa League and the World Cup are not comparable events, but the circumstances surrounding Forlán are.
Atlético Madrid, who Forlán led to the title in that competition, was expected to carry over their poor Champions League and Spanish Primera form into the tournament, but scoring the Atleti’s last four goals (over two rounds) and carrying his club to silverware, Forlán provided the first hint of Uruguayan success in South Africa.
Player(s) To Watch, Ghana: Asamoah Gyan has three of Ghana’s four goals in the tournament, including the extra time winner against the United States, his first open-play goal of the competition. The Black Stars have yet to see young Kwadwo Asamoah develop into the playmaker they need, and with André Ayew, their most dynamic player in this tournament, suspended for the Uruguay match, Gyan may have to find the same magic he used in minute 93 against the United States if Ghana’s to make history.
Prediction: Ghana coach Milovan Rajevac is a conservative coach who likes to wait for his opponent’s mistakes. Against the United States and Serbia, this worked. Against Germany and Egypt (in the Cup of Nations final), it didn’t.
Unless Uruguay reverses the course they’ve carved-out over the last four games, they aren’t going to provide Ghana any gifts., and each moment the Uruguayans keep Ghana off the scoresheet is another moment for Forlán and Luis Suárez to find a goal. Uruguay 1, Ghana 0 would be a typical win for this tournament’s La Celeste, but it’s a formula that’s as successful as it is predictable.