The semifinals will be set after Saturday's action in South Africa, the day's two matches defining who will play in Wednesday's, second semi.
As was the case yesterday, the big match goes on first, with rivals Germany and Argentina picking-up where 2006's post-match contention and 2010's pre-match press conferences have left-off. Featuring the tournament's two most prolific attacks (with both teams carrying questions at the back), Argentina-Germany should be the tournament's most exciting match, not the least because the nations appear very evenly matched.
Spain and Paraguay's intrigue will center around the last surviving favorite. With Brazil out, the road clears-up for Spain to win their first World Cup. Few expect Paraguay to be the team to knock Spain off that path; however, with many still questioning the decisions coach Vincente del Bosque's made with Spain's tactics, all eyes will still be on Johannesburg to see if the high-powered Spain of two years ago shows-up.
Argentina versus Germany, Cape Town, 10:00 a.m. Eastern, ABC
Where They Stand: Argentina is perfect through four games, having scored 10 goals while allowing only two. They come into their match against Germany off a convincing 3-1 win over Mexico in the Round of 16.
The Albiceleste are suspension-free with only one injury concern. Center half Walter Samuel is set to miss his second consecutive match with a hamstring injury. Nicolas Burdisso will start at left-center half.
Germany is also without injury or suspension, coming off an equally impressive Round of 16 victory: Sunday's 4-1 win over England. The Nationalmannschaft’s only tournament blemish came in a 1-0, group stage loss to Serbia where Miroslav Klose was shown an early red card. Behind only Argentina, Germany is the second highest scoring team in the tournament, accumulating nine goals against two allowed.
Player(s) To Watch, Argentina: Though he is tied for the tournament lead in assists, the story surrounding Lionel Messi has been his inability to score a goal. Thankfully, this factoid is not overshadowing a great tournament by the world’s best player, with Messi involved in most of Argentina’s open-play goals. Great saves from goalkeepers Vincent Enyeama, Alexandros Tzorvos and Oscar Perez have kept Messi from recording his first goal of World Cup 2010, but if the Argentine number ten continues generating opportunities for himself and others, his lack of goals will stay curiosity.
Player(s) To Watch, Germany: Mesut Özil, Germany’s 20-year-old attacking midfielder, had been held-out of training at points this week due to fatigue. He’ll be fine for today’s match, allowing him to continue serving as the fulcrum to the German attack. In the center of the midfield’s attacking three (flanked by Lukas Podolski and Thomas Müller), Özil is often the player responsible for the attack’s distribution, his style contributing to Germany’s tendency to attack in waves. When Özil is allowed to turn with the ball in midfield, the collective head-of-steam the Germans instantaneously muster can lead to the bunches of goals seen against Australia and England.
Prediction: Charting out the teams, it’s unclear how either team stops the other - both having suspect back lines tasked with stopping a prodigiously talented attack. Neither should be successful, but Germany, be it through formation or personnel, seems more capable of slowing down the Argentines, and while there are legitimate worries about whether the stakes are too much, too soon for this team of neophytes, Germany 3, Argentina 2 could be the World Cup 2010 match that carries our memories through to Brazil 2014.
Spain versus Paraguay, Johannesburg (Ellis Park), 2:30 p.m. Eastern, ABC
Where They Stand: Spain is coming off a Round of 16 win over Iberian cousins Portugal, further putting their opening match upset loss (at the hands of Switzerland) in the past; still, Vincente del Bosque’s team has yet to reach their expected heights, begging questions as to whether the Spanish team that won the European championships was left in Austria, Denmark, and 2008.
It’s been conceded that even the lesser-than-expected Spain is favored to defeat Paraguay, whose path to the quarterfinals has not included a Portugal, or even a Chile or Switzerland (who Spain played in Group H play). With each day that passes, Paraguay’s group looks easier, and their Round of 16, nil-nil, shootout victory over Japan failed to convince that the Albirroja are contenders.
Neither team goes into Saturday’s match with suspension or significant injury.
Player(s) To Watch, Spain: The midfield duo of Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta are going to be able to pass their team through the slow-if-stalwart defense of Paraguay. While we aren’t talking Australia slow, Paraguay still lacks the speed at the back to stay in front of the Spanish, and as exhibited with Spain's goal versus Portugal, even the most successful of defenses can be cracked by Hernández and Iniesta, who sent the Seleccao home having allowed only one goal in four matches.
And if Spain’s midfielders can’t move the team through the Paraguay defense, there’s always David Villa. You know, the tournament’s co-leader in goals scored - the one player on this team capable of scoring goals on his own, outside of the context of the rest of Spain’s attack. Now coming-in from the left wing, Villa’s in a position where, if things start to slow down, he can be given the ball and allowed to go to work on Carlos Bonet.
Player(s) To Watch, Paraguay: Paraguay has a number of attackers who could find the proverbial moment-of-brilliance, with Lucas Barrios and Roque Santa Cruz the best bets to get starts ahead of Nelson Valdez and Oscar Cardozo. Should midfielder Cristian Riveros be able to a.) get the ball, and b.) handle the link-up to the strikers, Paraguay has players who can steal a goal. With Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué in defense, the Paraguayans will have to be happy with one goal, but uf it’s the match’s first, Gerardo Martino can start to reinforce his slower defense with numbers.
Prediction: For the Spain of 2008, this would be a match where you’d expect them to put up a number. For this team, any match can be a 1-0. I like Spain 2, Paraguay 0, but given the extent to which they control the match, Spain will still have to deal with questions as to why they can’t seem to score goals.