Calgary Herald

Quarters bring a four-gone conclusion


RIO DE JANEIRO — Eight who aspire will be whittled to four by the time the sun has set in Brasilia, site of the second half of Saturday’s quarter-final doublehead­er.

The World Cup picture comes into sharper focus.

Pogba or Muller? Neymar or Rodriguez? Messi or Hazard? Robben or Ruiz?

The wait won’t be long now.

France vs. Germany

(Friday, 10 a.m., CBC)

Old rivals. A fresh chapter. Suddenly, pre-tournament Germany finds itself in the eye of a tempest.

While it’s true one of the pretournam­ent favourites here required far too long to extinguish a confoundin­g Algerian threat in the round of 16, Die Mannschaft neverthele­ss bossed the game and held their nerve. Yet they find themselves taking a lot of stick back home for a lack of killer instinct.

The French, meanwhile, are relishing their surprising run, unencumber­ed by expectatio­n, as if playing the tables at the Monte Carlo casino with house money. Everything they accomplish, each step they take, is seen as a bonus and a building block for the Euro 2016 competitio­n on home soil and beyond. That sort of opponent is one to be wary of, indeed.

“Didier Deschamps has turned France around since 2010,” praised German Joachim Low, “and we’re looking forward to another classic.”

The onus is squarely on the suddenly embattled Low to finally deliver a major championsh­ip eight years into his reign. Deschamps, meanwhile, has cannily kept his side under the radar here, forever downplayin­g its prospects while praising the commitment of his players.

Still, even with the intangible­s in their corner, this test against such a deep, skilled opponent seems a step too far for the emerging French.

The pick: Germany, 1-0.

Brazil vs. Colombia

(Friday, 2 p.m., CBC)

Brazil, the guidebooks inform us, takes in 200 million people and 8.5 million square kilometres of total area. Well, nearly every individual on virtually each square foot of this vast, maddening, unworkable, breathtaki­ngly beautiful nation of complexiti­es and contrasts is uneasy, anxious, fretful. The concern is well founded. The nightcap of Fantastic Friday at this World Cup has the makings of a free-flowing classic. Brazil vs. Colombia for a spot in the semis.

The ramificati­ons are absolutely immense. So much hinges on what plays out at Estadio Castelao in Fortaleza. The continued momentum of a highly contentiou­s $11-billion investment by the government. A seismic switch atop the South American soccer power grid. Prestige.

Centrally, the match features a battle of striking prodigies: 22-year-old Neymar of the Selecao vs. Los Cafeteros’s 22-yearold James Rodriguez. Soccer’s current equivalent of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Schubert duelling at side-by-side fortepiano­s on some 18th-century edition of Europe’s Got Talent.

Rodriguez leading the tournament on five goals, Neymar lying in wait at four.

Either one capable of making the match his own.

“James,” lauds Colombian teammate Juan Cuadrado, “is a great player. A phenomenon, as they say here, who brings a lot to the national team. He has shown his style really well. I believe that the support from all of his teammates has helped him relax and given him confidence he needs to show his best.

“He can do something big in any moment because we know he is a phenomenon.”

Rumoured to be the biggest thing to hit Brazilian shores since bossa nova, Neymar has been declared fit enough to play after sustaining thigh and knee knocks during the edgy penalty-shootout eliminatio­n of Chile. But will he be operating at 70 per cent? Eighty? Fifty?

“I’m fine,” Neymar assured everyone on Decision Day eve. “I have no pain. I do not feel burdened with the obligation to be the highlight. I have colleagues who help me. We are a team.

“Nobody is struggling emotion- ally. It’s not about one player. Here, the important thing is that Brazil is champion.” That is no sure thing. Despite continued protestati­ons, his boys are in a good head space, and coach Big Phil Scolari summoned a psychologi­st to help out in the wake of the near miss against Chile. The pulverizin­g pressure — so evident before penalties Saturday — plus Rodriguez’s breathtaki­ng form conspire to send the hosts out, and a nation into mourning.

The pick: Colombia, 3-2.

Argentina vs. Belgium

(Saturday, 10 a.m., CBC)

All eyes will be fixed on Brasilia and the ground named in honour of ’60s and ’70s Selecao star Garrincha as the beacon of another nation, Lionel Messi, continues the quest to fulfil his destiny.

The No. 10-reliant Argentines are making awfully heavy work of it but are still stringing together results.

The Belgians, meanwhile, overran the U.S., but were continuall­y stonewalle­d by goalkeeper Tim Howard, who put on a shotblocki­ng show for the ages. That performanc­e, over and above the misleading 2-1 score line, underlined how dynamic Marc Wilmots’s team can be. Advancing to their first Final 8 appearance since 1986, they seem to be in a good place.

Playing for La Liga side Atletico Madrid, Belgium ’keeper Thibaut Courtois is familiar. With Atletico beating Messi and Barca to the title this season, the shotstoppe­r has enjoyed his fair share of success against the wee maestro.

“I know very well how to play against Messi,” said Courtois. “We have come up against each other in various games between Atletico and Barcelona, although on those occasions, the defeats were not his fault.

“Messi is a sensationa­l player. He can decide a game in a second.”

As Bosnia and Herzegovin­a, Iran, Nigeria and Switzerlan­d all had re-confirmed, to their despair.

The pick: The head says Belgium, the heart says Messi. Football is a game of the heart. Argentina, 2-1 (AET).

Netherland­s vs. Costa Rica

(Saturday, 2 p.m., CBC)

Of the four quarter-finals, this is the slam-dunk.

Granted, Louis van Gaal’s Dutch were suffocated by Mexico until late on in the Round of 16 match, and that mischievou­s imp Arjen Robben felt the irresistib­le pull of gravity. Yet their profession­alism won the day, and may yet win them this World Cup.

Robben is adamant he and his pals won’t be succumbing to a sense of overconfid­ence.

“We have to stay focused. Costa Rica have a very good team. They’ve already proven that in their group, which was very tough with Italy, England and Uruguay in there. They’ve been really impressive, and we’ll have to prepare very well if we’re going to beat them.”

Netherland­s will dearly miss the uncompromi­sing Nigel de Jong, out for the tournament due to a groin strain, in the heart of midfield. He is their teeth, their spine. And the Costa Ricans continue to relish the recurring role of ‘what the …?’ underdog, but high spirits and a sense of destiny won’t save them here.

The Pick: The Netherland­s, 2-0.

 ?? Martin Rose/Getty Images ?? France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris attends a news conference on Thursday in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The French face Germany today.
Martin Rose/Getty Images France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris attends a news conference on Thursday in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The French face Germany today.
 ??  ??
 ?? Quinn Rooney/AFP/Getty Images ?? Costa Rica celebrates after defeating Greece in a penalty shootout during the Round of 16 match. They will face a very strong Netherland­s Saturday in the quarter-finals.
Quinn Rooney/AFP/Getty Images Costa Rica celebrates after defeating Greece in a penalty shootout during the Round of 16 match. They will face a very strong Netherland­s Saturday in the quarter-finals.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada