We’re now 60 matches into World Cup 2014 and just 3.5 remain with the Brazil/Germany and Argentina/Netherlands semifinals, the third place match on Saturday and then the final on July 13th. The World Cup is already so close to becoming the summer memory that just never dies.
The semifinals are always my favorite part of any major sporting competition. Whether it is the World Cup, Champions League, NFC/AFC Championship Games of the NFL or Western/Eastern Conference Finals of the NBA, the stakes are impossibly high while carrying the burden of becoming an event beyond the game itself.
The quarterfinals last week were a somewhat disappointing set of four matches in which Neymar and Ángel di María were lost for the remainder of the tournament with injuries, while Thiago Silva picked up a suspension for the semifinals.
The two South American teams enter the semifinals at less than full strength and a meeting in the third place match is now more likely than in the final, which would be as cruel for neutrals as a broken vertebrae.
Here’s how the remaining four teams compare in terms of expected goal differential (data compiled from xG estimates by Michael Caley):
1. Brazil: +1.12
2. Netherlands: +1.00
3. Germany: +0.98
4. Argentina: +0.52
This hasn’t been the beautiful Brazil, but they enter the semifinals as the best remaining side in terms of what is a fair measurement of quality. The knockout stage draw has been brutal for Brazil with both Chile and Colombia having sides capable of going the distance, but they have escaped in penalties in one and on goals from their centerbacks in the other.
Brazil has scored four goals on set pieces, one on a penalty kick and five from open play; we are not accustomed to watching the Seleção rely so heavily on their defense and grit.
This new profile of Brazil becomes more pronounced without Neymar against a team that can dominate possession as well as Germany.
Neymar was involved in 1/3 of Brazil’s expected goals, but his absence will mean Oscar takes a bigger role in playmaking instead of simply one of the defensive stars of the tournament. Brazil has created enough chances in open play and converted enough set pieces to make up for all of the blown opportunities to finish from Fred and Jo.
France entered the quarterfinals with the best profile in the tournament, arguably outplayed Germany and were eliminated. Germany scored early on a set piece and did enough to withstand what was a dominant but still sleepy performance from France. Germany had high hopes a year ago, but injuries and the discouraging manner in which Bayern Munich went out of the Champions League sent Joachim Löw’s side beneath the radar.
With Brazil playing without their two most critical players, Germany holds a significant advantage to reach their first World Cup final since 2002. It would take both homefield and referee advantage, along with several breaks in the run of play to reach that final on their home soil that was appearing preordained before the Silva yellow and Neymar injury.
Argentina has the lowest xG differential of the remaining four teams, but they also have the best player of all-time having one of the best stretches of his career routinely making brilliant plays like this one. Di María has been the only consistent contributor for Argentina beyond Lionel Messi, which only adds to the Messidependence. The goal by Gonzalo Higuain against Belgium was a promising first step, but he’ll need to produce again since Louis van Gaal will surely send half his team to Messi with most of his touches in the attacking third.
For the Netherlands, the 2010 World Cup is the one they were setup to win and came so close until Andres Iniesta scored in the 116th minute. There have been so many all-time great Oranje squads and this one doesn’t seem to measure up, but sports are sometimes strange that way and are the favorites here. But the heart and gut is entirely with Messi finding his moment to turn the match as he has in the previous five.