Refs, excuses, Van Gaal’s midas touch – what we learned in the quarters

The Rio Report

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And so eight teams become four, and the two semi-finals are repeats of finals from World Cups gone by. Here is what caught our eye from the compelling quarter-finals:

Early goals = less drama

So after all the shocks, the underdog stories and the brilliant late drama, the four sides left in the competition are the ones most people would have tipped before a ball was kicked – or at least after day two, the day Holland smashed reigning champions Spain. But for all the enticing match-ups in the last eight, the only one with drama similar to the previous round was the final game, the only one that didn't have an early goal in it. Brazil, Germany and Argentina all scored in the first 15 minutes, and that set the tone for what followed. Holland and Costa Rica, just like Belgium-USA and Germany-Algeria before it, was goalless after 90 minutes. Then all hell broke loose. We have a sensational semi-final line-up to look forward to now – both are repeats of previous finals - but don’t worry if the early goal doesn't come. In fact, it might be better for everyone.

Are Holland settling their accounts?

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Holland has reached three World Cup finals and never won any of them, losing to West Germany (1974), Argentina (1978) and Spain (2010). This could be the World Cup where it goes through all its previous historical traumas and ticks them off. Trauma 1: Spain. Well, that didn't last long did it? Holland well and truly banished the memory of 2010 by beating Spain 5-1 in game one of Group B. It hasn't quite hit those heights since, but that does not matter. Trauma 2 came on Saturday night: penalties. Only one win in five previous shoot-outs, plus the memory of that horrendous Euro 2000 semi-final against Italy, in which they missed five penalties (two in normal time, three in the shoot-out). Next up on Wednesday is Argentina, and after that the potential to face Germany in the final. Holland might just have the chance to beat all three previous final winners in one tournament. Talk about getting over it: surely it can’t happen. Can it?

Did lenient ref contribute to Neymar injury?

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The build-up to France’s quarter-final against Germany was dominated by memories of their semi-final clash in 1982, a game which saw the first World Cup penalty shoot-out and goalkeeper Harald Schumacher smash into Patrick Battiston, leaving with him broken teeth, cracked ribs and a damaged vertebra. Germany got past France with none of that drama – although Manuel Neuer was the German goalkeeper France fans were left cursing – and instead, the violence of that game was reprised in Brazil’s win over Colombia.

This also felt like a bit like the 2010 World Cup final, as Holland tried to kick Spain off the pitch, and Howard Webb let them do it. This time the villain was referee Carlos Velasco Carballo, who came into the match with a card-happy reputation but left it with conspiracy theorists, if not the Colombia coach Jose Pekerman, convinced that he had shown Brazil far too much leniency. Fernandinho’s constant first-half fouling of James never brought a yellow card, while James’s first foul of the match did – that was the 40th foul of the game.

If Brazil thought that all this was to their advantage, they were wrong. Had Caballero been more willing to show his cards earlier on, would Juan Zuniga have led knee-first with his challenge on Neymar that ended his tournament? The softness that Caballero showed to the likes of Fernandinho and Paulinho contributed to taking Brazil’s best player and talisman out of the World Cup. And the host nation, judging by the outpouring of emotion following Neymar’s video message, will be in mourning until the Germany game kicks off.

Excuses, excuses, excuses…

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When Jogi Loew said that seven of his players were suffering with flu-like symptoms ahead of the France game, suddenly the pendulum seemed to swing towards France. We were expecting the Germans to be leggy from the off, and wilt in the last 20 minutes; if anything it was the other way around – partly because Mats Hummels’ early goal helped Germany set up the perfect game against a team that prefers to counter. And yet had Germany lost, Loew had a ready-made excuse: his players had suffered from the travel and heat changes from their switch from Brazil’s north to south.

Now, against Brazil, it will be Loew’s turn to have the upper hand. Scolari will point to Neymar’s absence and the suspension of Thiago Silva, one of the few Caballero bookings that was needless, to downplay his side’s chances. If Brazil do fall short, they can at least say, “Well, without our two best players it was always going to be difficult.” There will be no shame in defeat now for the hosts – not like there would have been in losing to Chile last week or Colombia on Friday. Instead, Germany might be the slight favourites. That changes the narrative of the game and Brazil might play without the pressure of previous matches.

And for Van Gaal’s next trick….

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Manchester United fans must be excited about the arrival of Louis van Gaal as their next coach, even if Holland’s progression to the semi-final means that he will only have a three-day break before his arrival at Old Trafford. He changed this game with one moment of genius; a risk that had no downside, the decision to take off Jasper Cillessen and bring on Tim Krul with only penalties to come. Before then, Costa Rica had the upper hand: they had been hanging on for penalties, had won their last shoot-out against Greece and in Keylor Navas, had the game’s outstanding player.

Suddenly all that changed. When Krul came on, it planted a seed of doubt in the Costa Rican minds. “This guy must be good if he’s coming on just to save penalties.” Never mind that Michel Vorm, Holland’s third keeper, actually has a better record than Krul. The Newcastle man was brash and aggressive, taking any possible advantage he could to destabilise the Costa Rican shooters. He is also left-footed, and perhaps that came into play given that three kickers were left-footed, and the two saves he made were on his left, his natural side. Krul also waited as long as he could before diving, so the Costa Ricans were unable to make him commit before shooting.

It all worked a treat: Holland’s penalty hoodoo has been banished and now all Van Gaal has to do is work out how to stop Lionel Messi in the semi-final. Early suggestions are that he might give Georginio Wijnaldum a man-marking job on him. Whatever he decides to do, you can be sure he will enjoy it. At the moment, LVG has the Midas touch.

Ben Lyttleton (On Twitter: @benlyt)

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