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Timothy Masters

Every summer for the last few years now the best and brightest players in the Barclays Premier League are stolen away by one of two clubs, either Barcelona or Real Madrid, and this has proven to be no exception so far as Luis Suarez left Liverpool for a vaguely obscene amount of money. Some had hoped that the massive influx of oil/gas money into the French league might redress the balance a bit across Europe, but aside for Paris Saint Germain and Bayern Munich there doesn’t appear to be a club capable of properly denying the Spanish giants what they want, and even the former are only able to do so with a massive budget themselves. When and if Real or Barca ever decide to come for the likes of Eden Hazard we might see a different outcome, but right now the Spanish division has the pulling power.

Javier Tebas is the league president where the rain falls mainly on the plains, and he has said this week the he’d like all the top players to operate in the Spanish league eventually. This would confirm it as the strongest in the world, but you can’t ignore the fact it would be terrible for the game over there overall and only shows how the Spanish system needs reform. In a league dominated totally and utterly by two massive clubs that can exercise their financial superiority even during a transfer ban any further strengthening of the top two would make the situation worse, and if Spain ever want to be where the Premier League is, in a place where as many as five clubs can compete for the league title or have world-class players they need to redress from within rather than splashing about in the money pit.

It may help Barca and Real in the short term if they can do a Bayern and weaken their opposition with every passing window but in the longer terms we’ve seen the damage a lack of domestic competition can do to any big club and there is no reason why it should be any different in this case. Individuals like Gareth Bale, James Rodriguez are happy to move while the money is good but can they be said to actually have proved anything after running through a dying competition? At the moment the answer seems to be yes, but if Mr Tebas gets his way and the talent drain to Spain continues eventually even the league title won’t matter a jot as a two-game season will decide the champion, and we’ll be looking at SPL2.

This summer has seen some frankly obscene money changing hands already, which is incredible when you think just what has happened to the big spenders over the last twelve months or so. Sure, Real Madrid may have won the Champions League for the tenth time, but having broken the world transfer record last summer it is still odd to see them spending like it’s going out of fashion again, while Barcelona are technically supposed to be under a transfer ban. Like the punishment handed down to their new star signing that sanction has turned out to be something of an empty gesture to date, and the Catalans have once again been able to drop massive wads of cash and further crush their reputation as a club that builds from within.

As a result of ‘Hammers’ Rodriguez moving to Madrid it looks like Angel Di Maria will be sold to make space in the squad, and there are a number of clubs interested in making what will probably need to be a £50m bid for the Argentine, but he is actually one of the most overrated players in the European game right now and indicative of a worrying trend. If you watched Di Maria play only through highlight packages that fee may seem appropriate, but when seen live the weaknesses of the winger are far more evident, including a profligacy with the ball and a total lack of interest in tracking back and helping his defence, and for a technical and tactical manager like Carlo Ancelotti that lack of discipline must be maddening at times.

If one of the big Premier League clubs does make him their marquee signing it seems likely they’ll be let down in the longer term in the same sort of way Arsenal have been to this point by Mesut Ozil, and it’s certainly not unfair to say the English top division demands diligence both on and off the pitch than the Spanish Liga BBVA. Di Maria’s talent with the ball at his feet is considerable, but his price tag also says a lot about the way clubs decide on players these days and how scouting is sometimes less important than the ego of the transfer committee (see Fabregas to Barca, Fellaini to Man Utd etc) and the need to sell shirts. If the man himself turns up and proves us wrong that will only be a good thing as the league deals with yet another summer talent drain, but he’s far from a guaranteed success.

After a long and somewhat controversial run as an England international Steven Gerrard has finally decided to hang up his armband and hand over the reins to a new generation of player, and many have said the decision has come not a moment too soon after the way the World Cup ended. Exposed by a naïve tactical system that ignored all the lessons of the previous Premier League campaign and eventually left to watch his side beaten and embarrassed, it is not that much of a surprise that this is the time he’d finally decide to quit, and when you compare his departure to the way Philip Lahm has gone out, for example, it seems a shame it had to end this way.

The candidates to take over from the man who definitely controls the dressing room tunes aren’t exactly thronging and oozing quality, but there are definitely options for Roy Hodgson as he builds toward another group stage disappointment in two years’ time before inevitably being sacked in favour of the next saviour. With that in mind the former Liverpool and Fulham boss may choose to go with a short-term appointment like Gary Cahill, but in the longer term there is no doubt the national team need a brain and a heart if it is to thrive, and currently has neither . It’s a shame the FA weren’t brave enough to make the change they needed to on the of the English summer of shite, but there is now a chance to build with this generation and install the leaders that could take them to success down the road.

The obvious group of players that will be around for the next few years is pretty small, and limited to maybe two or three names. Unless Ashley Cole finds a time machine in Rome we’re set for a decade of Luke Shaw in the number three shirt, and captaining from left back is always going to be tough, so it comes down to Joe Hart, Wayne Rooney and maybe Jordan Henderson at this point, if those are your criteria. While all have something to offer, it seems more sensible to plan properly and go with a two-stage method. In the short term, Hodgson give the armband to Gary Cahill, our best defender and most committed player at times, whilst training Phil Jones to take over after Euro 2016, as the United man is an obvious leader and should also be an obvious starter for a long time. Of course anything can happen under Roy, and not always for the best, but we can hope this is the time he might see sense, can’t we?

Good – Germany. Tactical labels and fashionable positions have been a plague on the modern game, with non-fans churning out terms like ‘false 9’ and ‘tiki taka’ for the last few years now, but Germany have done things their own way to the greater extent. Seeing the possession heavy style of the Spanish combined with the pace Bayern Munich try and inject vertically was always going to be thrilling, and their win over Brazil was the true conclusion to more than a decade of hard work.

Neymar – he may have finished his home tournament with a broken back, but Neymar has done what Gareth Bale did in the Champions League and put any questions about his quality or determination to bed. It may be that one day, when he looks back on the pre-penalty speeches delivered in the knockout stages Brazil’s nominal captain Thiago Silva is embarrassed to see a kid eight years his junior rallying the side, but that’s the level Neymar is already at.

Bad – the officials at this tournament were a weird mix of good assistants and really terrible refs, and between Carlos Velasco Carballo and Djamel Haimoudi we were treated to the worst displays seen in any game for a long time. James Rodriguez and Neymar were both put at risk by the former, and the latter’s actions when taking charge of the 3rd place playoff proved that prejudice against African refs has nothing to do with geography and everything to do with competence, or a lack of.

Roy Hodgson was not exactly feted as the English saviour before the competition began, but his side underachieved even with that in mind and the fact he was kept on after the World Cup is incredibly hard to understand if you care for the national side. Turgid selection, poor substitutions and a frankly stupid game plan cost England a spot in the last 16, and Hodgson is out of his depth.

Ugly – Thomas Muller. The Germany and Bayern Munich forward ought to have come out of this competition ahead, and definitely was one of the best attackers on show, but his utter lack of class, sportsmanship or respect for other players has meant the opposite. The person that Muller is won’t mind that, but he’s promoted himself to being almost the Piers Morgan of football, universally hated despite being good at what he does.

BBC/ITV – the two main broadcasters were provided with a lot of relevant imagery and wonder to sprinkle on top of the football, but both failed to do justice to the setting or the importance of the occasion and in some cases were laughably poor. From the casual racism of ITV’s coverage of Japan to the primary-school portentousness of Gary Lineker’s attempts to be profound with his summaries this was not a great watch, and the action on the pitch was a blessed relief from the inanity in the studios.

The historical home of football may be England, if that’s alright with FIFA, but the spiritual home of the most beautiful sport is certainly Brazil, and in some ways it is a shame the hosts won’t be in the final to induce that hysteria and atmosphere we’ve all enjoyed so far from the fans, but we still have an epic battle ahead of us. In one corner we have a fairly average Argentina led by one or two stellar attacking talents, while the other contains the best squad in international football and a collection of midfielders that is almost absurd in terms of depth and talent. If this game comes down to the possession battle in midfield even the incredible Javier Mascherano won’t be enough to save the Argentinian team, but in a World Cup final anything can happen, and these sides are both able to win despite the German’s having the midfield advantage.

Defensively the strength of the Germans is well known, and the main decision for the manager will probably be whether to deploy Philip Lahm in central midfield, at full back or simply to give the best defender in the world the job of keeping Leo Mess quiet, something only a handful of players are even capable of at their best. We know Messi is capable of scoring against any defence, Lahm or not, but the temptation to attempt to sacrifice his greatest asset in exchange for Messi may be too great for Jogi Low to exist, and with Lahm definitely able and Messi looking tired it may turn out to be a tactical masterstroke.

Up front, it is German forward Thomas Müller with the best chance of claiming the prize for top goal scorer, and with three assists and five goals it is clear Bayern’s finder of space is supremely comfortable playing at the highest levels of world football. Speaking of the highest level, Lionel Messi is just a goal behind his German rival in the running for the award, and that’s pretty impressive when you consider that Müller has been involved in a couple of high-scoring games, where most Argentinian matches have been tighter affairs.

Dortmund star Mats Hummels was rested as a precaution against tendonitis in the second half of the Brazil game, and the eleven that started against the hosts. For Argentina Angel Di Maria is unlikely to be fit to start, but Sergio Aguero is ready to go and Marcos Rojo is expected to play despite having missed most of Friday training with an ankle problem.

Without meaning to agree with the new Manchester United manager too much, this game really serves little purpose for the vast majority of teams involved in it due to the timing and placement of the fixture, as well as the ambition of the sides involved. Occasionally it is made meaningful by the presence of a side that values third place, like a Turkey or South Korea, but when you have Brazil and Holland facing off and the Dutch manager is due to take over at Old Trafford it seems utterly obvious that this game was going to be tagged as an annoyance, and sure enough Louis Van Gaal has made his disdain very clear in the build-up.

The way managers normally like to motivate their players for these games is by picking from the second half of their squad, and those men who are yet to play many minutes at the competition, although when you’re the home side there is probably more pressure to try and win for the fans. There are one or two who might not play in another World Cup too, but those of the Brazilian persuasion probably don’t want to extend their stay in this competition anyway after the capitulation verses Germany, and the same probably goes for their beleaguered manager Scolari.

Thiago Silva is able to return and probably rescue the Brazilian defence after his suspension, with changes expected and pride on the line. Netherlands are also set to rotate their squad, with Swansea stopper Michel Vorm the only Dutch player yet to feature in Brazil.

Up until the moment a man named Zuniga planted his patella in Neymar’s spine it was the general consensus that Brazil were favourites to lift the World Cup in their home country and delight the fans, but that single Falcon Knee has changed everything, and we have a new darling of the bookmakers. Argentina are now most likely to be world champions in 2014 according to VictorChanlder, who rated them 9/4, while their opponents for this evening have been relegated to least likely to succeed after their shootout win over Costa Rica. It’s been 24 years since the famous pale blue-and-white striped shirts were seen in a World Cup semi-final, but faith in Lionel Messi’s power seems to be growing daily both in Argentina and across the football world, and the man himself seems determined to make this his year.

It sounds slightly absurd to say that about a player with as many medals and trophies at home as Messi has, but there are still a lot of observers who believe he won’t be rated alongside Maradona and Pele until he takes a trophy on the world stage, and specifically the World Cup. Anyone who has watched Barcelona these last ten or so years is in no doubt as to the diminutive Argentine’s greatness or place in the footballing pantheon of course, but there is no denying that another trophy would only add another layer to his legend and every kid dreams of winning the World Cup, even more so if it’s a kid that grew up in the land of Maradona and all that goes with his legacy.

It seems obvious that this game will be easier for the Dutch in some respects than the one vesus Costa Rica if only because Argentina will play a more open style, making it simpler to find space, although the loss of Angel Di Maria with a thigh injury will actually give the South Americans more cover in defence as he is notoriously lazy without the ball. Sergio Aguero is fit and Marcos Rojo returns from suspension, while Louis Van Gaal is awaiting news on Leroy Fer’s hamstring with Nigel de Jong stull injured.

For all the loutish charm of the ‘football’s coming home’ movement in the mid 90’s, the rest of the world probably views the home of football as spiritually being Brazil these days and rightly so as they are not just the most successful team in world football, but also the most iconic. There are other teams that have won a lot of course and also epitomise a style of football at the same time, like Italy for example, but of all the sides left in the competition it is probably Germany that are closest to being the opposite of Brazil, and Germany who have one of the strongest footballing identities in the mind of many fans making their semi-final match with Brazil a truly iconic moment.

For two sides with such a history of success it is surprising that this is only their second meeting in the World Cup, although of course there is always the West/East factor distorting the history of the current national side, and that means there won’t be a lot of associated scar tissue around the tie in the way we see with matches like Germany v Holland, or Argentina v Brazil. Baggage comes for the home team in the form of their fans, as well as the combined weight of Neymar’s back and Thiago Silva’s yellow cards hanging over their heads but that will of course work both ways, providing extra motivation. The challenge for Filipe Scolari may end up being keeping the players level for once, as the adrenaline courses through their veins, but I’m sure a few Germans will fancy this game too.

Whoever wins this game will most likely be favourites for the final, and Neymar’s absence has put something of a dent in the confidence Brazilian fans were feeling if truth be told, as he is a crucial part of their attack and a motivator on the pitch despite his youth. As mentioned, Thiago Silva is banned despite an appeal, meaning Bayern Munich centre back Dante will deputise alongside Luis Gustavo, who is back after a suspension, and the manager has to decide whether to go with a central midfield three or else pick attack-minded replacement for Neymar with his star out for the remainder of the competition. Joachim Loew must decide whether to recall centre-back Per Mertesacker, but has no fresh injury concerns ahead of the match.

The pressure on Lionel Messi has been constant over the past five years or so, and the reward he’s been given for digging holes this summer is nothing more than a bigger spade. Tabloid papers focussed on the goal Angel Di Maria scored to win their first round knockout match, but in reality the Real Madrid winger was more profligate and risky in that match than normal, which is saying something about a player who gives the ball away with alarming regularity and views defensive works as something amusing to watch while he gets his breath back.
The European side probably are underdogs here, and neither manager seems to have truly worked out how best to utilise their squad, so selection could be a big part of what decides the result this evening. Argentina left-back Marcos Rojo is suspended, with Jose Basanta expected to deputise again, and there is more bad news with Sergio Aguero is unlikely to start as he battles for fitness. Belgium have Steven Defour back from a ban, and Thomas Vermaelen available after a hamstring injury.

If you could offer the top teams their choice of opponent in the last eight of the World Cup without the public finding out you can be certain FIFA and Sepp Blatter would, and most of them would pick Costa Rica as the ‘easiest’ game left in this competition. However, since they were drawn with England, Italy and Uruguay in the groups Costa Rica have been the whipping boys, or at least that is the expectation so far, but they’ve disappointed the naysayers to come this far and I’m sure there is no desire in the camp to stop doing so at this point.
The star names may all be in orange this evening, but there are a few in the other eleven making a name for themselves quickly, and none more than the hero of their shootout in the last round. Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas should be fit despite missing a training session, having saved a penalty in the win against Greece, while Oscar Duarte is banned and Roy Miller out with a foot injury. Holland know Nigel de Jong will miss the rest of the cup, and Wesley Sneijder will be assessed as he is carrying a back problem.

This must be what the French public wanted in 2010, when everything went so horribly wrong and a team with a lot of talent failed to produce more than a fraction of it’s potential, but times and managers change and tonight a not-dissimilar French side has a chance to make the semi-finals of the 2014 World Cup. Their last match against Nigeria basically went to plan whilst still being complicated and arduous, and this game with Germany represents the biggest test for French football in years. As for the German side it is very much a case of ‘same again’ after they started so well only to fade away, and logically speaking we could almost expect their worst performance of the tournament this evening.
France defender Raphael Varane spent the night in hospital with dehydration after the Nigeria game, but Mamadou Sakho is fit again if Didier Deschamps needs to make a change. Germany are without Shkodran Mustafi with a torn hamstring and Christoph Kramer has a ‘light fever’. The good news is that Mats Hummels and Lukas Podolski have recovered from flu and a thigh problem respectively, and should be available.

In the other game it’s also a continental affair, but with the host nation taking on Colombia in a game almost nobody in Brazil thinks the home team can lose. Their fans mainly base that belief on a strong historical record against tonight’s opponents, but in fact we’re going to see two of the best young attackers in world football, both of whom are capable of turning this game in an instant. Few in Europe have missed the brilliance of James Rodriguez since his arrival in Portugal, and then subsequent move to Spain, and it will be fascinating to see how he and Neymar deal with the pressure they’re under tonight.
Brazil will be forced to make a defensive change with Luiz Gustavo banned, and may choose to drop Fred after a series of underwhelming performances, but Neymar is fit despite taking a battering at the hands of Chile. Colombia have no fresh issues and could field the eleven that beat Uruguay in the last round.