05 July 2014

World Cup: Quarter-Finals Predictions, Day 2

Well, I was completely wrong about yesterday's results, but that's never put me off before, so here are my predictions for Saturday's quarter-finals.

Argentina vs Belgium
On paper, this match looks like it should the best of those on offer this weekend. On one side, you have one of the best players of his generation, Leo Messi, supported by a brilliant winger who is just starting to get the credit he's due, Angel di Maria. The second tier of players - Ezequiel Lavezzi, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain - certainly have the talent, but haven't played their best (yet), while the rest of the squad is largely made of functional players - your Mascheranos and Zabaletas. The Argentines needed 120 minutes to beat well-organized Swiss side in their last match. On the other hand, you have most people's pre-tournament dark horses, who have so far failed to live up to expectations. The de Rode Duivels, however, boast an impressive array of attacking talent - Hazard, de Bruyne, Origi, Mirallas, Lukaku, etc - and are solid in the middle and at the back. They also boast a goalkeeper who has never lost on the international stage in Thibaut Courtois. Marc Wilmots selected Origi up front in place of Lukaku against USA, and the teenager looked sharp, worrying the American defense and only being kept at bay by an inspired Tim Howard. Once Lukaku came on in extra-time, his strength and pace changed the game, which may be a tactic the Belgian manager wants to repeat against an aging Argentinian back line.

This game is the hardest to call. If Messi and di Maria are on form, then I think Argentina will win 1-0 in extra-time. If not, and Belgium's flair players are all playing at their best, then I expect them to win by one goal, also after extra time. It wouldn't surprise me if this one went to a shootout either, in which case I'll back Belgium. Just because.

Netherlands vs Costa Rica
The Netherlands are the top scoring nation in the tournament so far, but needed some luck against Mexico in the last round. After going down by one goal, Wesley Sneijder pulled one back with a technically sound volley, before a (somewhat dubious) penalty was won by Arjen Robben and converted by Klaas Jan Huntelaar. I'm not sure you can call De Oranje a surprise package, but very few people had them progressing from their group, and certainly not beating Spain 5-1 in the process. Costa Rica, meanwhile, are the true surprise of the tournament. Pretty much nobody had them progressing from their group of former champions, let alone winning it. La Sele have mixed some solid team organization with moments of flair, typified by slugging out a win against Greece in the last round after having a man sent off midway through the second half.

Despite being the underdog, and thus receiving my full support, I expect this to be the game that Costa Rica's cinderella story ends. The Netherlands should be too strong, and always carry the trump card of Robben's inability to keep two feet on the ground. 2-0 to the Dutch.

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