World Cup: Germans poised to pounce on vulnerable Brazil

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Updated: July 8, 2014
The moment a nation's dreams crashed ... Neymar (pictured) tumbles to the turf with a serious back injury during Brazil's quarter-final win over Colombia

The moment a nation’s dreams crashed … Neymar (pictured) tumbles to the turf with a serious back injury during Brazil’s quarter-final win over Colombia

Today’s semi-final

Brazil v Germany; Estadio Mineirao, Belo Horizonte, Brazil; Wednesday, July 7, 6am

 

It’s hard to think of Germany as a “new” footballing national, but the renaissance in pride for the national side has injected fresh enthusiasm and ambition into one of the cornerstone nations of European football. Ironically, the impetus for this course of rejuvenation began after the only occasions that tonight’s semi-finalists, Brazil and Germany, met on the game’s biggest stage. It was the 2002 World Cup final in Yokohama, Japan, where the Germans lost 2-0. It was the last gasp in an era of German football that had hardly been covered in glory. This same generation players had been beaten by World Cup newcomers Croatia at France 1998 and were eliminated in the group stage at Euro 2000 (they would follow suit at Euro 2004).

With the 2006 World Cup finals on the horizon, the German federation totally overhauled its junior programs. More than USD $1 billion has been invested over the past decade. All Bundesliga first and second division clubs now have football academies with a minimum of 12 players who are eligible for the national team. Then at the 2006 World Cup finals, Germany adopted a free-flowing attacking style at odds with its history under Jurgen Klinsmann as the next generation including Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski came to the fore. An even more impressive generation emerged at South Africa 2010 with Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller, Manuel Neuer and Jerome Boateng, most of who had claimed the Euro U-21 title a year earlier.

The other intriguing aspect of German football is the more overt support it has been shown since the 2006 finals. German fans, unlike the English who belt out World War II-era songs like Ten German Bombers, have been loathe to celebrate their team with a triumphal historical narrative. For them, national pride represented an unpleasant vestige of an all too recent shameful past. Instead, they regarded all forms of nationalism as obstacles to human progress. But during the 2006 finals, slowly but surely German flag started to appear in shop windows, or draped from homes and apartments. German president Horst Köhler said it was “a sign that the country is increasingly returning to normal, that one can show uninhibited pride in your national flag and drape yourself in it.”

***

The first story we posted relating to these World Cup finals was a preview of Group A, in which we said, “Brazil can count on all the favours that come with being the tournament hosts”. To be fair, the favours dealt to Brazil haven’t been near as blatant as we expected. There was the penalty “gift” in its opening match against Croatia but the favours also flow the other way, with referees loathe to red-card a player from the host nation or hand out a penalty to the opposition. The best description of Brazil’s World Cup to date would “ugly but effective”. They’ve flirted with average form, anaemic shooting and survived a penalty shootout against Chile to reach the final four.

Of course, they’ll be entering the semi-finals without two of their talisman players – striker Neymar and captain Thiago Silva. It’s been interesting to read the analysis of the impact on Brazil due to the absence of these duos. The emergence of heavily stat-driven predictive products like Nate Silver’s speculative FiveThirtyEight have taken the data of others (in this case ESPN’s Soccer Player Index) and declared that Neymar’s value, if replaced by an average international player, is valued at 0.40 goals per game. Those figures might play on Geek Street but ignore too many factors to be taken seriously. Most crucially, Neymar is nowhere near the class of past champions like Pele, or Romario or Ronaldo. He is eminently replaceable. But at what price to the team structure?

 

 

One final word on Neymar’s injury – many of you will have watched the nasty challenge by Colombia’s Juan Camillo Zuñiga, which left Neymar’s dreams of World Cup success on the Castelao pitch. The Barcelona forward suffered a broken vertebra; although it is not career threatening, the injury is bad enough to keep him out of the tournament on which the Brazilian desperately wanted to leave his mark. Rewind about an hour, as the Brazilian players were celebrating the goal of Thiago Silva near the corner post. As his boots struck the artificial turf on the fringe of the pitch, Neymar slipped and landed flat on his back. The incident has since been reduced to a series of blooper clips, but we can’t help wondering if the damage occurred at that moment.

 

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Brazil v Germany -2.5 game total (1.5 units @ $1.57), -1.5 game total (0.5 units @ $2.75) – the hosts are two wins away from their holy grail, a World Cup success on their home soil having blown the chance 64 years ago when defeated 1-0 by Uruguay. We described Brazil’s World Cup to date as “ugly but effective”, and “ugly” was the word that stood out in their quarter-final win over Colombia. Having suffered generations of World Cup games where their premier ball players had been kicked from pillar to post, the Brazilians exacted a little revenge with some brutal treatment of Colombian striker James Rodriguez. The game featured a tournament-high 54 fouls, and it was Brazil who committed the majority (31). Centre-half Thiago Silva picked up a second yellow card and is suspended here but likely replacement knows the Germans well as first XI player at Bayern Munich.

It’s a little tougher for Luiz Felipe Scolari at the other end of the park. Just three Brazilian players apart from Neymar have scored from open play during this tournament. Oscar has faded after a promising start, Hulk has found himself in scoring positions but has failed to hit the net, and Willian has generally failed to justify the surprising campaign for his inclusion in the starting XI. Central striker Fred has just one goal to his name (which looked way offside), and he has done very little to support the Brazilian attack, with only 11 shots in five matches. Alternatively, Scolari could restore Luiz Gustavo alongside Fernandinho and Paulinho, which would definitely give his side some more clout through the midfield, where the Germans would otherwise have dominated.

 

Veteran German striker Miroslav Klose (pictured) has scored a record 70 goals in 135 starts for his nation, and a record-tying 15 goals in the World Cup finals

Veteran German striker Miroslav Klose (pictured) has scored a record 70 goals in 135 starts for his nation, and a record-tying 15 goals in the World Cup finals

Joachim Low should be confident of success here. This is their fourth semi-final appearance in as many World Cups. Low has also coached the team at four major championships (two World Cups, and both EURO 2008 and EURO 2012), and reached at least this stage in all of them. His reputation as a tactician was modest, but Low has made a habit of making astute substitutions and timely tactical changes throughout the tournament. Unlike Brazil, he also has a full squad from which to choose. Germany have often failed to find top gear in this tournament, but there were positive signs in their 1-0 quarter-final win over France. The team kept its shape, worked incredibly hard (collectively they ran 7.5 kilometres more than the French) and defended brilliantly.

With both sides strong at the back and lacking firepower in recent games, this game is likely to be decided in midfield. With Lahm returning to full-back, Toni Kroos, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira ran the show against France and provide a balance of control, energy and defensive diligence. But to push Brazil to the brink, they have to find a way to the back of the home nation’s net. Miroslav Klose was starved of service on his return to the starting line-up. But Low still has Mario Gotze, Lukas Podolski and Andre Schurrle all waiting in the wings, while Thomas Muller could be switched back to a central striking role if Klose is benched. Our overall assessment is another low scoring grind, with a goal enough to decide the outcome.

 

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• Selections are listed in three categories – 1) Suggested (likely bet but yet to be finalised); 2) Confirmed (locked in at the price listed); and 3) Leans (tips, but not recommended bets); all times quoted are Australian Eastern Time (AET); prices with thanks to Sportingbet (except where markets are not available), correct at time of publication. Results/comments on today’s games/races will follow in the next post.

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