It’s been a long, strange ride at this World Cup, yet despite that, we have a final four of teams that have regularly finished here (5+ times for each team). Not only that, but the combination of Brazil, Germany, and Argentina have more World Cup titles than all other countries combined.
Back again are Alex and -J. to discuss their inexpert-but-enthusiastic picks. Before that, naturally, we take another look at U.S. Soccer:
Team USA’s 2014 Legacy
England Should Emulate the USA?
-J.: Before we get to the predictions, I wanted to reiterate just how topsy-turvy this World Cup has been, despite the final four teams all being expected powerhouses. Back in England, one of the big takeaways from this tournament apparently is… be more like Team USA. With CONCACAF advancing ¾ of its teams into the knockout stage, there was a level of surprise and disbelief, followed by “how can we get in on that.” It may be a case of hemispherical advantage (five of the six South American teams also advanced to the Round of 16), but it does seem that Team USA’s performance not only inspired fans at home, but also a few opponents abroad.
With that, let’s get to the picks.
Brazil vs. Germany
World Cup 2002 Revisited
-J.: Over at FiveThirtyEight.com, they’ve been writing some engrossing articles about World Cup stats and predictions. From pre-tournament to today, the top pick in their predictive modeling has been Brazil. Top-ranked team with impressive defense, a deep bench, a history of World Cup success, host country advantage, and one of the game’s rising stars in Neymar… there’s a lot of reasons to pick Brazil.
So it was fascinating to read their breakdown of how Neymar’s injury (and captain Silva’s yellow card absence) affect the odds of Brazil winning the Finals. The basic thinking is that Brazil’s backups are better than most teams’ starter, and they still have David Luiz, and they’re still the host country.
Despite all that, I’m still going with Germany here. I think that Neuer is the best goalie of the four remaining teams. Germany’s bench is ridiculously deep — when you can start Khedira, Mertesacker, and Podolski on the bench, depth is an understatement. On top of that, Die Mannschaft can whip out the World Cup’s top scorer any time it wants: Greise Klose.
I’ll admit that my own bias has me picking Germany in this game, but I think that it really is a coin flip at this point. FIFA ranks Brazil and Germany as 1 & 2, while Elo ratings have them as 3 & 2. In fact, Elo ratings indicate this match has the second-highest combined rating of any soccer match ever (the first being the 2010 World Cup final. If you’re flipping this coin, Alex, on what side does it land?
-Alex: For a day after Brazil got past Colombia I thought the same as you, J. Brazil is missing two of its most important players and facing a German team that looks more and more like a well-tuned machine with each game. In fact, I started to think I had been underrating Germany because they’re so methodical (hence the prediction that France would beat them in the Quarters). Being a U.S. Soccer fan means that I have been trained to root for chaos. It’s not precision and methodical tactics that wins for the USMNT, but those bonkers moments of chance. Think Dempsey scoring 30 seconds in or Donovan being in the right place with seconds to go against Algeria. That’s what makes for winning soccer in my weird eyes.
But then I read that 538 article you mentioned, J., and something occurred to me. This Brazilian team just had the biggest punch of random chaos imaginable (anyone who thought Neymar would break his back is… not of this Earth). It literally threw the whole nation into mourning for a day, and you know what? I think it will drive them to victory. Brazil is crazy talented, even if they haven’t played the best football of the tournament so far. With Neymar broken and Silva out, the curse of Maracanazo looms large. Too large for Germany. Brazil will play like Copacobana Beach will be dragged back down into the sea if they don’t win. They will, though. 2-1; Brazil with the winning goal after the 75th minute.
the Netherlands vs. Argentina
Pick Your Favorite Color – Oranje or Sky Blue?
-J.: Oh, hey, look — another coin flip. With all players present, on a neutral site, I don’t know which team I would pick. This is why all the talk comes down to small things: Di María will miss this match, at a minimum. And yet, this World Cup is hosted in Argentina’s backyard. Netherlands has looked lackluster against ‘mere’ CONCACAF teams in the knockout round, beating Mexico on a gift penalty call and Costa Rica on tie-braking penalty kick. And yet, they had no problem defeating Spain and Chile in the group stage.
But wait, there’s more! Even without di María, Argentina still has Higuaín and Messi. Then again, Netherlands have the deadly trio of Robben, Sneijder, and van Persie (plus the fourth Musketeer, Huntelaar). Argentina are driven to claim the Cup NOW, while it’s on their continent. Netherlands are driven to claim the Cup NOW, before the trio gets too old — and to win a free trip into space. Messi is a transcendent player and statistical improbability. Van Persie is going to have his meme-inspiring first goal against Spain immortalized on a coin.
Which brings me back to flipping a coin. My flip lands with Argentina on top. What about you, Alex? Is your decision any easier?
-Alex: I land on Argentina as well. Just like Brazil, their play has not always been transcendent, but they are a team on a mission. The last two World Cup finals held in Latin or South America were won by Argentina (’78 at home and ’86 in Mexico), and they are gunning hard to make it three for three. You mentioned Messi, and I think he is the key to this whole thing. After years of being compared unfavorably to the immortalized Maradona by his countrymen this tournament has been his redefining moment. Not that the best player in the world needs a boost in reputation, really. But he is playing like it anyway. The 1-0 win over Belgium is the first match in Brazil where Messi didn’t contribute a goal or an assist. I bet he makes up for it here.
Not that the Dutch are out of it. I’ve probably watched them more than any other team but the U.S. in this tournament, and they have arguably been the most complete team in Brazil. It’s them or Germany, really. Their defense has been excellent and their counter-attack has been absolutely deadly at times. Just ask Spain. Despite all that, I still think they go down to Argentina tomorrow. This World Cup has been defined by the surprising victories for American teams, with UEFA only prevailing when they have an extremely stacked talent advantage. The Dutch side is better top-to-bottom, but they will find themselves on the wrong side of the globe. Argentina wins, with Messi contributing a goal and an assist. The FIFA writers and executives will have the Finals match I predicted before the first game kicked off in São Paulo last month: Brazil against Argentina in the Maracanã. South America’s best teams will face off to determine the ultimate bragging rights.
There you go. Semi-final matches are July 7th & 8th at 3:00 pm Central, and we’ll see you again for our Final picks.