While many could have predicted a final four of Brazil, Germany, Netherlands and Argentina heading into the 2014 World Cup, it's unlikely anyone could have foreseen the amazing journey and competition that unfolded to bring us to the point we're now just a few short hours from. What happens next, though?
Brazil v. Germany
The first semi-final sees host nation Brazil take on the ever-present Germans without their star man, Neymar, who will miss out after suffering a broken vertebra in the quarterfinal game against Colombia. At the other end of the pitch, captain Thiago Silva will also be missing through suspension for yellow-card accumulation after an unsuccessful appeal. Just how Luiz Felipe Scolari approaches his team selection ahead of the match will tell us a lot about how he thinks his team can conquer one of the staunchest defensive units we've seen this tournament. Bayern Munich's Dante is the obvious replacement for Silva at the heart of the defense, but there's no like-for-like replacement for Neymar in the 23-man squad or otherwise in Brazil. There are some murmurings that Chelsea wide-man Willian is first in line to step in, and his creativity could be key to unlocking the German rear-guard, though he won't provide the direct goalscoring threat of his stricken teammate. Other attacking options exist in Bernard and Hernanes, and there is even some speculation that Big Phil may stack the midfield with all three of Fernandinho, Luis Gustavo and Paulinho. My money's on Willian to get the nod due to his workrate, creativity and pace compared to the other available options.
As for the Germans, they seem to be hitting their stride at just the right moment after easing past a France side that looked extremely capable of making a run to the final heading out of the Group Stages and through the Round of 16. Aside from the 4-0 demolition of 10-man Portugal in the first match, though, the Germans have had difficulty putting the ball in the back of the net and have had to rely on their defense more than they would have been expected to for a squad boasting the likes of Thomas Mueller, Miroslav Klose, Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos, Andre Schurrle, etc., etc. Whether or not the flu really hit the camp as hard as it was rumored, or if it was a clever ploy by Joachim Low to lower the expectations placed on his team, they won't be able to rely on the element of surprise against the hosts. On top of that, they'll have almost the entirety of the 62,000+ fans at the Mineirao Stadium in Belo Horizonte doing everything they can to affect their performance. This will be an occasion for big-game players to be at their best, and the Germans have quite a few men capable of rising to the occasion.
Prediction: 2-2 draw, with Germany breaking Brazilian hearts in penalties
Netherlands v. Argentina
Louis Van Gaal has introduced himself in a hugely positive fashion to his new throng of supporters at Manchester United with his tactical nous for the Dutch squad throughout the tournament. His willingness to make major decisions (none bigger than withdrawing Jasper Cillessen for Tim Krul to face the penalties from Costa Rica) has a certain air of Sir Alex Ferguson about it, and I'm sure Stall and our other United fans will be eagerly awaiting the end of the tournament so their new boss can get started. But the Dutch will still be counting on their leader to guide them to the final with a victory over the Argentines. We've seen in both their Round of 16 and Quarterfinal matches that the Dutch have difficulty maintaining the pace set by American sides more familiar with the weather conditions in Brazil, and Die Oranje will face its biggest challenge yet against the host nation's neighbors to the south. It seems to me that, if they are to survive to the final, the Dutch will need to avoid going to extra time. Arjen Robben will be relied on yet again to provide the creative spark and drive going forward, but he'll need help from his teammates--and perhaps his manager--to get the better of the South Americans.
For Argentina, the majority of the attention has understandably been focused on Lionel Messi, but with Angel Di Maria out through injury, La Albiceleste will be missing an extra dimension to their attack. Di Maria was replaced in the quarterfinal match against Belgium by Enzo Perez, but he was largely anonymous throughout the match. This could lead Antonio Sabella into a rethink, and with Ezequiel Lavezzi, Gonzalo Higuain and Rodrigo Palacio all looking promising in the last match, Messi could be moved deeper into the midfield to accommodate the loss of the Real Madrid winger. We saw a bit of this against Belgium and it didn't work out so well for the World's Best Player from a fantasy perspective. The little man isn't the best defender, which often results in the striker committing professional fouls. The Dutch team will be set up to crowd the midfield, so if Messi does indeed drop back it will be an interesting battle to see whether quantity or quality reigns supreme.
Prediction: 3-2 Argentina in an enthralling, high-energy display from both sides
From a fantasy perspective, choosing your squad is contingent on whether you are near the top or playing catch-up. The big names can be had if you want them, and there will be a lot of managers captaining Mats Hummels after his incredible 21-point haul against the French. I for one have a lot of catching up to do, so while I'll have a lot of the big guns, I'll also be taking a few risks and putting the armband on a less likely candidate. How is your team shaping up? Will you be taking any risks, or are you going with the proven high scorers?
I can't wait to see what happens, and I hope you're as eager as I am to discover who will be competing in the World Cup Final. Let's chat!