Going fourth: South America, Europe to face off in already memorable World Cup

The 2014 World Cup has a week to go, and already it is loaded with images that will be engrained in soccer fans’ minds for quite some time — Spain, England and Italy packing up early; disgraced Uruguayan star Luis Suarez suspended for biting; Mexican coach Miguel Herrera’s sideline celebrations; Colombian players salsa dancing; U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard’s 16 saves against Belgium; the lovable, resilient Ticos of Costa Rica.

And, most painful for the host Brazilians, national hero Neymar being carted off the field with a fractured vertabra.

Twenty-eight teams are gone. Four remain standing, all heavyweights, and they face off Tuesday and Wednesday in the semifinals:

Brazil vs. Germany in Belo Horizonte. Argentina vs. the Netherlands in Sao Paulo. South America vs. Europe for two spots in Sunday’s final at historic Estadio Maracana.

Of the four semifinalists, the Netherlands is the only team which has never won the World Cup. But the Dutch have come close. Very close. This is the fifth time they have reached the semis (1974, 1978, 1998, 2010 and 2014). Four years ago, they made it to the final but lost to Spain 1-0.

Brazil is a five-time champion and the overwhelming hometown favorite, although it has not cruised thus far, and things will be even tougher without Neymar and suspended captain Thiago Silva. The last time Brazil hosted a World Cup was in 1950 when the team reached the final but was upset by Uruguay in a match that still haunts Brazilians 64 years later. That loss was nicknamed “Maracanazo,” and it is considered a national tragedy the current team is determined to avenge.

Germany has advanced to 10 of the past 13 semifinals, including the past four, but has made just one final since winning the title in 1990, when Jurgen Klinsmann was the star of the team. The Germans lost their past two semifinals to eventual champions, against Italy in 2006 and Spain in 2010. The team is determined to take it a step further here.

Argentina, with superstar Lionel Messi finally playing up to his reputation at a World Cup, has reached its first semifinal in 24 years. Hard to believe it’s been that long since the Albicelete got this far, but it’s true. Like Brazil, Argentina will be missing a key player in midfielder Angel di Maria, who tore his right thigh muscle in the victory over Belgium.

The Argentina-Netherlands semifinal is a rematch of the 1978 final, which was won by Argentina. And the Brazil-Germany semifinal is a rematch of the 2002 final, which was won by Brazil.

Here is a closer look at the World Cup’s Final Four:

Germany has a history of being organized, tough and clinical, and this time is no different. It all starts in the back with Manuel Neuer, one of the best goalkeepers in the sport. The Germans boast one of the best defenses in the World Cup — just ask Portugal, Team USA and France — with Mats Hummels and Philipp Lahm leading the way.

The German attack centers around playmaker Mesut Ozil and forward Thomas Muller, who could prove particularly dangerous against a Brazilian defense that has looked shaky at times.

Brazil’s offense will be missing Neymar, but coach Luiz Felipe Scolari said he is optimistic that other players can fill in nicely.

“We have good players like Willian, Ramires and Bernard who can play in the flanks, with Oscar in the more central role. We have options,” Scolari said.

Willian, an attacking midfielder, plays for Chelsea and has a tireless work rate up and down the wings. Silva will likely be replaced by Dante, and veterans Maicon and Marcelo will be counted on to stop Germany’s attack.

The Netherlands needed penalty kicks to get past Costa Rica, but the Dutch have looked very impressive during the tournament. They have scored more goals than any other team (12), including five against defending champion Spain. Arjen Robben has been spectacular, running and dribbling with a pace that’s hard to match. Robin van Persie got the Dutch scoring going in the opening match with a jaw-dropping header from distance, and he has been a handful for every opponent.

Dutch coach Louis van Gaal has proven he is one of the boldest leaders by making moves such as changing goalkeepers just before penalty kicks against Costa Rica. It will be interesting to see what strategy he employs to stifle Argentina’s lethal attackers, who include Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero.

Four years ago, Messi and his Argentine teammates were embarrassed by a 4-0 loss to Germany in the quarterfinals. They look a lot more comfortable playing in their home continent, and many experts are predicting Messi will finally get the one prize missing from his résumé.

“We are close to something very big,” Messi said after Saturday’s 1-0 quarterfinal victory over Belgium. “We have fulfilled our first goal to get in the [final] four. Hopefully, we go even further. It was exciting at the final whistle. It’s a joy to give this happiness to the Argentine people. [We] will continue fighting for this dream.”

This is the fifth time the World Cup is being held on South American soil. A South American team has won the previous four times — Uruguay in Uruguay in 1930, Uruguay in Brazil in 1950, Brazil in Chile in 1962 and Argentina in Argentina in 1978. Will the trend continue? Brazilians and Argentines are banking on it.

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