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Semi-final preview

Fantastic four under pressure

July 6, 2010
By John Brewin, Johannesburg
(Archive)

This is a final four to match the unconventional nature of South Africa 2010. Its make-up - three parts European to one part South American - has flown in the face of the early timbre of the tournament whereby CONMEBOL countries flourished and Euro nations either perished or were made to sweat. In turning the competition on its head, the quarter-finals threw up three spectacular encounters and another which eventually provided drama and heroics after Spain had looked likely to fall victim to Paraguayan strangulation.

Wesley Sneijder will be one of the men to watch in the semi-finals
GettyImagesWesley Sneijder will be one of the men to watch in the semi-finals

SA Nightly: The semi-finals
• Uruguay-Netherlands preview
• Germany-Spain preview

They, or more properly Iker Casillas and David Villa, recovered their nerve, and find themselves in a semi-final with the Germans, cast as unlikely entertainers in a repeat of the final of Euro 2008. For Spain, this is unknown territory. Their best-placed finish came in 1950 when part of a never-repeated final group stage that delivered fellow semi-finalists Uruguay their last world title.

Back in the semis for the first time since 1970, and throwing back to a time when a country of 3.5 million people could compete with the world, Uruguay are back to remind, in the words of coach Oscar Tabarez, that "football is essential to my country". They have done so in a style that they are traditionally so adept at - flying in the face of public desires. First they ransacked the hosts' chances with a 3-1 defeat of South Africa, and then denied a continent in truly nefarious style. Luis Suarez's handball and Sebastian Abreu's insolent winning penalty against Ghana served as notice of a team ever ready to deny expectation by any means necessary.

Such characteristics should be feared by the Dutch in Cape Town though they themselves have already revealed a considerable steely determination. A perfect record in the opening round was achieved without undue pyrotechnics, and aside from a troubled first half against Brazil, Netherlands have looked defensively sound enough with goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenberg throwing off all the unfavourable comparisons to Edwin van Der Sar with one stop from Kaka providing a turning point in Port Elizabeth. So far, this has not looked the traditional Dutch marriage of flair and combustible temperament.

This time, the Dutch are expected to provide the impetus as Uruguay's progress has come at the expense of suspension and injury to key performers, with Suarez's exploits removing him from participation, Nicolas Lodeiro having broken his foot and the defence praying for the unlikely return of Diego Lugano from a knee injury. Last time they were at this stage, the Dutch lost on penalties to a Ronaldo-driven Brazil, and they probably do not fear this opposition in quite the same fashion. A third final, and even a world title may beckon but they must first suppress an opponent who may just think they have fate on their side.

That second semi, set for Durban's radiant stadium, is perhaps most keenly awaited but again it has an unlikely look about it. Both teams have already lost to fellow European opposition in rather similar fashion. The Germans dominated Serbia and surely would have won without an undeserved sending-off for Miroslav Klose while Spain's jitters have extended from an opening loss to Switzerland, in which a dominance of possession did not provide enough of a goal threat. Yet both are here now while their conquerors did not even make it from the group stages.

As a result, Spain and Germany both had to suffer in their final group games, with decisive goals from Mesut Ozil and David Villa both arriving at times of considerable stress. Ease of qualification was then aided by their opponents - Ghana and Chile respectively - accepting their deficits as enough to make the knock-out rounds. There the similarities end, since Germany have blasted their way to the last four with twin four-goal romps against opposition in England and Argentina who were both hailed as possessing far superior individual talent before then succumbing to the teamwork of Joachim Low's players. Spain, meanwhile, are here by virtue of matching 1-0 wins.

Germany show similar attacking instincts to their push to the semis as hosts in 2006 but have added class in Ozil and Thomas Muller, the latter of whom will sadly be absent through suspension in Durban. Ozil's creativity and the influence of Bastian Schweinsteiger, who tore through great swathes of Argentina with his strong running, have shone in the absence of Michael Ballack, who looked rather happy in his role as cheerleader in Cape Town on Sunday. Record-breaking Klose is a rare player indeed in being far more effective in international tournament football than he is at the club game.

David Villa
GettyImagesDavid Villa celebrates his winner.

The same might possibly be said of David Villa. Not to do down his form for Valencia but for the fact that his goals have carried Spain to this new territory. He has done so while playing with a partner in Fernando Torres who is still scratching for form, to put it politely, while an all-star midfield has enjoyed plenty of possession while keeping penetration to a minimum. There may be fears about the ability of Spain's pedestrian defence to cope with the Germans' counter-attacking speed, though Muller's absence may ease concerns there.

Yet the Germans will fear a repeat of Vienna in June 2008, where an early goal allowed Spain to hold them at arm's length and frustrate with the quality of their passing. The performance of Sami Khedira, Ballack's replacement but a player who actually provides a conduit for Schweinsteiger and Ozil, will be crucial on the edge of the Indian Ocean; heavy pressure for a relative novice to the international stage.

And pressure, and the response to it, positive or otherwise, is what will dictate the make-up of Soccer City's competing teams on July 11. The Dutch may feel theirs has been the most serene of progress to this stage, though they were jelly-legged in the latter stages of their war with the Brazilians. Uruguay are already speaking of fourth place as a wonderful achievement. Germany may wonder if the Spanish game can again frustrate them to breaking point while their opponents could yet depart having not played to anywhere near their potential.

It has already been a tournament of such stories. And all four will fear that they will be the next victim of the semi-finals, the cruellest stage of all to exit a World Cup from.