Greatness may still beckon in Brazil
This is where realism sets in. The World Cup honeymoon has drawn to a close.
Long gone are the surprises and shocks, those heady days when Honduras and Ecuador would play out a late-night cult classic. In the knockouts, it's been strictly business, the excitement rather quelled by a series of narrow wins. In almost every case, the favourite has progressed, even if, in the case of Louis van Gaal and the Netherlands, a goalkeeping confidence trick was required to beat Costa Rica.
With just four matches left, it seems safe to conclude that none of the surviving semifinalists will win the tournament and be regarded as an all-time great team. Spain won in 2010 with an extra-time victory after a dog of a final against the Dutch, but history will remember them for their strong philosophy and the firmly bound teamwork of a type that none of the remaining contenders in Brazil has yet shown. That Spanish success in South Africa was bookended by two European championships, suggesting a deeper greatness of the type that is yet to reveal itself here.
Each remaining contender has holes to pick, looseness to tighten.
Neymar out of the World Cup
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- FIFA to investigate Neymar injury
- Referee Carballo faces criticism
- Jones: The morning after the night before
- Duarte: The World Cup's crushing loss
- World Cup Tonight: How will Brazil cope?
- Young: Brazilian media reacts
- Uersfeld: German media reaction
- Lang: Five players who must step up
- Neymar injury dampens celebration
The hosts were reliant on a creative talent now lost in Neymar and must instead hope their strong defence pulls them through, though they must face Germany in Belo Horizonte without suspended captain Thiago Silva. The public swell of emotion that they must play through has not hindered them yet, despite the deep drama of their two knockout matches against South American rivals.
Players like David Luiz seem able to surf the waves of expectation, channelling them as a positive force. One of the overriding images of the tournament has been the tousle-haired defender's chaotic runs from deep. Brazil have performed as if they are more motivated than their opponents. Such tension has driven them to tears at times, but they play in the image of Luiz Felipe Scolari: determined, prepared to win ugly and sometimes inspired.
Nevertheless, should victory be celebrated in Rio on Sunday, it seems unlikely that Brazil's sixth title winners could ever be compared favourably to their predecessors. Even the USA 1994 team that Carlos Alberto Parreira coached -- still derided for its defensiveness -- had far more stardust.
This championship may yet be remembered for a single individual. Now that Neymar, James Rodriguez and Cristiano Ronaldo are departed, Lionel Messi alone can embrace such a destiny. Argentina have made little secret of their total reliance on their star, and only against Belgium did his colleagues properly join the party. They defended superbly, with Martin Demichelis to the fore, while Gonzalo Higuain's goal finally wrested the scoring burden from Messi. Nevertheless, the Barcelona man remained their centrepiece and will need to be so again.
"When you have a player such as Messi, who never, or almost never, loses the ball, it's water in the desert and not just when he scores," Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella said in Brasilia on Saturday.
Van Gaal had claims to be the most effective coach on show even before his Tim Krul substitution in Salvador. He has harnessed three outstanding individuals in Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and the irrepressible Arjen Robben, brought together a collection of lesser talents -- some raw, some seemingly outdated -- and run through a hugely varied set of tactics.
One of the issues of international football is often that a coach rarely gets enough time with his players to work in the tactical flexibility that most of the best club teams have, but Van Gaal leads a list of coaches who have managed to achieve that in Brazil. Didier Deschamps and Joachim Low have done it, too, while it might be wondered whether Belgium could have gone further if Marc Wilmots was capable of varying his approach more.
There is a real possibility that Dirk Kuyt could be playing in his second World Cup final on Sunday. Players such as Kuyt give themselves selflessly to serve others, and they are the reason the likes of Robben are given stage to shine. Van Gaal may achieve ultimate success by making the best of his water carriers.
Should Germany lift their first title since 1990, they may do so in similar fashion to that previous victory. As with that opening 4-0 win over Portugal, West Germany began Italia '90 with a crushing 4-1 victory over Yugoslavia, only to creep over the line in Rome's final, a red card-strewn affair against Argentina.
Since that win in Salvador, Low has struggled to get the best from individual stars, though the win against France was, until its dying moments, an excellent exhibition of how to keep an opponent at arm's length. Thomas Muller began with a hat trick but has levelled off and looks far beyond his 24 years. Mesut Ozil, meanwhile, may be the most criticised player at this tournament who has not bitten another professional.
Perhaps greatness will evidence itself in the semifinals and final, where legends are often made. Success can do that to a team.