Buckle up, this is when the nerves kick in.
France vs. Germany
Proust vs. Volkswagen, Bardot vs. Merkel, champagne vs. fiscal prudence: we’d expect this game to match brilliance against efficiency, effervescence against outcomes. And it does—but not in the expected way.
This Germany are the Cup’s last surviving ideologues, a whole art movement of genius midfielders supporting Mueller, who plays striker like it was a task in analytical philosophy. They want to have the ball, they want to play beautifully, and usually they do—but they have clear weaknesses. The geniuses don’t defend very well, and the actual defenders while smart are also very slow. Algeria’s fast guys were able to get behind the German defense consistently, and the French attackers (who are good in addition to being fast) might damage them badly with runs behind the line. France might be the most-balanced team left in the competition. No French starters are bad and many (Pogba, Benzema) are excellent. They have young, athletic midfielders who’ll be able to press the German creators and enough talent in attack to push the German defense.
Is the kunstlermannschaft sufficiently brilliant to win? Can France be solid enough in defense to make their chances relevant on the other end? If both teams play well this should be the best quarterfinal; anyone sounding confident about who’ll win is lying.
Brazil vs. Colombia
If vibrant, thrilling Colombia are (along with Costa Rica) this Cup’s great fairy tale, Brazil are the award-winning domestic psychodrama. They’re at home, they’re supposed to win, but everyone’s emotionally on edge and no one knows what’ll happen if it can’t be held together.
All tournament they’ve won, but never convinced—in attack Neymar is great and Hulk willing, but Oscar mostly isolated, and the center forwards look and play like Sao Paulo waiters who have dreamt they’re playing for Brazil. The deeper midfielders are fine tacklers but (especially with Luiz Gustavo suspended) don’t pass well into dangerous attacking positions, which means that someone (Neymar) has to come very far away from goal to get the ball and then beat a lot of guys to score. The fullbacks, Alves and Marcelo, have looked dangerous attacking (more dangerous than most other non-Neymar players) but are aging, vulnerable defenders. Without Thiago Silva, maybe the world’s best central defender, Chile might have hammered them. Instead, they played 120 minutes and won on penalties.
In this round we’ll find out whether the effort has mentally and physically exhausted them or whether the victory has saved their marriage and finally gotten them to gel into a fluid team, rather than Neymar + 10. Narratively, Colombia will be the inspiring foil for Brazil’s self-destruction/apotheosis, which is kind of a shame, as they’ve been legitimately superb all tournament—they’ve defended well, attacked imaginatively, and magical-creature James Rodriguez will likely run rings around Brazil’s deep midfielders, but they’ll probably need one of their forwards to play better than they have so far if they want to win. Anything could happen here, and expect heavy commentator apophenia when Brazil do something either excellent or horrible in the first ten minutes.
Netherlands vs. Costa Rica
Costa Rica are the other cute team, and the Dutch are maybe the most cynical team left. They aren’t cynical in the usual sense—they aren’t enormously foul-y and they do go out to score goals—but they seem to think they’ve hacked the World Cup and they might be right. Their coach, van Gaal, has figured out that their two star forwards (Robben and van Persie) can pretty much score on their own, and is mostly content to let the rest of the team play defense. Behind those two (whose talent should not be undersold) the Dutch play a 3-man defense that often turns into a 5-man defense, two defensive-minded midfielders, and one guy, Sneijder, whose job is to kick the ball to Robben and van Persie. It works because Robben and van Persie are both world class attacking players, and because their games are so different that any tactic that works well against the one is horrible against the other. Defend high and Robben, who’s faster than pretty much anyone even with the ball at his feet, will score behind you—but defend deep and van Persie’s intelligence in the box will be just as deadly.
Costa Rica are, along with Colombia, the surprise story of the tournament—they have exciting young attacking players and have played with an endearing sense of team commitment and possibility. But they looked absolutely exhausted after playing with 10 men for 50 minutes against Greece, and it’ll be a big surprise if they manage to beat the Dutch—probably the biggest possible quarterfinal upset.
Argentina vs. Belgium
If these teams were beds, no one would be able to sleep on them. Both are pretty fortunate to get a quarterfinal against another team that’s as lumpily talented (and likely exhausted after extra time in the Round of 16) as they are. Belgium have an excellent midfield, strikers who are about two years away from unstoppable, moodily-creative wing players, mostly impeccable central defending, one of the best goalkeepers in the world, and basically terrible fullbacks. Fullbacks, who defend wide areas of the field, sound boring but are among the most important players in the modern game—it’s hard to attack or defend very well without good ones.
Belgium have played a pretty soft schedule so far and against everyone have had trouble creating width and pace in attack and defending opposing wingers—the two things fullbacks do. Argentina should theoretically be able to hurt them—they were billed as Messi, a few other excellent forwards, and a bunch of random guys behind them. They haven’t entirely performed —Messi’s been Messi, but the other excellent forwards have been either hurt or un-excellent and the rest of the team is flat. Belgium look a little more complete, but Argentina have Messi—and the Belgian defensive midfielders, whose job it will be to contain him, ran themselves into the ground chasing Michael Bradley. Either team could win, but the loser of the France-Germany game will probably wish they’d gotten to play one of these teams instead.