Who knew a Juan Zúñiga knee could change everything?
After unceremoniously dispatching France—a side that, in retrospect, finished exactly where it belonged—the Germans approached the semifinals knowing they'd most likely be slight underdogs regardless of their opponent. Brazil, favorites from day one, had furthered their claim to that title with each ugly win along the way. Colombia were something of a sensation. Following the lead of James Rodríguez—a player whose name is no longer mispronounced—the Colombians bossed games and attacked with a quality not seen since the days of Carlos Valderrama. Moreover, the Germans knew that regardless of the outcome they'd be playing in a hostile environment. The best that could be hoped for was some sort of catastrophe for the winner.
I think we all know what happened next—a man with a silly haircut took a knee in the spine and half of Brazil immediately went online to learn about orthopedics. The loss of Neymar on its own is a major blow for Brazil but coupled with the yellow card suspension of captain and all-around defensive maestro Thiago Silva, the situation for A Seleção looks downright bleak. As far as many Brazilians were concerned, any expectation of a World Cup victory died out on the pitch in Fortaleza.
Advantage Germany, right? Well, maybe not. The Germans, along with the Spanish, entered the World Cup as the great European hopes. No European team has ever won a tournament played in South America. Until Spain won in South Africa in 2010, no European team had ever won a World Cup away from the home continent. None of this should matter to the current German side but it does highlight the size of the task at hand. And now, because of misfortunes that have befallen the Brazilians, the Germans are under even greater pressure to win it all.
Germany are no strangers to this stage of the World Cup—they've reached the semifinals in each of the last three tournaments. They've also gone home empty-handed each time. This time, there are promises to be fulfilled.
Brazil 2014 was always going to be referendum on the national team career of manager Joachim "Jogi" Löw. Following in the footsteps of Jürgen Klinsmann, Löw, who was seen as the brains of the operation (just ask Philipp Lahm), has led Die Mannschaft from a period of rebirth into a period of sustained dominance. Löw's teams have added individual flair and imagination to the stereotypical German efficiency. Under Löw, Germany are enjoyable and ruthless in equal measure. But is Löw's side really the culmination of a golden generation and is it reasonable to expect the Germans to beat Brazil, let alone win it all?
My inclination is to say, "No, no, and no." This is an excellent German side, but far from a cohesive one. Löw's team lack natural width—until Lahm's reassignment against France, Germany were playing with four center backs—and a traditional striker. Miroslav Klose, for all his accomplishments, is a shadow of his former self and should be relegated back to the bench against Brazil. Against France, Klose struggled to create for himself or teammates.
Philipp Lahm should remain at right back, leaving the deep-lying midfield roles to Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger—neither of whom have had great tournaments so far. Toni Kroos should lead a German midfield that is both technical and strong but has struggled to turn possession into goal-scoring chances. The German attack increasingly looks lost trying to fill a Marco Reus-sized hole. For all Löw's tinkering, the Germans have yet to find the right balance and it's beginning to show. If you take away their blowout win against a 10-man Portugal side, the Germans have scored from the run of play just once in four regulation matches.
Tactically, the Germans and Brazilians should play into each other's hands—the Germans are set up to possess and the Brazilians to counter. Stripped of Neymar, there are real questions that remain about the Brazilian ability to build in attack. The answers may come in the form of Willian and Oscar. Both are a handful, and can use their pace to wreak havoc between the lines.
Brazil are trending in the right direction—they seem to be improving with each performance and overcame challenges from serious opposition. Germany have done just enough against a few paper tigers. With only four teams remaining, Brazil represent their first worthy challenger.
Jogi Löw and Germany are now accidental favorites—they wear the weight of expectations their performances have yet to justify.
Photo Credit: Getty