World Cup Semi-Finals: Each Team's Man with a Point to Prove
After a breathtaking quarter-final stage, the 2014 World Cup nears its denouement. Just four teams remain: Brazil and Germany, who will clash in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday, and Argentina and the Netherlands, for which Wednesday is the day of destiny in Sao Paulo.
All four teams are chock-full of star power, filled to the brim with creative potential and goalscoring proficiency throughout their squads. Yet not every member of every squad is sky high on confidence.
Indeed, for each team, there is a man with a point to prove. Maybe a player whose individual performances and expectations haven't balanced out; someone who has flattered to deceive throughout the competition.
In any case, these four talents, for whatever reason, have either been forced into the spotlight, or need to improve their performances in order to springboard into global consciousness for the good of their team.
Click forward for an in-depth profile on who's under pressure, why they're in their particular jams and how they can shake it off to come through for their country at the semi-final stage.
It's a preview, however unorthodox, of these eagerly anticipated and crucial clashes.
All stats from Squawka.com unless otherwise stated.
Brazil: David Luiz
As I opined on Saturday, Brazil head into Tuesday's showdown with Die Mannschaft without arguably their two most important players.
Neymar's tournament-ending back injury, coupled with Thiago Silva's suspension, leaves the Selecao with voids to fill, but their absence also leaves Brazil devoid of natural leaders in the starting XI.
Thiago Silva is captain, and as the poster boy and superstar of the men in yellow, Neymar is a gargantuan influence within the squad. Brazil have been able to rely on the pair of them to keep the squad level-headed and guide them through to this stage of the competition.
Without them, Silva's centre-back partner will be forced into the spotlight, not only to lead the side from the back but also to keep his composure.
Unfortunately for Brazil, said partner is David Luiz.
David Luiz, on his day, is an excellent centre-back and withdrawn holding midfield player. He's got a fair amount of international experience, and as seen in his work for both the national side and most recent club team Chelsea, he has shown he's capable of keeping his head once the big occasion arises.
However, his reputation as a figure of fun, his notoriety of a man prone to losing his marbles from time to time and the stigma of unreliability attached to him keeps him from being completely trusted by fans and teammates.
A controlled, mature David Luiz performance is an absolute must if Brazil are to stop the German offensive tide. Even though the hosts have Luiz Gustavo returning in Belo Horizonte, David Luiz has to be a brick wall in defense whilst maintaining that safety in his forward forays.
This is his chance to step out of the spotlight of his captain and partner and prove to the world his pedigree as a top-tier central defender.
Germany: Mesut Ozil
Mesut Ozil is an enigma.
Pundits openly criticise him, both in this World Cup and during his debut Premier League season with FA Cup winners Arsenal. Back pages of newspapers bear disparaging headlines, announcing him as a "big-money flop"—an overrated waste of money with a habit of disappearing during the big games.
Yet his output in this tournament, backed up by statistical analysis, has been top notch.
The thing with Ozil is that for Germany and for Arsenal this past year he's not made too many of the brain-frazzling assists from tight angles that became his trademark at Real Madrid. That doesn't mean he's worse as a player or less effective, not by any stretch.
His pass-completion rate during this tournament is a remarkable 87 percent—that's more than contemporaries Neymar, James Rodriguez, Arjen Robben and Angel di Maria. He's created 13 chances throughout the tournament as well—on par with Neymar, while only Robben of the remaining three peers has created more.
He plays a vital role in Germany's midfield, keeping Die Mannschaft ticking over with Toni Kroos alongside him. Without him, Germany might well succeed against Brazil, but as Arsenal found out, your fortunes tend to dwindle without Ozil in your side.
Does he need a big-time performance to silence his critics? Not necessarily, as his detractors will continue to detract and state their case. Nevertheless, Germany can always do with a breakout performance from their No. 8.
Ozil is a boon to any team at the highest level of competition, be it national or international. Germany will be relying on him to motivate himself to prove his depreciators wrong—when Ozil is firing on all cylinders, the men in white will reap the benefits.
Argentina: Gonzalo Higuain
It took his fifth turn in the sky blue and white stripes this World Cup to get off the mark for Gonzalo Higuain, and for a team so famed for its attacking potential, that simply isn't good enough.
Argentina have been massively reliant on Lionel Messi in their march to the semi-finals, and it was only on Saturday that the Napoli man opened his tournament account in the Estadio Nacional, scoring the only goal in a tight win over an unconvincing Belgium.
For a player who scored 17 goals in 32 Serie A appearances for Napoli last term, his comparable drought at the World Cup doesn't add up—and that's bad news for Argentina.
On paper, the Argentine strike force is the most dangerous remaining in the tournament. Messi alone strikes fear into the heart of the most steadfast of defenders, and with a supporting cast of Higuain, Angel di Maria, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Sergio Aguero (when fit), they should be enough to topple any defence.
The key word there being "should."
Messi has top scored with four (only Higuain and di Maria have contributed to the goal count with one apiece), and he's created 19 chances for his teammates—almost double di Maria's count. Higuain, as a centre-forward, perhaps isn't expected to create chances, but he is certainly expected to convert them. However, with 44 percent of his shots hitting the target, he isn't nearly as effective as he should be.
Perhaps the young Dutch defence is the ideal target to change that pattern. However, despite their youth, the likes of Stefan de Vrij and Bruno Martins Indi have been exceptionally stingy thus far in the tournament, with the last man to breach their foundations being Giovani dos Santos in the round of 16.
Something has to change in order for Argentina to storm past the Netherlands and book their place in their first World Cup final since 1990. Messi has done a fine job of shouldering the load thus far, but the Oranje represent, on paper, by far the biggest challenge Argentina have faced in the competition, and one man, however immortal he may seem, cannot take an entire nation to a World Cup final.
Argentina expects, and Higuain must step up to answer the call.
Netherlands: Jasper Cillessen
In a move that left crowds both awestruck and baffled, Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal made the tactical gambit of the summer when he substituted established stopper Jasper Cillessen for Newcastle's Tim Krul in the dying seconds of extra time against Costa Rica on Saturday.
The head coach cited Krul's superior height and reach as the key reason for the substitution (via BBC Sport), and while the Oranje emerged triumphant in Salvador, Cillessen instantly became a huge talking point in the minutes that followed.
It has emerged that Krul knew his duties had it gone to penalties, but as Mark Ogden of The Telegraph reported, Cillessen was none the wiser about Van Gaal's machination.
The Ajax keeper will retain his place in Sao Paulo in this week's semi final, but how his morale and mindset will have been affected by that last minute switch will be the source of conjecture right up until the opening whistle on Wednesday.
Cillessen has never saved a senior penalty (via Ogden), so if his side happen to concede one during regulation time against Argentina, the pressure will be almost insurmountable without Krul to come to the rescue.
The onus will be on him to keep composed and produce a similar performance to the one against Costa Rica on Saturday. While he didn't quite replicate the escapades of opposite number Keylor Navas, he was excellent when called upon, and it's up to him to ensure his reliability and reflexes are as on point as they were in the quarter-finals.
Cillessen has to prove to himself, his country and the rest of the world that he's the man the Netherlands should be relying on in a tight squeeze.
Are you in agreement with my picks, or do you think other players have more on the line in this week's semi-finals? I'd love to hear your thoughts—leave me a comment, or follow me on Twitter.