The Cup Running Over

July 1, 2010 11:42 AM

Netherlands-Brazil Quarterfinal Preview: Brazil Has the Edge

In a Nutshell: A classic matchup between two of the powers of the sport -- both known for playing attractive, attacking soccer. Except, at this tournament, they've both played in a far more cautious style with the emphasis in midfield on defense.

Recent History: Their last two World Cup confrontations were about as good as it gets. In 1998 in the semis, the Dutch tied the Brazilians with a late goal (1-1) but went on to lose on penalties 4-2. In 1994, they met in the quarters, as here, and Brazil prevailed 2-1. Holland won a second-round match in 1974.

What We Learned Last Game: Brazil showed against Chile that, as expected, it can explode at any moment and turn a rather routine, even game into a rout. The Netherlands sleepwalked its way to a 2-1 win over so-so Slovakia. The Dutch have managed to look unimpressive even while winning all four games so far.


The Good News: Essentially the standard for World Cup excellence. Despite a more defensive approach at this Cup with essentially two holding midfielders (blasphemy, according to many Brazilians), Brazil has managed to outclass every opponent so far -- save the Portuguese, in a game where little was at stake. All ten players are capable scorers and, given the way the team plays, it is very difficult to break down. The best keeper left in the Cup -- Julio Cesar -- helps too.

The Bad News: Brazil can have trouble breaking down super-defensive teams -- witness the North Korea and Portugal games. In a Cup in which youth has ruled the day, this team is the oldest of the 32 -- and it shows especially in the midfield where Elano is hurt and likely to miss the rest of the Cup. (Having said that, Danny Alves, the all-world defender, moved into his position against Chile and was more than adequate.) Ramires is also suspended and Felipe Melo isn't at full strength.

None better. Five championships, two runner-ups, and in the last five tourneys including this one, only three defeats -- two to France.

Player to Watch:
Maicon -- the defensive right back -- who is key to a defense  which must shut down the always dangerous Dutch. Also a threat to score. 

Telling Stat:
When Kaka, Luis Fabiano, and Robinho all start, Brazil has won 16 games in a row, averaging more than three goals a game.

To Win:
Shoot early and often on the counter -- the Dutch keeper and back four are that team's weakness. Try to wind up Robin van Persie, who can get psyched out in big games. Above all, neutralize Arjen Robben. When he can't get going, the Dutch usually can't either.

holanda-wesley-sneijder.jpgHolland needs an outstanding game from midfielder Wesley Sneijder to stand a chance against Brazil.


The Good News: This team has outclassed four opponents while never getting out of second gear. It has discovered that it can play serviceable defense -- allowing two goals in four games, one on a penalty on the last play of the last game. If the offense should ever get going, it's powerful, what with Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben up front and Wesley Sneijder in midfield. Being an underdog may help a team which traditionally underperforms against lesser opponents.

The Bad News:
Some of it is historic: The Dutch are known as the best team never to win a Cup for a reason. Part of it is the team is known for bad chemistry and Van Persie has already started the grumbling, blasting the coach for taking him out early last game. (Van Persie is already barely on speaking terms with Sneijder.) Part of it is also tactical: Robben is world-class but when he's on the field the Dutch seem to take their cues from him. Which means that if you can stop him, you can usually stop them. The keeper, Maarten Steklenberg, is also not first-class.

Two finals in the 1970's with teams that everyone generally thought should have won the Cup but didn't. The Dutch are usually somewhere around the quarterfinals or semis but their reputation is that they'll play beautiful soccer but ultimately find a way to lose.

Player to Watch:
OK, there's two: Robben, for the reasons given above. And midfielder Sneijder, who is all-world and has the ability to be the best midfielder on the field. If he can help control the pitch, the Dutch have a shot.  

Telling Stat:
According to OPTA stats, the Dutch have played a higher proportion of passes in their own half (48%) than any other team. Very defensive for a traditionally offensive team.

To Win:
Don't rely too much on Robben, attack wide, and most of all, win the battle of midfield. Also don't concede free kicks in the zone where Brazil can be deadly. Defensive midfielders Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel must continue to have outstanding games because behind them, the defense isn't that good.

Prediction: On paper the two teams are close to even -- save at keeper where the Brazilians have an advantage and in heft where the Brazilans also have the edge. In terms of pedigree, however, it's not even close. Going on history, the Brazilians should win, but the Dutch are talented enough to spring a surprise -- if they can raise the level of their game significantly from what's it's been so far and can hold the Brazilians to one goal or less.

If It Goes to Penalties: Brazil all the way. Better keeper for one. And, the Dutch are almost England's equal at blowing penalties. (For example, at the Euro 2000 semifinal with Italy, they missed two during the game and three of four in a shootout.) 

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