Brazil, Germany, Argentina and Netherlands will soon face off to decide who makes it to Sunday's Maracana showpiece - but each has an important question hanging over them. Here, Nick Ames runs the rule over their burning issues....
Germany: How can they rediscover their clinical edge?
Thomas Muller covered more ground than anybody in Germany’s win over France. Largely from the right-hand side of the attack (although he did finish the game at centre-forward), his exertions took in 10,986 metres – comfortably more than anyone else on the pitch.
That’s testament to his workrate, his fitness on a hot afternoon, his diligence in the face of France’s left-sided threat, and plenty more. But it also poses a question. Germany have not been at their clinical best since rattling four past Portugal in their opening match, when Muller scored a hat-trick. His tally that afternoon was 10,615 metres in 82 minutes on the pitch; in slightly less sapping conditions, four of his team-mates exceeded this figure. Muller is an excellent, versatile player, but you wonder whether his energies might be best conserved for another run down the middle against the Brazilians.
Despite his historic goal against Ghana providing a nice trip down memory lane, Miroslav Klose’s subsequent stats have not worked particularly effectively and, against a Brazil side shorn of captain Thiago Silva, it makes sense to have Germany’s in-form forward, and his constant movement, as close to goal as possible rather than haring up and down the wing. Andre Schurrle’s cameos from the bench have been busily impressive, even if slightly wasteful against the French, and perhaps he could be an option for that wide position if Muller is pushed up top. Either way, clear chances will probably be few and far between – so Joachim Low needs to make sure his resources are used most efficiently.
Brazil: Can they keep their cool?
The pressure is on Brazil. That’s goes without saying, but they’re also going to need to be impervious to noises quite apart from their fanatical country of well-wishers. Joachim Low laid down the gauntlet to referee Marco Rodriguez ahead of Tuesday night’s game, emphasising that the hosts’ “brutal fouls” and “exaggeration” needed a particular eye trained upon them. Brazil will not particularly care about how they are perceived – the ‘samba’ myth is long dead and Luiz Felipe Scolari is simply putting together a team with the tools to see the job through as best it can – but they will be concerned about external influences and there is the risk that it will take the edge off their own performances, too, especially with any red card meaning a near-guaranteed suspension for the final.
Basically, Brazil are under pressure to behave; perhaps one of the more interesting battles in Belo Horizonte, then, will be between Rodriguez and the crowd at what is perhaps the tournament’s most partisan venue. If the referee makes his mark early and does not allow the hysteria to ramp up, Germany might find they have more room than expected to strut their stuff.
Netherlands: Can they keep Argentina out?
The Dutch will always give you a chance. If Marco Urena had shot beyond Jasper Cillessen’s legs on Saturday night, their siege of the Costa Rican goal would have come to nothing. Australia, too, can testify that Louis van Gaal’s side, if subjected to scrutiny, can be exposed. There is still a feeling that Van Gaal is winging this a little bit, an otherwise workaday side pulled along by two or three genuine superstars, and the fear is that, since dispatching of a well under-par Spain in remarkable style, they have not really faced anyone with the capacity to put them to the sword.
Mexico tried and were undone by one of the several canny improvisations that Van Gaal has come up with this summer, but Argentina seem a good bet to capitalise on the opportunities they will undoubtedly get against a defence that, while decently marshalled by Ron Vlaar, lacks experience otherwise and is also bereft of real star quality.
It could be that the Netherlands’ best bet is in stopping Argentina at source. Angel di Maria’s absence robs them of the best conduit between midfield, Messi et al, and there is a ponderousness about the rest of their options. If Nigel de Jong returns as mooted, perhaps the Oranje will have the bite to keep the Argentinians at arm’s length.
Argentina: Does Messi need to raise the bar yet higher?
For all that his winner against Belgium was both a personal relief and excellently taken, Gonzalo Higuain won’t really create you a chance out of nothing. Ezequiel Lavezzi, for all his talent, is not guaranteed to that that either; Sergio Aguero probably will, but surely returning him to the starting lineup would bet oo much of a gamble for team, player and his club. Angel di Maria can do it with his intelligent, driving runs from midfield, but his tournament is now over.
So it all seems likely to fall on Lionel Messi. His goal against Bosnia, while slightly deflected, was excellent; his winner against Iran was spectacular; his brace against Nigeria was clinical. He has not been quite as effective since, although his link-up with Di Maria for the late winner against Switzerland underlined the importance of their relationship in Argentina colours. This time, there is a chance he may have to find those moments of inspiration on his own. The Dutch are hardly impermeable, but if this really is to be Lionel Messi’s World Cup then you sense he will need to step things up a notch higher than his already outstanding performance level – because Argentina look as if they would be lost without him.