The Final Four Is Set: Which Teams Will Advance to the World Cup Final?

Undermanned Brazil faces slick Germany, while Lionel Messi leads Argentina against the Dutch. Who will win?

In a tournament full of surprises - the ear-splitting thud of Spain’s fall from grace, Costa Rica trying on this year’s glass slipper, the sheer number of goals scored - the semifinals have set up almost exactly as the books would have predicted. The three heaviest pre-tournament favorites, Brazil, Argentina, and Germany have all booked their passage into the final four, along with 2010 finalists the Netherlands.

What can we expect with these final four teams?

Can a Neymar-less Brazil Prevail?

It should surprise no one that Brazil has made it this far, but they haven’t exactly waltzed through the opposition. Even before Juan Zuniga’s knee cracked a vertebrae in Neymar’s back, knocking him out of the tournament, the Selecao never quite sparkled. The precocious 22-year-old was good, but he hadn’t played as great as his country had hoped he would. The expectations on both Neymar and the host nation were always going to be unfair; in Brazil, it’s not enough to win - you have to win and look good doing it.

It says a lot about this Brazil team that in their 2-0 quarterfinal win over Colombia, both goals came from central defenders, one off the shin of Thiago Silva and the other a brilliant free kick from David Luiz.

Brazil has more or less stumbled their way through, finding ways to win, but doing so in far less than convincing fashion. Their opening win against Croatia almost comes with an asterisk, after a horrific penalty decision swung things in their favor. They were unable to find the back of the net against Mexico, it took penalty kicks to get past Chile, and they had to hang on against Colombia in a game that was more start-stop than anything.

Just as they were hoping to gather some steam, Brazil watched in horror as Neymar, their talisman and goal scorer, was hauled off on a stretcher, writhing in pain from a broken back. They must now find a way to replace the forward who’s scored four of their ten goals, and it’s likely to come in the form of a few players, rather than any individual.

It’s unlikely that Brazil will benefit from Neymar’s absence, but it could see them change their style, relying less on a speedy outlet on the wing and focusing their attack more centrally. Certainly they have a player capable of stepping up, even if he hasn’t been at his best so far. Oscar is a highly technical player whose brilliance has perhaps been dampened by Neymar’s presence and need for the ball. If manager Phil Scolari hands him the keys to the car, the Chelsea man could very well be a difference maker.

Another player who may relish the chance at shouldering more offensive burden is Fred. Aside from the aforementioned penalty decision, the #9’s most noteworthy contribution to this tournament has been shaving his sweet ‘stache.

Whether or not it was an attempt at a reverse-Samson-and-Delilah, it has proven to be ineffective, as he has mostly been a spectator in the knockout rounds. With Neymar out of the picture, the 30-year-old will be looked at to get on the end of through balls and crosses. Considering that he scored five goals in five appearances at the Confederations Cup just a year ago, he might be Brazil’s best hope at getting on the scoreboard.

Adding to their woes is the suspension of Thiago Silva, their captain, defensive organizer, and perhaps an even more influential player than Neymar. Dante is the likely replacement, but he is a significant downgrade, both in ability, leadership, and presence; Brazil’s appeal to FIFA to overturn Silva’s yellow card speaks to their desperation.

Brazil is a vastly experienced team who, contrary to their joga bonita DNA, know a thing or two about grinding out a result. Taking the air out of the ball, chipping at German heels and shins, and delaying restarts goes against the Brazilian futebol ethtic, but it’s the tactic most likely to be employed by Phil Scolari’s men against their semifinal opponents.

Germany have looked a well-oiled machine, with replaceable parts filling in where need be. In addition to one of the tournament’s best players, Thomas Muller, Die Mannschaft has any number of guys who can come into the starting lineup or play a role as a late-game. Their towering central defenders Mats Hummels and Per Mertesacker will negate any Brazilian threat on set pieces, and will likely provide nervy moments at the other end. Hummels is an excellent header of the ball and Germany’s delivery is as good anyone’s in the tournament.

Germany has won games in a variety of ways, most recently a methodical, efficient result against France in which Les Bleus barely threatened in the second half. The Germans were rumored to be carrying a half-dozen number of players with the flu, yet they still defeated arguably the tournament’s most complete team in France.

The midfield battle will be fascinating to watch. Bastian Schweinsteiger has only started a few games in Brazil but his experience will likely be called upon. He matches up well with Fernandinho and allows Sami Khedira to come off the bench and provide a spark. Phillip Lahm will be asked to neutralize Luis Gustavo and Oscar, as well as distribute from his deep-lying central midfield role. In goal, Germany has the best goalkeeper at the tournament, Manuel Neuer, whose morphed into more or less a sweeper-keeper.

Without Neymar and Thiago Silva, Brazil can’t out-talent Germany, and it’s doubtful they’ll even try. They’ve proven apt at the dark arts of the game and Scolari’s Selecao will likely do their best to disrupt the game every chance they get. The longer Germany goes without scoring, the more frustrating the game will be, but an early goal could set up for a very open match.

Game Odds

Our odds have Brazil as favorites to win the tournament. Playing at home, with a newly-formed chip on their shoulder in the shape of Neymar’s fractured L3 vertebrae, it makes for a very intriguing game. Germany is the better team, and in better form, but Brazil tends to find a way to win. The game simulator produces a score of 2.11 to 1.70 in Brazil's favor.

Lionel Messi Looks to Power Argentina

On the other side of the bracket is an epic matchup that pits two enormous monkeys-on-backs against each other. The first, of course, is the Netherlands trying to shed their always-the-bridesmaid status, known more for their losses at major tournaments - three-time runners-up in the World Cup - than their solitary win (at the Euro in 1988).

The Dutch destruction of world champions Spain, replete with Robin van Persie’s gorgeous swan dive header, seems like a distant memory. More recently, Arjen Robben’s theatrics and Tim Krul’s PK antics have grabbed the headlines, and not in a good way. They were unable to score against a well-organized underdog Costa Rica and won the match on spot kicks, manager Louis van Gaal swapping goalkeepers as time wound down.

Standing in their way? Oh, just the world’s best player, who’s heard his entire professional career that the only thing standing in his way of the “Greatest of All-Time” label is a World Cup title. Rather than the likes of Joel Campbell and Cristian Bolanos, the Dutch will be facing Lionel Messi, Javier Mascherano, and Gonzalo Higuain.

Argentina will dearly miss Angel DiMaria, whose quad injury against Belgium has ruled him out of the rest of the tournament. The good news, at least on paper, is that Kun Aguero has been cleared to return after missing the last few games due to injury. The 26-year-old Manchester City forward hasn’t hit his stride in Brazil, but he provides, at the very least, a great option off the bench as Ezequiel Lavezzi is likely to remain in the starting lineup.

Argentina has a very solid spine throughout their team and will be very difficult to break down, with Ezequiel Garay anchoring back line, covered by the tenacious Javier Mascherano. In an interesting change, Martin Demichelis started the last match and did not look out of place. It was likely a move to offset the Belgians’ height but his performance warranted a place against the Netherlands.

Game Odds

Messi has been the best player of the tournament, particularly since Aguero’s been out of the lineup, and it’s hard to see anyone in the Dutch defense slowing him down. Argentina look as fired up as anyone, playing on their home continent, and nothing would make them happier than upstaging arch rival Brazil on their home turf. numberFire’s current analytics put them at a better than 58% chance of advancing to the final, and there’s no reason to think they won’t. The speed of Robben could be tricky to deal with, but it should be an entertaining, open game, with both teams attacking early and often.

The idea of an unprecedented Brazil-Argentina World Cup final - taking place in Brazil, with Lionel Messi having the chance to shrug off the enormous burden of having never won the big one - is almost too good to imagine. The numbers say it’s likely, but the eyeballs say it’ll be Germany-Argentina - another intriguing matchup itself, as it would be a rematch of the 1986 World Cup final when Diego Maradona led La Albiceleste to the promised land.

It’s been a tournament of early surprises and goals galore, but as we reach the final stages, the cream has risen to the top. Let’s hope for three more entertaining games before the agony of futbol withdrawal sets in. (At least until the Premier League kickoff in mid-August.)