Netherlands 2-1 Brazil
The quarterfinals kicked off with a bang, pitting two great teams against each other, each with very different World Cup history: Brazil is the perennial favourite, always likely to win and fulfilling of their promise more often than any other team; the Netherlands are the serial underachievers, exceptionally talented and tipped for great things, they always manage to disappoint the Dutch faithful. But not this time.
In many ways, this game was about the rise and fall of Brazilian midfielder Felipe Melo. Melo’s razor-sharp through ball in the 10th minute sent Robinho in to thrust a shot home. It looked like the opening salvo of a dominant Brazilian victory, but the Dutch refused to give in, with keeper Maartin Stekelenburg stretching to make a brilliant save off Kaka and keep things level to the half.
The second half was as much the story of a Dutch comeback as it was a Brazilian collapse—especially the downfall of Filipe Melo. If Melo’s creativity gave Brazil the momentum in the first half, his own goal—a 53rd minute free kick he nodded past keeper Julio Cesar—suddenly gifted it to the Dutch. Melo’s horror deepened in the 68th minute when he lost track of Wesley Sneijder on a corner kick, and the Inter Milan man potted the second header goal of his career. The collapse was complete when the obviously frustrated Melo was sent off for a vicious stamp on Arjen Robben’s hamstring. Down to ten men, Brazil was unable to mount a challenge to a Dutch side that found themselves totally in charge of the game. The overstretched Brazilian defense handed several shockingly clear chances for the Dutch—looking more confused than composed. But the men in orange were more than content to finish at 2-1, and see their country closer to its first final since 1978.
Uruguay 1-1 Ghana (4-2 after PK)
The two clear underdogs of the remaining eight, Ghana and Uruguay were both already in treading unfamiliar waters, the quarterfinal round meant they’d achieved success beyond expectation. Not surprisingly, then, the match was a tentative affair, with neither side displaying the kind of sweeping attacking power that got them through the group stages.
It was two strikes that defined the first 120 minutes of play: Sully Muntari’s daisy cutter at the very end of the first 45 gave Ghana the lead and lifted the hopes of a continent desperate to see an African side through to the semifinals for the first time ever; Diego Forlan’s wickedly swerving free kick in the 55th minute out-maneuvered an out-of-position Richard Kingson and gave the South American’s new hope.
But it was the last seconds of extra time that made this one of the most incredible games in recent memory. Overwhelming Ghanaian pressure looked set to pay off when two strikes came back off the Uruguayan line—the second clearly goal-bound when Luis Suarez reached out and slapped it away with his hands. Suarez was rightly red carded, and Ghana handed a golden chance to win a famous victory with the last kick of extra time. But the normally rock-solid Asamoah Gyan slammed his shot off the bar, bringing Luis Suarez back from the depths of despair, and sending the game to penalty kicks.
To his credit, Gyan recovered his nerve and drilled Ghana’s opening penalty into the top corner, but the effort was for naught: Uruguayan keeper Fernando Muslera stopped two Ghanaian penalties to secure a dubious win for the South Americans. Africa will mourn their last side dropping out of the tournament, but the victory may have been a Pyrrhic one for Uruguay: losing Suarez for the semifinals leaves Diego Forlan the only major attacking threat available to deal with the Dutch on Tuesday.
Germany 4-0 Argentina
The result of this match may not have been an upset, but few would have predicted such a comprehensive and complete victory by the young German squad. Argentina was second best from kickoff to whistle in a match that left Germany looking like a strong contender to take the title.
Twenty-one-year-old Thomas Mueller got the Germans out to the perfect start, exposing a poor-looking Argentine defense by glancing a free kick off his forehead and past keeper Sergio Romero. The Germans were held from tallying again in the first half—and only just, with Miroslav Klose scooping a golden opportunity over from in tight—and Argentina was still in the match after 45 minutes.
Maradona’s men started the second half brightly, but were unable to find the net even on their best chance, a scorching drive by Angle Di Maria. The Germans reasserted their dominance in the 68th minute when a fallen Mueller slid the ball through for Lucas Podolski who found Klose wide open to walk the ball into the net. The goal deflated Argentina, and the rampant Germans finished off their opponents ruthlessly: the third goal a scrappy effort from defender Arne Freidrich (his first for his country), the fourth another cold-blooded finish from the irrepressible Klose, capping a slashing counterattack by side-footing a beautiful lobbed pass from Mesut Ozil.
Maradona’s magic has failed the Albiceleste, as the highly-rated Argentines go out with a whimper, and the underrated German youngsters continue ravaging one opponent after another.
Paraguay 0-1 Spain
Paraguay had more than passage to the semifinals on the line in this match, with homegrown model Larissa Riquelme
recently promising to bare it all if her team can win the cup. The extra incentive seemed to have worked, too, as the South Americans repeatedly got the better of the heavily-favoured Spaniards, starting with an effort from Jonathan Santana in the first minute. La Albirrojas appeared to take a shock lead in the 40th minute when Nelson Valdez fired one past Iker Casillas, but the linesman controversially ruled that the offside Oscar Cardozo had interfered with the play and the goal was disallowed.
Things didn’t improve for Cardozo when Ellis Park descended into madness for an incredible few minutes in the second half. In the 56th minute, referee Carlos Batres spotted a blatant foul be Spanish defender Gerard Pique, and awarded a Paraguayan penalty. Cardozo, who had cooly slotted home the decisive penalty kick against Japan, was denied glory on this occasion by Casillas, who got down well to latch onto the ball. The ball went straight up the field and into the Paraguayan box, where David Villa was cynically fouled by Antolin Alcaraz. Spanish midfielder Xabi Alonso appeared to have scored where Cardozo couldn’t, but the penalty was ordered retaken as Spain had encroached on the penalty area before the kick was taken. The retaken kick, of course, was well saved by Justo Villar, but in the ensuing scramble Villar clearly fouled Spaniard Cesc Fabregas, but the officials missed awarding the third penalty in as many minutes.
With so much action happening outside the normal run of play, it took a surprising 83 minutes for Spain’s David Villa to calmly slide a shot past Villar, giving Spain the margin of victory and boosting his claim to be the tournament’s top scorer. From then Paraguay could barely get the ball, much less mount a comeback. Spain were more than happy to run out the clock with a dizzying display of passing, and will be relieved to have overcome an unexpectedly staunch Paraguayan side. The only thing standing between Spain and their first-ever finals is an appetizing semifinal against Germany on Wednesday.
James Doyle writes for Some Canadian Guys Writing About Soccer, which takes a passionate (and often irreverent) look at the Canadian soccer scene, major international tournaments and all sorts of odds and ends related to the beautiful game.