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World Cup 2014 semi-finals: a key player from each of the four teams

Tuesday, July 08, 2014 by Guardian.co.uk

Germany’s Sami Khedira, Brazil’s Oscar, Argentina’s Javier Mascherano and Holland’s Wesley Sneijder can all make a difference in the last four

Sami Khedira, Germany
Considering he had not played any football for six months as the domestic season reached its climax, a degree of worry about his involvement in this World Cup was understandable. The Real Madrid midfielder managed roughly an hour of his club’s last two La Liga matches and 59 minutes of the Champions League final. It was enough to convince Joachim Löw that one of his fundamental players would be ready for the World Cup, and the hunch has been handsomely repaid. With all that gruelling work recovering from a torn cruciate ligament behind him, Khedira has played with relish and authority in the Germany midfield.

When he suffered his injury, Löw defined Khedira as a “natural-born fighter and big personality” and those qualities came to the fore in a remarkably powerful performance in the quarter-final against France, whose strong midfield were largely nullified because of the control exerted by Khedira in tandem with Bastian Schweinsteiger. The way he pushed up with some dynamic runs was effective in pushing France further back than they cared to be. He is an anchoring player with the licence to cause all sorts of damage.


Oscar, Brazil
It is virtually impossible to have a conversation in Brazil without reference to the trio of names – Neymar, Willian and Bernard – whose intermingling fates all changed course so suddenly the moment Juan Camilo Zúñiga’s knee connected with Neymar’s back. It’s natural that the attention on whoever is Neymar’s understudy will be intense but it is equally – if not more – crucial for Oscar to rise to the challenge of absorbing some of Neymar’s responsibilities when Brazil face Germany.

The Chelsea playmaker was excellent in Brazil’s opening match against Croatia but his effectiveness tailed off. The Neymar dependence has, arguably, been slightly inhibiting for Oscar. He has come in for some criticism but now is the time to express himself. He has to take on the mantle of a Brazil No10, directing attacking play with imagination and verve. He suggests the emphasis of the team has to change, and will be more based on team play than looking to the virtuoso to make the difference. “Germany know we will play collectively,” says Oscar. He has the backing of a former Brazil No10, Kaká. “Before the start of the tournament there was a lot of debate in Brazil about whether Oscar should start … but he deserves his place in the XI. He is always willing to help the team,” Kaká said.

Javier Mascherano, Argentina
It should not come as a surprise to learn that Mascherano gave a team talk – and a straight-talking one at that – to try to provoke a response before their quarter-final against Belgium. Lionel Messi may wear the armband but Mascherano is required to make sure there is more than just leadership by example in the team.

Equally, out on the pitch, Mascherano is required to make sure there is more substance to Argentina than the obvious impulse to give the ball to Messi as often as possible. After a domestic season in which he predominantly played in defence, for his national team Mascherano has retaken his natural midfield position, and from the central heartlands his presence, speed of thought and ability to wrestle control has been absolutely vital. As Claudio Cannigia put it in Mundo Deportivo: “What Mascherano is doing is sensational. He is fundamental, almost the continuation of the coach on the pitch.”

Considering Holland’s speed on the counterattack, Mascherano’s expertise will be vital in guiding and protecting the defence, and in attempting to stop opposition breaks at source. “On occasions like this you play with your heart and soul but if you are not intelligent tactically …” he said. He knows the rest. Which is why Argentina’s hustler will do everything in his power on Wednesday.

Wesley Sneijder, Holland
With Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie leading the charge, it is reasonable for any opponent of Holland to become a little pre-occupied with the big personalities spearheading the team. Beware Sneijder, though. The little technician, who operates somewhere just behind or to the side of them, has an excellent record when it comes to striking in tournament knockout games. At the last World Cup in South Africa he scored the winner in the round of 16, both goals in a 2-1 victory over Brazil in the quarter-finals, and once more in the semi-final against Uruguay. He was close to deciding Holland’s quarter-final against Costa Rica this time round before the need for the melodrama of penalties. Since his move to the Turkish league his performances have been erratic in terms of quality but he is still capable of decisive moments and has the knack of seizing the initiative on nervy, do-or-die occasions. Holland have five players in their squad with impressive goal numbers at international level (Van Persie 46, Huntelaar 35, Sneijder 27, Robben 26, Kuyt 25). They are not short of experienced weapons.

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