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The Clean Sheets: Previewing the World Cup Quarterfinals

Andrew M. Laird

Andrew M. Laird, a four-time FSWA Award finalist, is RotoWire's Senior Soccer Editor and an editor for the site's NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, CBB and DFS content.

Nick Pitner

Nick Pitner writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire. He supports Arsenal FC, the Green Bay Packers, and the New York Knicks, while specializing in those respective sports in his coverage for the site.

-----Original Message-----
From: Nick Pitner
Sent: Wednesday, July 2, 2014 6:09pm
To: Andrew M. Laird
Subject: The Clean Sheets - Quarterfinals

So the World Cup quarterfinals are now set and what fun it has been getting to this stage. Goals flew in with wild regularity during the group phase and now some goalkeepers have caught the headlines during the knockout round, which has already included five matches requiring extra-time.

I couldn't mention shot-stoppers without praising USA No. 1 Tim Howard, who advanced his national legend against Belgium with the best goalkeeping display I have ever witnessed. I mean, 16 saves! That's an absolutely mind-boggling amount, especially in an elimination game at the World Cup.

Besides the American eraser, Costa Rica's Keylor Navas impressed with seven saves versus Greece. Despite Costa Rica being on 10-men after the 66th minute, Navas withstood constant pressure from Greece, allowing just one goal before ultimately leading his country to a penalty-kick victory.

Through his own penalty-kick heroics, Julio Cesar valiantly saved host country Brazil from a potentially catastrophic early exit.

Finally, the Germany-Algeria tie was fantastic from a goalkeeping perspective as well. Algeria's Rais M'Bolhi thwarted repeated German attacks, making 10 saves to force extra-time, while his counterpart Manuel Neuer played wonderfully as a sweeper, taking over 20 touches outside of the penalty area in a clean sheet effort.

Another headline I have to address is Luis Suarez's biting incident. As you've probably noticed, I've had a penchant for making puns about Suarez's biting history in my columns. Most recently, anticipating the Suarez versus England match-up, I wrote that England's competition leading up to the World Cup was "toothless" offensively.

However, after Suarez's latest bite, his mental health is legitimately concerning. Knowing his track record, I was completely stunned/disgusted/in disbelief when I saw him bite Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini. I believe his four-month ban was certainly appropriate, but I really think he should be required to undergo some sort of mental counseling.

That being said, I'm curious to hear your reaction to Suarez, the United States being eliminated, and more.

-----Original Message-----
From: Andrew M. Laird
Sent: Thursday, July 3, 2014 8:29am
To: Nick Pitner
Subject: re: The Clean Sheets - Quarterfinals

I'll start with Suarez, who is clearly the most polarizing figure in soccer these days. Such incredible skill and such incredible stupidity all at the same time. Clearly he's got some issues after biting an opponent for a third time.

Or rather, he's bitten two opponents and another "suffered the physical result of a bite in the collision he suffered with [Suarez]."

There is no questioning Suarez's ability on the field, as he is coming off a season at Liverpool where he tied the 38-game single-season scoring record and then was fantastic in beating England at the World Cup, scoring a brace to give Uruguay a do-or-die game against Italy, which they won. The Uruguayans are a much different team with Suarez on the field, which is why the Round of 16 was as far as we saw them go. He'll now be suspended until November, no matter where he plays.

Speaking of which, it sounds like it's all but a done-deal that he's heading to Barcelona. Maybe a change of scenery will do him well, although it should be noted that his first biting incident was at Ajax, his second at Liverpool and his third on international duty.

Liverpool will be hard pressed to find a replacement for Suarez. Alexis Sanchez is being bandied about as a trade piece as part of the deal, and while I think he's a fantastic footballer, he is not Suarez. Maybe Daniel Sturridge's continued growth and the additions of Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert will be enough.

Sorry, enough with the Premier League tangent there. You said back in our group previews that Algeria was feisty and then you picked them to reach the Round of 16, so bravo on that. On the opposite side, I was trying to figure out who the most disappointing teams were in Brazil.

England scoring only two goals, Ivory Coast losing twice, Bosnia and Herzegovina only beating Iran, and let's not forget Spain. I think a lot of people had all of those teams reaching the Round of 16, but they combined for three wins.

And for the United States: it was a nice run. Most people didn't expect them to get out of the group, and while they suffered a heartbreaking draw to Portugal, they fought enough against Germany to reach consecutive Rounds of 16 for the first time in team history. That is an excellent accomplishment. Howard was simply amazing in goal Tuesday against Belgium, but let's be honest, you're not going to win many games when your goalkeeper has to make double-digit saves. Eventually one is going to sneak in, and it finally did. Romelu Lukaku made it 2-0, and while Julian Green had quite a debut for the USMNT, giving us plenty of promise for the future, Belgium was simply better. There's a reason they have guys that play for Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Lille, Manchester City, Manchester United, Napoli, Tottenham Hotspur and Zenit St. Petersburg, among others.

Looking at the quarterfinals, I think Brazil are going to really struggle to contain a Colombia side that is absolutely clicking on all cylinders right now. James Rodriguez has been incredible, and if he didn't already play for big-money AS Monaco, he would have made a smaller club a ton of money.

France v. Germany should be a classic, pitting two European powers that can win this tournament when they are playing at their best. Argentina v. Belgium pits two sides that seem to be playing below expectations despite going undefeated so far in the tournament. And finally, if you're looking for an upset, it has to be Costa Rica v. the Netherlands. Not that Costa Rica will win, but none of the other games appear as one-sided on paper.

-----Original Message-----
From: Nick Pitner
Sent: Thursday, July 3, 2014 3:58pm
To: Andrew M. Laird
Subject: re: The Clean Sheets - Quarterfinals

Suarez and Barcelona are made for each other. The club's motto of "mes que un club" ("more than a club") speaks to Barcelona's self-righteous entitlement, which has resulted in massive debt and nearly a year-long transfer ban. On Suarez's end, instead of a simple "I bit him" confession, he opted for a long-winded explanation to distract from his historically poor personal conduct. Essentially, both Barcelona and Suarez deploy crafty rhetoric to sweep their problems under the rug. It's safe to say I won't miss Suarez in the Premier League or be rooting for Barcelona this season.

On a more positive note, I really enjoyed how the United States rallied behind our national team. Although we left the World Cup with only one win, I believe the USMNT did an outstanding job at engaging fans (new and old) back home. Let's hope the country's interest in soccer continues with Americans taking time to watch the quarterfinals on Independence Day.

The opener of Germany v. France is a mouth-watering match-up. Since both teams boast world-class depth all over the pitch, I think the deciding factor will be Germany's experience. In my opinion, this is the kind of game where France could really use an accomplished leader like Franck Ribery. Sure, Paul Pogba and Karim Benzema have been outstanding, but most of Germany's starting lineup (and manager Joachim Low) has already experienced massive World Cup games together, something France has not.

Friday's second quarterfinal of Brazil-Colombia should feature plenty of South American attacking flair. In my opinion, Colombia's Rodriguez should be the front-runner for the Golden Ball. Not only is he leading the Golden Boot standings, but he's also provided two assists, and his country is undefeated. Additionally, his goals have been sensational! I loved his cheeky chip-in goal against Japan, but he bagged the goal of the tournament with his long-range volley versus Uruguay.

Needless to say, Brazil would be wise to close down on Rodriguez, as well as winger Juan Cuadrado, who has been hugely impressive in his own right.

Moving to Saturday's matches, Argentina versus Belgium begins the action. Leading up to the tournament, I predicted this to be the summer's most exciting game, with Argentina ultimately prevailing on penalty-kicks. After watching both teams enigmatically rattle off perfect records, I'm sticking to my story. I think both sides will produce their best performance of the World Cup, but the home-continent advantage of Lionel Messi's Argentina will best Belgium and keeper Thibaut Courtois' captivating potential.

Finally, as you mentioned, the Netherlands-Costa Rica tie is a bit unexpected. Neither of us had either team even advancing out of their respective groups, let alone meeting each other in the quarterfinals. With that in mind, I don't know what to anticipate. Arjen Robben could be a d(r)iving force (again), but Costa Rican goalkeeper Keylor Navas could come up clutch (again) as well.

So, what are your predictions? What will the "Final Four" be?

-----Original Message-----
From: Andrew M. Laird
Sent: Thursday, July 3, 2014 5:07pm
To: Nick Pitner
Subject: re: The Clean Sheets - Quarterfinals

Here's what I've got:

Colombia over Brazil in a tight 2-1 win. Rodriguez puts the Colombians up 1-0 in the first half, Neymar answers in the second, and then Rodriguez shuts the door in the last 10 minutes to send Colombia through.

France over Germany 2-0. The Germans have seven players that have fallen ill this week and outside of Colombia, there isn't a better-scoring team right now than France. Book me for goals from Benzema and Olivier Giroud.

Netherlands over Costa Rica 1-0 thanks to a Robin van Persie stunner. Despite a strong defensive performance, Costa Rica's surprising (shocking?) run finally comes to an end.

Argentina 2-1 over Belgium with goals from Messi (2) and Eden Hazard. I picked Argentina to win it all before the tournament, thinking Messi was ready to take back his best-player-in-the-world title, and I think a brace against Belgium will get him closer to taking the crown from Cristiano Ronaldo.

And you?

-----Original Message-----
From: Nick Pitner
Sent: Thursday, July 3, 2014 8:11pm
To: Andrew M. Laird
Subject: re: The Clean Sheets - Quarterfinals

Nice picks, but I think Colombia's awesome run comes to an end.

Although the Brazilian players are facing immense pressure, Colombia's level of competition thus far has been pretty average, which has inflated their tournament-leading goal difference. With defensive vulnerabilities and both fan bases demanding their teams push the tempo, I'm imagining an open, up-and-down contest. I picked Brazil to hoist the trophy and their scare last round will drive a 3-2 victory here.

In Friday's other tie, I'm rolling with the Germans. Following the 2010 debacle, France has already met their expectations, while Germany is dead-set on winning it all. That mentality and experience clinches a record fourth-straight semifinal appearance for Die Mannschaft. 2-1 Germany.

On the other side of the bracket, I'll take the Dutch over Costa Rica. Enduring 120 minutes plus penalties against Greece will prove taxing on Costa Rica, especially against Holland's attack-minded setup. I'll say 2-0 Netherlands.

I've already talked-up the Argentina-Belgium encounter and I can't wait for it to unfold. I believe Belgium's squad includes a higher quality of balance, but that Messi fella is a nightmare match-up and could run circles around the towering Daniel van Buyten and out-of-position Jan Vertonghen in Belgium's defense. With a 2-2 score after extra-time, Argentina advances on penalties, with Messi punching his country's ticket to the semifinals.