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All signs point to Brazil-Argentina exciting final
AND so we are down to the final four in the World Cup. If you had polled a hundred football fans before the quarter-finals and asked whom they wanted to see in the semis, most would probably have plumped for Brazil, Germany, Argentina and the Netherlands.
They all count themselves among the powerhouses of global football, and it would take something very special for one of them to make that last push to be crowned champion next Monday.
The home favourites, Brazil, are still in the hunt for a record sixth World Cup. The Selecao will, however, have to find a way to win without their four-goal hero Neymar, the 22-year-old whose dream of playing in the final was shattered after sustaining a fractured vertebra in last Saturday's gritty 2-1 win over Colombia.
Faced with the pressure of bringing glory to a nation of 200 million people, this Brazil team has coped admirably so far. Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari deserves the lion's share of the credit for piecing together a squad that truly believes it can win.
"To all the Brazilians, I want to tell you the time has arrived and we are going to go together," Scolari said before the start of the tournament. "This is our World Cup."
His words could yet prove prophetic. He must now rally his troops once more as the titanic tussle with Germany looms large tomorrow (4am Wednesday, Singapore time).
The Germans didn't have to play exceptionally well in their 1-0 victory over France; nor did they really have to rev the engine all that often. The French were so frustratingly lacklustre throughout the 90 minutes, it was almost as if Germany were handed their fourth straight semi-final appearance on a platter.
Three-time winners Germany have sputtered their way to the last four, never quite reaching the heights of their 4-0 thrashing of Portugal in their opening match.
German coach Joachim Loew knows he will never get a better chance to eliminate the hosts, especially with Neymar out and Brazilian captain Thiago Silva suspended.
Whoever makes it to the final will have to face either Argentina or the Netherlands.
The Dutch, in pursuit of their first-ever World Cup trophy, were often skating on thin ice as they stumbled their way past Costa Rica.
The much-feared attacking trio of Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder somehow failed to muster a single goal between them against the Central Americans.
Holland coach Louis van Gaal stunned the crowd in Salvador, and the millions watching at home, by replacing his goalkeeper in the 121st minute.
That bold move turned out to be a stroke of genius, as the replacement Tim Krul pulled off two saves in the penalty shootout to end Costa Rica's fairytale journey and ensure Holland would meet Argentina in the second semi-final on Wednesday (4am Thursday, Singapore time).
Unlike the Dutch, the South Americans had a relatively fuss- free afternoon in Brasilia by easing past Belgium with a 1-0 scoreline.
Striker Gonzalo Higuain's first goal of the tournament - a crisp volley in the eighth minute - was enough to send the last of the World Cup's dark horses packing.
Argentina, winners in 1978 and 1986, are now in the semi-finals for the first time in 24 long years. The dream final between the two giants of South American football is still on the cards.
No European nation has ever lifted the golden trophy when the tournament has been held in South America, but in this most unpredictable of World Cups, both Germany and the Netherlands will go all out to rewrite the history books.