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Phil Ascough: We saw it coming

So now we know. Louis van Gaal reads The Royal Gazette. How else could the Dutch coach come up with the match-winning idea of unveiling Tim Krul as Holland's penalty king as his side were in danger of finding the cost of underestimating Costa Rica?

It was all about thinking outside the box rather than staying rooted to the goalline — and you read it here first. Whether such foresight can be extended to predict the outcome of the semi-finals remains to be seen, so tight is the margin for error between four sides who were tipped for glory from the outset.

Brazil, Argentina and Germany were the top three nations in the pre-tournament betting. Holland's status as relative outsiders was down to the traditional doubts about the level of harmony in the camp, and the need to negotiate a difficult group.

Both concerns were dismissed after their first two games, but there remains a question mark about tendencies to waste chances and to hit form only after slipping into trouble.

They trailed against Spain, Australia and Mexico and some observers are asking whether they have the firepower to stage a comeback against quality opposition, particularly with Robin van Persie so profligate in front of goal.

But do Argentina stack up as quality opposition? Notwithstanding a magnificent, instinctive strike from Gonzalo Higuaín, the Belgians were scathing in their condemnation of South American opponents who are now slight favourites to lift the trophy but who have laboured all the way.

The head-to-head stats courtesy of www.11v11.com show us that the Dutch have four wins to Argentina's two. In the World Cup finals, it is two wins to Holland, one draw and one famous victory for Argentina, in the 1978 final.

Germany's record against Brazil is altogether less impressive, with four wins and 12 defeats from 21 meetings. The only one of note came in the 2002 final, when a double strike from Ronaldo crowned Brazil as champions for the fifth time.

Ronaldo's record as the all-time record goalscorer at the finals is coveted by Miroslav Klose, and the German will relish the opportunity of taking top spot in today's match.

His chances of completing the achievement are improved significantly by the absence from the Brazil ranks of the injured Neymar and the suspended Thiago Silva.

We can look forward to two intense, intercontinental contests that are likely to be arm-wrestles rather than all-action. The tournament has shown us that the brightest and most open football was unleashed during the group stage, where the promise of second chances gave teams an opportunity to atone for any errors.

With so much at stake in the knockout stage, the scoring rate of 2.8 goals per game in the groups has slipped to 2.25 in the round of 16 and a miserly 1.25 in the quarter-finals.

Chances will be precious and four-goal front men Lionel Messi and Thomas Müller give their teams hope, while Van Persie and Arjen Robben, with three goals each, carry the Dutch threat. Worryingly for Brazil, the absence of Neymar leaves David Luiz as the only player with more than one goal to his name in this tournament.

But in tight games of few chances, the quality of the goalkeeper can make all the difference. The ever-alert Manuel Neuer will keep Brazil at bay and the Germans should be joined in an all-European final by Holland, possibly after more shoot-out heroics from Krul.

World Cup six-pack

Foursome's first: This will be the first time at the World Cup finals that teams from Europe and South America have squared up to contest both semi-finals on a knockout basis.

Suárez sidelined: Cape Town was the venue for the last semi-final between Europe and South America in 2010 as the Dutch eased past Uruguay, for whom Luis Suarez was suspended for his handball against Ghana.

Point to prove: Argentina and Brazil were the best of the South American contingent in the 2006 tournament, but both fell at the quarter-final stage of a competition hosted and dominated by Europe.

Asian advance: Intercontinental semi-finals in 2002 resulted in Brazil overcoming Turkey and Germany edging out South Korea, as an Asian team made it to the final four for the first time.

Flawed format: A messy group format did away with semi-finals in 1978, but Europe and South America contested the last two matches, with Brazil taking third place ahead of Italy and Argentina winning the final against Holland.

Head to head: Europe and South America have clashed in the World Cup final nine times. South America have won seven times, including on penalties in 1994.

n Phil Ascough, the author of Never Mind The Penalties — The Ultimate World Cup Quiz Book (foreword by Kevin Kilbane) and Never Mind The Tigers, both published by The History Press, was a senior reporter and sub-editor at The Royal Gazette from 1989 to 1992

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Published July 07, 2014 at 9:00 am (Updated July 07, 2014 at 1:12 am)

Phil Ascough: We saw it coming

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