Could Gonzalo Higuain prove to be the Valdano to Messi's Maradona?

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Sharing the burden: Higuain (c) celebrates his goal with Messi (l) and Di Maria (r).

With a single swish of the right boot in his side's World Cup quarter-final against Belgium, Gonzalo Higuain finally showed there may be more to Argentina than Lionel Messi after all.

Higuain had been under scrutiny after going three and a half matches without scoring, but he needed just eight minutes to find the net in Argentina's 1-0 win in Brasilia on Saturday.

When a pass from Angel di Maria was inadvertently flicked into his path by Belgium defender Jan Vertonghen, the 26-year-old pounced to snap a crisp volley into the bottom-left corner that sent his team into the last four.

Having spent a month on the sidelines due to an ankle injury, Higuain had looked ponderous in his previous appearances in Brazil, but after putting Argentina in front against Belgium, he was a man transformed.

From harrying opponents to bringing his team-mates into play with deft lay-offs, Higuain suddenly looked every inch the player who had scored 17 goals for Napoli last season in his debut Serie A campaign.

He clipped the crossbar with a powerful shot after nutmegging Belgian skipper Vincent Kompany in the second half. Higuain was named man-of-the-match and coach Alejandro Sabella was quick to salute his performance.

"He ran a lot, he helped his team-mates a lot, and he scored a very important goal. That's what you expect from strikers," Sabella said.

Prior to Saturday's game, Sabella had faced a barrage of questions about his team's supposed dependence on Messi, but Higuain's display showed that the Argentina number 10 is not the only player who knows where the goal is.

As a reminder of his abilities, it could scarcely have been more timely, with both Di Maria and Sergio Aguero injury doubts ahead of Wednesday's semi-final against the Netherlands in Sao Paulo.

'I had faith'

Di Maria was due to undergo scans on Sunday after being forced off in the 33rd minute against Belgium with an apparent thigh injury, while Aguero has not played since a muscular problem curtailed his participation in the group-phase success against Nigeria.

With only four goals to his name in 35 international appearances, Ezequiel Lavezzi is unlikely to illuminate the path to goal at the Arena de Sao Paulo either.

Higuain has known moments of difficulty before in his career, most notably when he lost his place at Real Madrid to Karim Benzema, but he said that he never doubted his capacity to make a mark at the World Cup.

"I had faith in my qualities. The coach and the staff were behind me, and that's what matters to me," he said. "I'm already thinking about the semi-final. We have two matches left to make history."

While Messi has unsurprisingly been cast as the 2014 Diego Maradona — who inspired his team to glory at the 1986 World Cup with five goals and five assists — Higuain may yet prove to be his generation's Jorge Valdano (above).

By the conclusion of the 1986 tournament, Valdano had emerged as the only striker trusted by coach Carlos Bilardo to lead the line ahead of Maradona in Argentina's innovative 5-3-1-1 system.

The Real Madrid striker ended the competition with four goals to his name — including one in the final against West Germany — and a winner's medal around his neck.

Higuain, whose six-year spell at Madrid coincided with Valdano's return to the club as general director in 2009, would accept the same fate gladly.

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CBF confirms Neymar has been ruled out of World Cup

Paul Hirst 6/07/2014
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Down and out: Brazil’s Neymar writhes in agony after being kneed in the lower back by Colombia’s Juan Zuniga in their quarter-final clash

The Brazilian Football Confeder­ation had confirmed Neymar would miss the rest of the World Cup because of a fractured vertebra he suffered after being kneed in the back by Juan Zuniga.

 Thiago Silva wants Brazil to go all the way on home soil in tribute to injured star Neymar – and he is confident they can do so.

There was a flat feeling around Fortaleza late on Friday night as the extent of Neymar’s injury began to filter through to the locals.

The Brazilian Football Confeder­ation had confirmed Neymar would miss the rest of the World Cup because of a fractured vertebra he suffered after being kneed in the back by Juan Zuniga.

Their best player may be out, but Silva insists Brazil’s dreams of lift­ing the trophy on home soil for the first time remain very much alive.

The Brazil captain was saddened to hear of Neymar’s injury, but after the match he was buoyant about his team’s chances of lifting the trophy on July 13 in the Maracana.

 “We have proposed to win the World Cup for Neymar because of the injury he suffered,” the Paris Saint-Germain defender said.

“This moment could mark the start of a revolution for us. He hopes and expects a lot from this group, and this could unite us, it could give us more determination to win.”

Neymar may be 22-years-old but he has dragged Brazil through this tournament so far.

The Barcelona forward’s pace, trickery and eye for goal make him a nightmare to defend against.

The former Santos man is Bra­zil’s top scorer, with four goals, and he also scored the crucial penalty to knock Chile out in the previous round.

Bernard, a diminutive 21-year-old from Shakhtar Donetsk, and Chelsea’s Willian, who played for the Ukrainians until last summer, are not in the same class as Ney­mar, but Silva is sure they could do a good job if called upon to face Ger­many in the semi-finals.

“Neymar is very important for us. We depend a lot on him and he makes the difference in our group,” said Silva, who put Brazil ahead with an early strike.

“But in the place of Neymar, we can play either Willian or Bernard, who have similar characteristics.

“This is the moment to show the strength of the squad.”

Zuniga apologised to Neymar after the final whistle and Silva, who used to play for AC Milan, insisted the Napoli defender did not mean to harm the forward.

“Zuniga does not have any nasti­ness in him. I know him from Serie A,” said Silva.

“What he did, I think, was rash. I still have not seen the pictures, but I know that in these circumstances it was difficult to get the ball off Neymar.

“He was dominating. I am a cen­tre-back, and I know that in situa­tions like this one should be looked at more thoroughly.”

The whole game was an ill-disci­plined affair. Referee Carlos Velas­co Carballo failed to maintain disci­pline in a full-blooded encounter at the Estadio Castelao.

A total of 54 fouls were commit­ted, one of which came when Silva pulled back Colombia goalkeeper David Ospina.

That foul meant the 29-year-old will now miss Tuesday’s semi-final against Germany in Belo Hori­zonte.

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Matthaus: Germany must mix style & strength to win World Cup

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Crowded out: Hummels, Schurrle and Lahm close down France’s Benzema.

Germany’s decision to swap style for pragmatism could land Joachim Low’s team a first World Cup since 1990, according to the man who captained the national side to that triumph.

Lothar Matthaus believes Ger­many, who face Brazil on Tuesday in their fourth successive World Cup semi-final, are more defen­sively resolute than the side that produced thrilling, flowing football four years ago – and that change could make the difference.

Germany were relatively untrou­bled by France in a 1-0 win in the quarter-finals, where there was lit­tle flair but plenty of resolve.

Matthaus said: “If you want to become world champion you have to win matches, and that means ugly victories too. In previous World Cups we have always had those kind of games.

“We have become spoiled over the last eight years with such a technically stylish team and you did not expect this from Germany.

“Now it is no longer as attractive and beautiful as it was in 2010 but it is more oriented towards having a stronger defence – there is a saying in Germany that the defence wins titles and the attackers get all the glory.

“I expect even more from them against Brazil. The team played a good game against France but the real face of the German team will show itself against Brazil and pos­sibly in the final.

“Low has been playing with Mesut Ozil on the left, which is not a position he is familiar with, and no number nine but these tight matches are coming our way, we saw that against France, and other things become important.”

Brazil will of course be missing their star player Neymar, after he suffered a fractured vertebrae, as well as suspended captain Thiago Silva but Matthaus said not too much should be read in to their absence.

He added: “No German fan or player is happy about Neymar being injured, the spirit of fair play does not allow for that and we are here to play against the best players in the world and so it is bad that such a good player has been hurt.

“We will face the fact the Bra­zil still has other excellent players and although you cannot replace Neymar just like that, it will be the team’s job to make up for him not being there.

“Thiago Silva is easier to replace and Dante will probably come in and he’s used to this kind of pres­sure playing for Bayern Munich.”

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