The big four are in the semi-finals and the spotlight is firmly on the big stars. Amid the buzz around Lionel Messi, Thomas Muller, Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and the injured Neymar, the workhorses of the four teams have gone relatively unnoticed.
Teams have evidently become cagier in the knockout rounds after the goal fest earlier. Six of the last 12 games have gone into extra-time and three of them have been decided in penalty shootouts.
The workhorses have held up their teams with tireless running. Here is a look at two such workhorses from each of four semi-finalists.
Luis Gustavo: “People don’t see what he does but Gustavo is one of the most important players in my team,” coach Luiz Felipe Scolari said before the game against Chile.
While Neymar stole the limelight, Gustavo has become on the most important players of his team. Comparisons with the World Cup winning Gilberto Silva aren’t amiss. Gustavo leads the World Cup charts with 19 interceptions in four games and has covered more than 46 km. Up against the best midfield in the World Cup, Brazil will be glad to have him back from suspension.
Oscar: He is happy to play in any role in which his Scolari wants him to. He has recorded the most number of tackles in this edition of the World Cup with 26 in just 5 games without getting booked even once.
This work rate from someone who is supposed to be a creative player is astounding. With a goal and two assists so far, he has done a remarkable job and Brazil will need him to be on the top of his game against the Germans if they are to progress to the final.
Dirk Kuyt: Celebrating his 100th cap for the Dutch against the Mexicans, Kuyt played in three different positions throughout the 90 minutes. It was exactly seven years since the death of his father and he believes it was destined. It is almost unheard of a striker playing as a wing-back and that too in the later stages of a World Cup.
Being the experienced campaigner, Kuyt who will turn 34 later this month, has set an example for the younger generation with speeches in the dressing room.
Georginio Wijnaldum: Having played a combined total of 228 minutes for Holland before the World Cup, the wunderkind has come of age in the past few weeks, having featured in every single game of this tournament. He has grabbed the opportunity to cement his place in the midfield. The 22-year-old has shown maturity beyond his years. He is equally adept at helping out his back four and breaking forward without the ball to create space for his teammates.
Toni Kroos: He has been one of the best players of his side and has attempted 427 passes so far, second only behind skipper Philipp Lahm. He can play across all the positions in midfield. Kroos has a quality right foot and has registered two assists so far, both from set-pieces. He adds an extra dimension to the German attack.
Sami Khedira: He is to Germany what Luis Gustavo is to Brazil. He’s the ultimate central defensive midfielder who adds steel to the midfield with his physicality. He’s not too bad breaking forward as well. He displayed this with regular lung-bursting runs against France in the quarter-final. He has made a strong comeback after tearing his cruciate ligament and is a key member of arguably the best midfield in the world right now.
Javier Mascherano: He led Argentina in their last World Cup campaign. He almost single-handedly shores up the midfield, which hasn’t been able to complement the top-rated attacking force of Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and Co.
Mascherano is the leader without the armband this time, fighting tooth and nail for each and every ball. He is second in the stat books for tackles with 24. Also he leads the stats with an astounding 55 long balls completed out of 63.
Paolo Zabaleta: The toughest position in football, and indeed the most unrewarding one is that of a fullback. They scurry up and down the pitch, unnoticed most of the times with the responsibility of tracking their man as well as helping out forwards. Zabaleta put on a remarkable display against the Swiss in the quarter-finals, running tirelessly for the entire 120 minutes. Up against the pace of Robben in the semi-finals, Zabaleta will have his hands full. He has to maintain the high standards which have led to his development into one of the best fullbacks in the world.
(Raunaq Salat is an engineer and devoted football fan. He is interning with the hindustantimes.com World Cup football team)