Win at All Costs May Now Trump Beautiful Football but All Eyes on James, Neymar, Messi and Robben to Ignite


Find and adjust your best seat, get your handheld or tablet ready to Tweet and interact with friends and other fans around the world, 'cause here's the mouth-watering World Cup quarter final line-up: three former World Cup winners go at it with France vs Germany, and then Brazil vs Colombia on Friday, July 4; followed by three teams who've never won the championship playing on Saturday July 5, with Argentina (former winner) vs Belgium, and Netherlands vs Costa Rica.

And, the headlines heading into these hopefully breathless clashes offer up a smorgasbord of the good, bad, intriguing and just weird: Neymar risks a World Cup headphones "penalty" ahead of Brazil's quest to win at home; Barcelona opens with £72million bid for banned Liverpool and Uruguay striker Suarez; Germany hit by possible flu outbreak ahead of battle with France; former World Cup winner Diego Maradona fears that if superstar Messi doesn't receive better support, he'll end up being blamed for an Argentinian "catastrophe"; and, the tournament's leading scorer, Colombia's James dreams of winning the World Cup, then playing for Real Madrid.

Colombia's rising star "James" dreams of World Cup glory - Getty Images

But here's one other headline: Golazo, what happened to all the goals?

After 136, and many scintillating, goals in 48 group play matches, the 8 second round matchups produced only 18 goals. Overall, that means average goals per game went down to 2.2 from 2.83 in group play. In spite of the "round of 16" matches producing more shots on target, the total number of goals scored went down by 22 percent.

Surprised? No, I was expecting this to happen, that the exuberant, free-flowing football and the subsequent goals and joyous celebrations that have captured our imagination would dry up as the knockout stage took over. But for what reasons? The drama has certainly not subsided with 5 of the 8 round of 16 matches going to extra time, and two going to the dreaded (for the players) and hold-your-breath (for us fans) PK shootout.

First, the decrease in goals could well be because of the better overall quality of the teams involved. The keepers, as witnessed by USA Tim Howard's magnificent goaltending display in a losing cause against Belgium where he made a record 16 saves, may well be raising their game, as are the defenders in front of them. Additionally, teams are now understandably playing with a tad more caution. Win or go home means they no longer have another game to turn things around in the event of defeat like in group play.

The negative side of the dramatic win or go home scenario is that teams become afraid to play their natural game. There is so much pressure on teams like Brazil and Argentina that, the individual brilliance of Neymar and Messi notwithstanding, both teams have so far failed to bring unfettered jogo bonito -- the beautiful game, the type of mesmerizing skillful, breathtaking football that fans dream of seeing.

But pragmatic Germany coach Löw, after a grinding performance to reach the QF, put it in perspective: "You can't always play fantastic football at a World Cup. You've just got to leave the field triumphant, and that's what we did." At this stage, win at all costs trumps all.

Argentina's savior Messi - Getty Images

As for the Golden Boot race, here are the leading contenders to be cock of the golden roost: Colombia's James Rodriguez (with 5); Germany's Mueller, Messi and Neymar (each on 4); France's Benzema and Netherlands' dynamic duo of Robben and van Persie (each on 3). Here's to players like them and perhaps some lesser lights, igniting the rocket's red glare over the last 8 matches of this wondrous World Cup.

As the late, legendary British manager Bill Shankly put it once: "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that."


Follow Ashley Jude Collie's World Cup coverage at MadeMan.