By Iain Rogers
BRASILIA (Reuters) - After the attack-minded tactics and goal glut of the group stages, the World Cup quarter-finals were predictably marked by caution and even aggression as hosts Brazil pushed soccer's laws to the limit in dispatching Colombia.
Only five goals were scored across the four games, one a penalty and one a direct free kick, and the average per match at the finals has crept down to 2.6, still the highest since 2.7 in France 1998 but far short of the record of 5.4 in Switzerland in 1954.
The inevitable tension of the knockout phase prompted some coaches to fall back on negativity and Brazil’s ugly 2-1 win over the Colombians was a depressing comedown after some entertaining contests earlier in the tournament when a majority of teams played with ambition, style and verve.
Colombia, who had thrilled with wonderful displays in reaching the last eight, were drawn into a kicking match, with the Brazilians clearly under orders from coach Luiz Felipe Scolari to win by any means.
Scolari’s players committed 31 fouls and Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo waited until well into the second half, and for 41 to be committed overall, before he showed his first yellow card, a caution for Thiago Silva that means the Brazil captain misses Tuesday’s semi-final against Germany.
The game was also marred by the injury to Brazil talisman Neymar, who suffered a fractured vertebra after a clumsy challenge by Colombia defender Juan Zuniga, depriving the tournament of one of its most exciting forwards.
The dark side of the encounter in Fortaleza overshadowed David Luiz’s brilliant free kick that won the game for Brazil as Scolari appeared to have instructed his players to treat fouling as a tactical resource rather than an infringement of the laws of the game.
"The South American way is 'win at all costs'," former England defender Danny Mills told the BBC.
"Yes, they gave away lots of fouls and were fortunate to get away with them at times," Mills added.
"As a professional footballer, you are not bothered when people say you win ugly.
"Leaving a bad taste in people's mouths does not matter. They will cheat and bend the rules if they have to."
The quarter-final between European heavyweights Germany and France was a much tamer affair, with the Germans taking an early lead through Mats Hummels and content to sit back and protect it on a hot afternoon in Rio de Janeiro.
France had set the finals alight after putting five goals past Switzerland and thrashing Honduras 3-0 in the group phase but that was a distant memory as Les Bleus had little to offer in attack.
Saturday’s last-eight clash between Argentina and Belgium followed a similar pattern, with the South Americans going ahead in the eighth minute through Gonzalo Higuain and showing little inclination to push for a second goal.
Alejandro Sabella’s side, desperate to make the last four for the first time since 1990, turned in a canny tactical display in Brasilia and survived a few late scares from an otherwise toothless Belgian team to set up a semi-final meeting with the Netherlands.
Runners-up to Spain in 2010, the Dutch got sweet revenge in Johannesburg when they thrashed the holders 5-1 in their opening group game but despite their obvious attacking strengths were unable to break through a determined Costa Rica defence in their quarter-final.
With Costa Rica, the surprise packages in the last eight, defending desperately for long periods, it said it all that the team's fans celebrated the end of extra time and taking the Dutch to a penalty shootout as if they had won the game.
Bidding to become the first Central American team to reach the last four at a World Cup, they chose caution rather than playing the enterprising football that had garnered surprise wins against Italy and Uruguay and a draw with another former winner England that secured top spot in Group D.
In the end, they were undone by a ruthlessly efficient set of Dutch penalties, Netherlands goalkeeper Tim Krul coming off the bench at the end of extra time to save two Costa Rican spot kicks.
The match was more evidence, if any were needed, that negative tactics can pay off.
If they fail the doubt will always remain that perhaps taking the match to your opponents, at least in the early stages, might be the better option.
However, with so much at stake, particularly for hosts Brazil, a similar approach is likely for the semi-finals.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)