This World Cup needs quarter-final fireworks
OK I'll say it. It's time to identify the elephant in the room of this World Cup house party.
This has been a vibrant, colourful and historic World Cup but no amount of enthusiasm from the South African hosts can mask the fact that the football thus far has been pretty damned mediocre.
Not terrible, because there has been enough intrigue in the opening rounds to provide a few truly memorable moments. But let's be honest, there have no individual or team performances that have approached the World Cup gold standard set by the likes of Pele, Maradona and Zidane through the years.
With Wayne Rooney, Fernando Torres, Frank Ribery and Cristiano Ronaldo all flattering to deceive, the defining theme of the first two rounds was incompetence rather than brilliance.
I took a quick admiring glance at the way Argentina and Brazil tore apart some easy meat (with apologies to Mexico but none to Portugal, who were a massive let down and a betrayal of that countries footballing philosophy) but the adrenaline rush of the first round was provided by the failings of three European grandmasters.
Watching England, Italy and France in South Africa felt like rubbernecking at the scene of a car crash but it made for compelling viewing nonetheless. With Les Bleus in particular watching their struggles against Mexico, South Africa and Uruguay was like intruding on the grief of a grand footballing nation.
Italy provided my favourite game of the first round with their crazed late attempts against Slovakia to turn around a spectacularly awful campaign. Belatedly turning up as an attacking force, they poured forward against a doughty Slovak side and it was adrenaline-fuelled stuff that provided the best goal of the tournament so far: Fabio Quagliarella's wonderfully deft chip that game the World champions a glimmer of hope before their reign was ended.
Those games are all well and good but now we need performances of swagger and authority, and the world's best to stamp their mark on the final eight. In short we need quarter-final fireworks to lift this tournament above the run-of-the-mill.
The good news is that the best five sides have all made it into the quarters. It has become steadily apparent over the last three weeks that the gap between Brazil, Spain, Holland, Argentina, Germany and the rest is a daunting one.
Most of their opponents so far have taken a safety-first route, lining up defensively to try and nullify their attacking threat. It rarely works - the Swiss suffocation of Spain in the opening round of games being the exception - but the alternative is outright humiliation. Think England trying to take on Germany at their own offensive game and walking into four sucker punches.
Now that they are being thrown together, the hope must be that safety-first tactics will be sacrificed at the altar of fearless attacking football.
Two matches stand out - Holland against the brilliant Brazilians and Germany's potentially titanic tussle with Diego Maradona's fantastic Argentina.
The Dutch are yet to really impress but they have players who may be able to lay a glove on Brazil, who are moving ominously through the gears as the tournament progresses. Much rests on the performance of Wesley Sneijder, who will set the tone for Holland in the centre of midfield. Brazil can be devastating moving forward but they're also a patient bunch, and Sneijder will be nervously looking over his shoulder if he decides to lead offensive forays in the opposition half.
The other quarter-final could be a slugfest. Argentina look a bit kamikaze under Maradona and if any team in the world can draw the sting from Lionel Messi and company it is the Germans, who will have grown in confidence since beating our woeful Lions.
Personally, I'd like Argentina to march on. Maradona's players look like they're enjoying themselves (something that can't be said for the majority of players in South Africa) and German pronouncements since beating England have been classless, even if their team still sets the pulses racing.
Of the rest, Paraguay will become the latest side to employ spoiler tactics against Spain, which in my opinion is a foolish approach. The Portuguese set themselves up in a similar way and had the players to contain their Iberian cousins, but the Spanish illustrated how far they have come since the Swiss game by playing patiently and diligently and eventually getting the rewards. I don't think playing conservatively will reap rewards against this side.
Ghana against Uruguay is easily the weakest tie of the round but should be no less intriguing for it. Neither side really has much of a chance of winning the tournament but individual players on both sides are capable of breathtaking football. I take Uruguay's attacking firepower to best the organisation of the Black Stars.