Quarter-Final: Germany bear their roots
There could have been no greater stage for a football match. The Maracana - a behemoth of a stadium that once embraced 200,000 standing spectators in times past, glistened in the Rio De Janeiro sunshine under the hovering gaze of Christ the Redeemer. This was the Carnegie Hall of world football and there could have been no better confluence of romance, aesthetics and culture to showcase the Franco-German symphony.
Both teams came into the quarter-final with sticky notes pasted on their respective backs. Germany was labelled as a team in decline after bursting out of the starting blocks; the French had to deal with taunts of ‘0-0 against Ecuador’, a result that was blamed on Didier Deschamps constant tinkering of his eleven.
Herein laid the opportunity for both teams to prove the naysayers wrong. To put the journalists, so-called experts, former captains and coaches back where they belonged - into their respective armchairs.
Joachim Low responded to the harsh dissection and analysis of his team by dropping Mario Gotze in favour of Miroslav Klose and restoring Philip Lahm back into his natural right back role. Sami Khedira slotted in with Bastian Schweinsteiger as a double pivot, freeing up Toni Kroos to boss the midfield with his astute passing.
Kroos did not have the kind of game he usually enjoys with Bayern Munich where his touches of the ball can amount to Xavi-esque levels but he made the significant contribution of guiding the ball onto the head of Mat Hummels for the decisive goal.
That the goal arrived so early into the match indicated just how commanding the Germans were from the beginning where they asserted their trademark possession and pressing tactics. Paul Pogba, frustrated at being pegged back by the marauding German midfield committed the unnecessary foul that led to Kroo’s fatal free kick. Pogba’s punishment was a first hand view of Hummel’s towering header that floored the powerful Raphael Varane and torpedoed the ball into an unreachable corner of goal.
The French started finding their way back into the match as Pogba, perhaps with a point to prove, increased the pace of the French attacks with his incisive passing and his exploitation of space in front of a sometimes static German backline.
Philip Lahm’s insipid display perhaps rubber-stamps the opinion that he no longer has the fortitude to occupy a position where pace and intensity are weaponry of choice down the flanks. TIme and again, the French found space on the left to whip in crosses that were heroically dealt with by Hummels. He has emerged as a vital defensive and attacking option and I’m certain vultures from Catalonia are circling. Even then, Karim Benzema and Antoine Griezmann still managed to cut inside on several occasions to test an excellent Manuel Neuer. Not all the blame lies with Lahm though. Jerome Boateng looked uncertain in his movement and found himself caught out whenever France dinked the ball over the German backline. A mitigating factor for Mertesacker Per-haps?
If Muller doesn’t score, who will?
The match remained pretty much a midfield battle in the second half but saw more goalmouth action at both ends as the sweltering heat began to take its toll on the players. Shurrle was brought on for the spent Klose and in those minutes he had on the pitch had more chances than Klose had the entire match. He had chances to seal the match off some good buildup plays from Ozil but finishing clearly isn’t his forte as he lacked the composure to place the ball into where it really hurts. Thomas Muller, despite not getting on the scoresheet played his part with his tenacity and fantastic movement. It could prove a problem for the Germans in the semifinals if their over-reliance on Muller’s goals play up. Then again, Brazil seem to have the same problem now that Neymar’s out of the World Cup.
Neuer and Schweiny to the rescue
Hours before the match, I watched a Bundesliga documentary dedicated to Manuel Neuer. It showcased his rise from a teenage prodigy with FC Schalke to arguably the most difficult decision of his life to leave his boyhood club for Bayern Munich. He was an impressive goalkeeper at Schalke but Bayern transformed him into a sentinel. An imposing figure that could play as a sweeping last line of defence and a goalkeeper of magnificent strength and composure. Benzema had two shots in the dying embers of the match that were hit with such ferocity it would have beaten lesser 'keepers for pace and power. But not Neuer. Not this night. His arms were like adamantium pillars as he fisted both shots aside.
Bastian Schweinsteiger, considered a veteran and no longer Germany’s golden boy played his heart, soul and probably left some of his guts on the pitch. If Mesut Ozil is not as influential as he was in South Africa 2010, Schweiny is helping to plug the gap with less creative but far more industrious work.
In a Nutshell
Germany, despite morphing into the slick, short passing machine it has been in recent times still showed that they can take care of the business end of things despite losing aesthetic appeal. France can take pride in having progressed this far despite being on the brink during the qualifiers.
This quarterfinal was far from a classic. Neither was it poor. The level of technique and speed was impressive at times but the match just lacked a little footballing flair. The kind of sparkle you get when you watch Lionel Messi weaving in and out of defences playing one-twos off his teammates...the flicks and backheels Neymar exchanges with Oscar. The Brazilians call it ‘Alegria’ - Joy.
The hosts await Germany. I cannot wait.
Jason Jayden Chua loves Spanish football, writes Spanish football, eats Spanish food, is learning Spanish, but is in love with a French girl.