Les Bleus depart as Low's side do just enough: how Stats Zone saw France 0-1 Germany
Two European giants met at the Maracana in the 2014 World Cup's first quarter-final. Germany were aiming to reach their fourth consecutive semi-final, and obviously go beyond it, while a win for France would continue their run of alternatively successful and disastrous World Cup campaigns, a pattern running since their non-qualification in 1994.
As expected, Didier Deschamps recalled Real Sociedad's Antoine Griezmann after an excellent performance as a substitute against Nigeria in the second round, with striker Olivier Giroud making way, allowing Karim Benzema to take up a central role in attack. Giroud's Arsenal team-mate Laurent Koscielny was also dropped, Liverpool's Mamadou Sakho replacing him in the heart of defence.
Joachim Low shuffled his deck, changed suit and played his joker: Miroslav Klose. The 36-year-old striker made his first start at this World Cup, needing only one more goal to overtake Brazilian Ronaldo's goal tally and become the lone top scorer in World Cup finals - at least until team-mate Thomas Muller overtakes him as well.
The Germany coach also moved Philipp Lahm to his favoured right-back position, a move made through necessity - Shkodran Mustafi was injured and Jerome Boateng rarely looks comfortable there - but one Low was still reluctant to implement. Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger took hold of the midfield in Lahm's place. Another Arsenal player missed out as Per Mertesacker was jettisoned to accommodate Mats Hummels' return in central defence, while Mario Gotze was the man dropped in favour of Klose.
In hot conditions, the game started at a relatively slow pace. France had the first shot of note, Benzema sidefooting a first-time volley wide, but it was Germany who were on the front foot in terms of possession, enjoying nearly 60% of the ball in the opening 10 minutes.
Then, just after France had twice got behind the German defence, Die Mannschaft took the lead in the simplest of fashions. Toni Kroos lobbed in a free-kick from deep and Hummels outmuscled Raphael Varane to head the ball in off the bar. The Borussia Dortmund defender showed great strength and guile to hold off his marker and flick the ball past Hugo Lloris, but Varane mistimed his jump to make things easier for him.
With 20 minutes gone, chances had been few and far between but two things were noticeable. First: Germany were keeping their standard high press, winning the ball up the pitch (or at least trying to), which is why France were occasionally able to slip in behind their defenders. Most tackles were coming down the German left flank, as Mathieu Valbuena looked typically dangerous and Paul Pogba supported him down that side.
Pogba was clearly feeling very confident, despite the early goal. The 21-year-old was more than happy to take on players with the ball at his feet.
Germany began to put together more passing moves and edged closer to the French goal. The final ball wasn't reaching a team-mate in the opposition area, but several through-balls were at least coming close.
With just over half an hour played, Manuel Neuer was forced into making an excellent save, flinging a hand at Valbuena's volley, Griezmann having switched sides with the Marseille man and crossed the ball in from the right. Benzema was unable to convert the rebound and France still trailed, despite having had more shots than Germany at this point.
The rest of the half was quiet, but for 2 more chances falling to Benzema. First he failed to test the goalkeeper after Hummels - the goalscorer - had lost his own man this time; then the Real Madrid striker cut inside from the left but curled his shot straight at the goalkeeper.
Half-time, then, and the score was 1-0 to Germany after a relatively quiet 45 minutes (at least compared to most other games in this exhilirating, slightly bonkers World Cup). Both teams, however, had created a number of chances through crosses from the wings.
For Germany, those came from set-pieces: Low's side created 3 goalscoring opportunities from free-kicks but not a single one in open play - compared to France's 4.
It was hardly a case of alarm bells for the Germans, though: they had the lead and were enjoying a comfortable 59% of possession. France, meanwhile, were seeing very little of the ball in the centre when inside the opposition half.
Benedikt Howedes had put in a good first-half performance at left-back, limiting Valbuena's influence with tackle after tackle.
France needed more movement from Benzema up front, and Deschamps was wise to this: the first thing the striker did after the second half kicked off was get down the left wing and deliver a threatening cross. In the first half, his involvement had been limited to just 1 pass. That he'd taken 5 shots indicated his intended role in this game as more of a fox in the box than an all-action forward.
Les Blues were the more attacking side in the second half. Evra found himself in acres of space from a free-kick that exposed Germany's high line, just failing to get on the end of it, before Neuer saved comfortably from a Varane header. It was interesting to see how Germany were putting in plenty of tackles yet often failing to win the ball, especially in midfield, while France were having a higher rate of success by being more patient - but perhaps too patient, given they needed an equaliser.
It was also a tale of two strikers. Contrary to expectation, Klose was getting involved in play far more than Benzema. The German poacher was having little impact in the opposition area, however, only touching the ball in there twice - Lahm finding him both times - and failing to threaten Lloris in goal.
As a result, Klose was the first player to be withdrawn; Andre Schurrle, with six goals in his last six internationals, replaced him. Deschamps' opening change was a straight swap as Koscielny replaced Sakho at centre-back, but minutes later, Yohan Cabaye made way for his former Newcastle team-mate Loic Remy in a more dramatic statement of intent. The clock showed less than 20 minutes left in the match, and the French players had begun to shoot from improbable positions in search of a goal.
France pushed forward, creating a couple of half-chances: first Benzema had an effort blocked, having taken the ball off Valbuena's foot as a dangerous cross came in, then Blaise Matuidi shot straight at Neuer from a tight angle. As the game continued, Les Bleus had seen enough of the ball in the second half to bring their share of possession up from 41% at half-time to 49% across the game, with 10 minutes remaining.
Deschamps went gung-ho in the final stages, bringing on big man Giroud for little man Valbuena. Germany weren't afraid to get forward, though, despite their slender lead: with the goal at his mercy, Schurrle had his tame shot blocked (just as he had against Algeria in the build-up to Mesut Ozil's goal) and even centre-back Boateng was tackled just outside the French penalty area.
Then, in the dying seconds, Benzema created a pocket of space and shot powerfully at goal - but Neuer batted the ball away with supreme confidence, raising a single hand to deflect the strike away from his goal.
Full-time in a strange encounter came with the score 1-0. Germany had been quietly competent but rarely cut France open, while Deschamps' men often looked more threatening but went on the attack too late in the game - even if they did test Neuer more often than their opponents did Lloris.
The talk pre-match was of Lahm returning to right-back, but on the other flank, Howedes carried his abilities as a centre-back over to left-back, winning every single one of his 9 attempted tackles. No other player won more than 5.
Across the match, France created more opportunities to score: 10 to their conquerors' 7, all coming from open play (Germany, just 4). But Low and Hummels showed the value of a good set-piece and ultimately, it's the Germans who are in the World Cup semi-finals. Again.
Facts and figures
- Germany are the first team in World Cup history to reach the semi-finals in 4 consecutive World Cups.
- The 9 knockout games so far at the 2014 World Cup have seen a total of 12 goals in the 90 minutes (ie excluding extra-time).
- Germany scored with their first shot on target and then hit only 2 more in the rest of the match.
- 12 of France’s 13 shots came from inside the box, yet they couldn’t score.
- Germany collected 2 yellow cards in this game, as many as they had in the previous 4 games at this World Cup.
- Germany have kept a clean sheet in 3 of their last 4 World Cup quarter-finals.
- Germany have scored in 6 of their last 7 World Cup quarter-finals.
- In the first half Karim Benzema had 5 shots but made only 1 pass.Germany had 59% possession in the first half but only 40% after the break.
- Germany conceded only 4 fouls in the first half but 13 in the second half.