Stories

World Cup, day 14: the things you might have missed

Mats Hummels

Holders Germany finish bottom of Group F after a stunning 2-0 loss to South Korea as Sweden, Mexico, Brazil and Switzerland progress

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Germany get what they deserve

There are only three things wrong with this German team: they can’t defend, can’t pass and can’t attack. What’s shocking about Die Mannschaft isn’t just them exiting the World Cup bottom of Group F, it’s that it was completely deserved based on their three performances.

It was assumed that Toni Kroos’s late free-kick to sink Sweden might kick-start Germany’s campaign. Instead, they got worse. Against a commendably inspired South Korea, the holders once more looked leaky at the back even before those two late goals (Manuel Neuer had clumsily spilled a Jung Woo-young shot in the first half).

Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira returned to the midfield but brought little fluency or energy. Up front, Timo Werner was completely anonymous for what was apparently his third game of the tournament. Still, a 22-year-old striker can’t be held to blame for this display. Germany’s senior players didn’t show up and Joachim Low’s misplaced loyalty in them has cost him. This was a shocking, abject campaign from a nation that simply never, ever does this.

It’s a Low point

Low is a fine international manager. His consistent record even aside from the crowning glory of his 2014 World Cup win tells you that. But he got Russia 2018 badly wrong.

Just as Vicente del Bosque gave his Spain side a tournament too many in 2014; and Marcello Lippi returned to Italy in 2010 only to pick the same players he had in 2006, like a lottery winner choosing the same numbers next week and expecting the same result, Low showed too much faith in his senior players. Thomas Muller has been out of form for some time, Neuer has hardly played for Bayern Munich due to injury, while Ozil and Khedira are clearly not the players they were four years ago. Yet all played significant minutes at this World Cup.

Perhaps Low should have taken more of the players from a vibrant German ‘reserve’ side which won the Confederations Cup in hindsight. But that’s easy to say (and one young player he did trust, Werner, hardly sparkled). Low must shoulder some of the responsibility for Germany’s misery - but he’s far from the first great coach to put too much trust in players who’d performed so admirably for him in the past.

Sweden show extreme mental strength

The signs were there. In a video earlier this week, the Swedish squad stood together behind midfielder Jimmy Durmaz – subjected to some disgusting abuse for giving away that late free-kick against Germany – and shouted “f**k racism” in unison after the player had said his piece.

The signs were that this wasn’t a side cowed by that heartbreak against Germany; that they were a resilient bunch hungry to put things right. They proved that and more against a stymied Mexico side that had counter-attacked so incisively in their first two Group F games but now, needing just a draw to be certain of qualification, looked cautious and unsure.

Sweden took full advantage. Their 3-0 triumph may have included an own goal from Edson Alvarez and an Andreas Granqvist penalty (his second of the tournament), but they fully deserved their victory as they pushed Mexico back for 90 minutes. It seems Sweden, rather than Germany, are the side we must not write off in 2018. Mexico, meanwhile, will have to seriously rethink their attitude to avoid a seventh successive exit in the last 16 of a World Cup.

Coutinho's quiet case

While Brazil have hardly dazzled as expected at Russia 2018, there's been plenty of cause for compliment where Coutinho is concerned. Few players at this tournament have impressed so consistently, and the 26-year-old Barcelona star is making an early case for the Golden Ball. 

His scorching opening goal against Switzerland on matchday one should have been the starting point for a Seleção triumph, but they struggled thereafter and conceded a frustrating equaliser. Things were still fraught in game two against Costa Rica – but once again, Coutinho was on hand to poke home and save his side in the 91st minute before Neymar wrapped up the scoring. 

He was no less influential in Brazil's final group match against Serbia either, measuring a gorgeous chip over the top which Paulinho didn't even need to break stride to convert beyond Vladimir Stojkovic. Neymar was the beneficiary of another wonderful through-ball after the break, but squandered his one-on-one to put the game beyond doubt. 

Player of the tournament so far? There's certainly a case to be made. 

Famous last words

"It’s a good group because there’s no team who is certain to finish bottom of the four. Of course, we’re the top seeds, and we know we have to win the group because of our quality, but we also know that each game is important. Every side has good, innovative players. We’ve played Sweden a lot and Mexico in the Confederations Cup, but with quite a few regulars missing, and I don’t think I’ve ever played South Korea." 

Mats Hummels, there, speaking to FourFourTwo before the World Cup. Sadly for him, we suspect he'll remember playing South Korea now. 

It's coming home! 

OK, now we've got your attention...

But no, seriously: England have their best chance of doing something memorable at a World Cup since 2002. Brazil have hardly convinced in their first three matches against relatively limited opposition and really should have conceded at least once against Serbia before extending their lead. Spain were held by Portugal, squeaked beyond Iran and then came within a whisker of losing to Morocco. For Portugal and France, see Brazil. 

Germany are out. Belgium are in England's boat. Uruguay have been fairly toothless up to this point. Mexico looked intriguing before going down 3-0 to Sweden, who have earmarked themselves as genuine dark horses to watch. Switzerland have regularly proved that they can frustrate stronger nations, but all of the aforementioned trio should fall short when the going gets tougher.

Gareth Southgate has a clear plan for this Three Lions side which is so far bearing fruit. This team is together, confident and enjoying themselves. Granted, the Three Lions haven't faced particularly strong opposition at this World Cup just yet, but the seeds of hope are there with good reason. And that's what gets us all.