For many, the quarter-final against France at the famous Estádio do Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro would be the first in a number of defining moments for Nationaltrainer Joachim Löw. The coach had been targeted heavily by the press for his tactics and team selections, and up until the morning of the game would appear to be sticking by the approach he had taken since the start of the tournament in the second week of June.
Like many others, I had expected Löw to stick to his guns – to the point where I had suggested that this game would be one where he would either stand firm and smite the French with his sword – or end up falling on it. In the end, we would all be taken by surprise. Rather than stand firm and face the swirling storm of criticism with sword in hand, the Nationaltrainer would assume a different stance. Out of the blue he would revert to a more familiar system, and the result would be achieved with a series of sharp, short thrusts and jabs.
The hitherto dangerous-looking Les Bleus would be blunted and ultimately defeated by a supremely efficient German performance – how nice it would be to use such terms again – and the Nationalmannschaft would be in yet another World Cup semi-final. Their fourth in a row, and yet another record to add to the many collected by German teams over the years. Perhaps the nicest thing was that the result would be achieved with minimum fuss.
When the starting eleven was announced, it would be a very pleasant surprise. Philipp Lahm would be at right-back. Striker Miroslav Klose would be in the starting line up. Four men at the back. Two holding midfielders. A three-man offensive midfield, and a striker up top. Up until that morning I would never think it was going to happen, but here I was looking at formation that looked a little like a 4-2-3-1. After rubbing my eyes, I realised that this was indeed the case.
From out of the blue the coach had changed tack completely, and finally it looked as though he had decided that winning was perhaps more important after all than sticking like glue to his tactical mission. Perhaps the bloody-minded obsession with 4-3-3 was just an elaborate ruse to mess with the minds of the pundits, tactical experts and opposition coaches.
Some commentators and analysts have suggested that the match was a drab affair, and that Löw’s decision to turn his back on his 4-3-3 strategy had signalled some sort of cultural regression. For the footballing purists who demand possession football and racking up passing statistics it was indeed a step back, but for those of us who simply want this talented German side to win the World Cup the performance in Rio would constitute a happy return back to basics. The team would have the least amount of possession in any of their matches in Brazil so far – things would measure out at a balanced fifty-fifty – but for the first time the defence would look unthreatened enough to generate a degree of confidence.
Things would by no means be perfect, but it would be both a stark and highly welcome contrast to the defensive shambles we had witnessed against Algeria. Are the players incapable of assimilating themselves to 4-3-3, the high defensive line and the concept of the “false nine”? Perhaps. Should the coach keep trying to achieve his ambition to transform the way the team plays? I’d say yes. But not right now.
The rejigged defence would see Lahm slot in at right-back with a new-looked central defensive partnership of Jérôme Boateng and Mats Hummels, while Benedikt Höwedes would retain his place on the left with Per Mertesacker on the bench. The return to the two-man defensive midfield would produce the second big surprise, with both Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger starting together for the first time. I would still have my doubts about fielding both players, but according to all of the reports from the training ground they would be fit and ready.
Further up the field would see Toni Kroos move up the pitch to join Thomas Müller and Mesut Özil, who would sit behind the recalled veteran Klose.
I would be at the Bavarian Beerhouse in London for this game, with the usual complement of German supporters as well as a friendly bunch of people supporting Les Bleus. At half-time, my French girlfriend would join us after work to add a little bit of Gallic flavour to our table. Thankfully she is more of a fan of Bavarian food than the French team, so no – there would be no domestic issues after the match on the train back home.
It’s a hazy and warm but muggy afternoon in Rio, and as the teams walk out onto the pitch for the pre-match speeches many are already bathed in sweat. The Germans are in their all-white ensemble with the French all in blue in front of a crowd of just over seventy-four thousand people for their fourth meeting in World Cup finals.
1 min. A shrill peep from Argentinian referee Néstor Pitana’s whistle gets things underway as Germany kick off.
5 mins. It has been a quiet and slightly cagey start, but Germany have had the better of the possession so far and have already looked to make their way into the opposition penalty area.
7 mins. France build up nicely on the left through Antoine Griezmann and Mathieu Valbuena, and the ball is cut inside neatly for Karim Benzema who shoots narrowly wide on the volley from just inside the German box. Manuel Neuer looks as though he has it covered.
10 mins. Valbuena threatens to get in behind the German defence, but Khedira clears. Moments later Griezmann looks to find Benzema who is lurking inside the six yard-box, but Hummels hacks the ball away.
13 mins. Kroos is bundled over out on the left midway in the French half, and gets up the take the free-kick. It’s a perfect delivery into the French box, and Hummels keeps his marker Raphaël Varane at arms’ length before floating the ball past ‘keeper Hugo Lloris and into the top left hand corner of the net. It’s Hummels’ second goal of the tournament – and his second header. 1-0.
Mats Hummels times his leap perfectly to meet Toni Kroos’ free-kick, and Germany have an early lead in Rio
16 mins. It’s the perfect start for Jogi Löw’s side, and they look to settle things down again and take control of the game.
22 mins. The game has really slowed down now. The Nationalelf are content to sit tight and consolidate their lead, while the French are showing a slightly surprising lack of ambition at the moment.
24 mins. A lovely move from the Mannschaft. Özil and Lahm build things up slowly on the right, and Özil cuts the ball inside for Khedira who looks to thread it through the blue shirts into the box for Müller. The German number thirteen looks for Klose who has run into space on the left inside the penalty area, but a slightly heavy first touch sees the ball roll away from him. There’s some clear tugging of Klose’s shirt by Mathieu Debuchy, but the thirty-six year old goes down just a little theatrically and the referee waves play on.
25 mins. Khedira looks to send another slide-rule pass into the French box for Müller, but Patrice Evra manages to keep in front of the FC Bayern man and shepherds the ball back to Lloris as all three players end up in a messy heap.
28 mins. There’s plenty of good stuff from the Germans here in the middle of the pitch, and no lack of intent. It is a healthy way of defending the lead.
29 mins. Valbeuna send in a speculative cross from the right into the German penalty area, but Lahm positions himself nicely to head the ball firmly and confidently back to Neuer.
30 mins. Germany win a free-kick out on the right, and Kroos this time looks for Höwedes at the near post. The ball is cleared behind for a corner, which comes to nothing.
32 mins. Another ball is send into the German box, but the ever-alert Neuer is on hand to collect easily. The German Torhüter has not had to make any Augenthaler-like moves so far.
34 mins. Griezmann gets in behind the German back line down the right, and swings the ball back inside across to Valbeuna who has made his way into the penalty area. The little number eight runs wide before hooking in a left-footed shot, and Neuer makes a good one-handed save low to his left. Benzema tries to get to the rebound but his scuffed effort goes off for a corner.
35 mins. The corner comes to nothing, but France win another almost immediately. Mamadou Sakho sends in an optimistic looping header from the edge of the box which floats well over the target.
38 mins. Khedira gets a ball in the face from Sakho, and walks off for a spot of treatment. Meanwhile, the rest of the players take the opportunity to get some much-needed refreshment. It’s not an official break, and after a little confusion Müller rolls the ball back to Lloris. The game can start again, and Khedira is back on the pitch.
40 mins. Höwedes makes a rare foray down the left but is bundled off the ball by Debuchy. The free-kick is in a similar position to the one that would lead to the goal, but this there’s no repeat as the ball eventually goes off for a goal kick.
42 mins. Schweinsteiger gives the ball away in the French half and Le Bleus build things up nicely down the left. After a neat exchange with Evra Blaise Matuidi’s cross is met by Benzema who directs his header straight at Hummels. There are a few unconvincing claims for handball against the Dortmund centre-back, but the replays clearly show that the ball hits his stomach.
44 mins. A well-aimed pass from Paul Pogba finds Benzema, who cuts inside well before hit a right-footed shot straight at Neuer who makes things look easy.
45 mins. One minute of stoppage time is signalled, but there’s no more action and referee Pitana blows for half-time.
A pretty even first half, but the Mannschaft are certainly good value for their lead. The French have looked to get behind the German defence, but compared to the Algeria game there is a far greater solidity in the defence, and with it a certain calmness. Neuer has made the one good save, but so far as has not had to resort to risky defensive measures.
More of the same, and we can start talking about a semi-final in Belo Horizonte against either Brazil or Colombia.
46 mins. France kick off the second half.
50 mins. Valbuena backs into Schweinsteiger, but the referee bizarrely awards a free-kick to France. There are at least three blue shirts in front of the last white one as Velbuena’s curled delivery is fluffed by Evra. Lucky, as we could very easily have been talking about yet about yet another gaffe by the officials.
52 mins. The men in white break down the left at pace, but Özil’s attempted cross is put behind for a corner. The resulting kick sees Hummels penalised for going up for a perfectly reasonable challenge on Lloris who attempts to punch clear. If anything, Hummels is being bear-hugged by a man in a blue shirt.
54 mins. Khedira is shown the yellow card for a silly foul on Griezmann.
56 mins. A lovely ball from Müller finds Lahm on one of his marauding runs, but the moves comes to end with Schweinsteiger’s rather weak effort.
61 mins. Khedira looks to find Klose with crisp pass, but the record-breaking striker is taken by surprise.
64 mins. There’s a bit of a lull in proceedings at the moment with Germany more than content to keep things as they are with the French surely looking to set themselves for a final push in search of an equaliser.
68 mins. With the French doing nothing of any great note to change the flow of the game things are meandering along nicely for Jogi Löw’s side. The Nationaltrainer makes his first change as Klose makes way for André Schürrle.
69 mins. A misplaced pass by Sakho is seized upon by Müller, whose shot-cum-cross is deflected behind for a corner. Well it looks like a corner, but the referee signals for a goal kick.
72 mins. Sakho is replaced by Laurent Koscielny as French coach Deschamps makes his first change of the afternoon.
73 mins. It’s all happening on the French bench as Loïc Rémy comes on for the ineffective Yohann Cabaye. Meanwhile Germany break swiftly down the right as Lahm’s ball is flicked on by Müller for substitute Schürrle, whose lot shot is easily gathered by Lloris.
74 mins. The men in white storm forward again as Özil finds Müller in the box, but there is no support.
76 mins. Germany are well on top at the moment, but France are remain just one sharp move or fast break away from levelling things up. Rémy looks to find Benzema who cuts inside Lahm before his well-struck shot is blocked by the excellent Hummels.
80 mins. Schwinsteiger has not had the best of games, and makes his way into the referee’s notebook with a cynical foul on Griezmann.
82 mins. Neuer sets up another counterattack after collecting a French corner, flinging the ball out to Özil who breaks down the left. Özil’s cross is intended for Müller, but after he makes a complete mess of things the ball falls straight into the path of Schürrle who has plenty of time to settle himself with just Lloris to beat. The number nine’s first-time shot is weak, and the French clear their lines. That should have been game over.
83 mins. A second change for Germany as Mario Götze comes on for Özil. It has been another fairly ordinary display by the Arsenal playmaker, who makes his way to the bench.
85 mins. France make their final change as another attacker in the form of Oliver Giroud comes on for Valbuena.
88 mins. The Mannschaft spurn yet another opportunity to kill the game off, and it’s Schürrle again. The Chelsea man has clearly made an impact and has been able to get in behind the French defence, but his finishing has been woeful. This time Müller floats past a tired-looking Evra before sending in a well-directed cross, but Schürrle’s effort is hit straight at Varane.
90+2 mins. A final token substitution for Germany as Khedira makes way for Christoph Kramer.
90+4 mins. Les Bleus make their final thrust, and Benzema manages to find enough time and space for what must surely by the last shot at the German goal. His left-footed effort is on target and a little on the weak side, but Neuer brandishes a strong right hand to push the ball away.
A dramatic finish almost sees France grab a late equaliser, but Karim Benzema is denied by the firm hand of Manuel Neuer
90+5 mins. The referee blows for full time.
In the end, fairly easy game for Germany against opposition that would flatter to deceive. A far more defensive display from the Nationalmannschaft would blunt the French attack, with their leading scorer Benzema reduced to just a couple of dangerous efforts and the dangerous Griezmann. In the end it has been a good old-fashioned victory, with the winner coming from a well-crafted set piece.
So there we have it. For the fourth tournament in succession, Halbfinale!
v France, Estádio do Maracanã, Rio de Janeiro (Quarter-Final) 04.07.2014
Hummels 13. / –
Germany: Neuer – Lahm (c), Boateng, Hummels, Höwedes – Schweinsteiger, Khedira – Kroos (90+2. Kramer), Özil (83. Götze), Müller – Klose (69. Schürrle)
France: Lloris (c) – Debuchy, Varane, Sakho (72. Koscielny), Evra – Cabaye (73. Rémy) – Pogba, Matuidi – Valbuena (85. Giroud), Benzema, Griezmann
Referee: Néstor Pitana (Argentina)
Assistants: Hernán Maidana, Juan Pablo Belatti (Argentina)
Fourth Official: Jonas Eriksson (Sweden)
Fifth Official: Mathias Klasenius (Sweden)
Yellow Cards: Khedira 54., Schweinsteiger 80. / –
Red Cards: – / –
Ball Possession: 50% / 50%
Attempts on Target: 6 / 9
Attempts off Target: 2 / 4
Corners: 3 / 5
Fouls Committed: 18 / 15
Man of the Match: Mats Hummels