History, omens, form, fitness, psychology. Some of many things one has to factor in when attempting to do the impossible – namely, to write a preview for a high-profile football match. I usually try to avoid this sort of thing, but as we approach the final turns of what has been an interesting tournament that has turned out more than a few surprises, avoiding it has become impossible.
Germany versus France. Where do we begin here? While not perhaps as big in the footballing history stakes as Italy, the Netherlands or England, Les Bleus have over the years proved to be a highly competitive rival.
While the Mannschaft have met England eleven times in full competitive internationals, the Netherlands on ten occasions and Italy nine times, they have encountered the French four times.
History Lesson 1. First meeting at the Euros
But in the European Championships? This is a first time meeting. Maybe we can end this preview there… The two geographical neighbours have never met at the Euros, either in the qualifying stage or at the finals. So in terms of tournament history and statistics, there are none.
It is a clean slate, and when the two teams meet at the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille, a new chapter will be written.
Well, scratch that. There have been enough competitive matches between Germany and France to write more than a substantial essay on the fixture – all at World Cup finals. The classic semi-final encounter at the World Cup in Seville in 1982 is worthy of specialist study, for a start.
Two great teams, the horrible story involving Toni Schumacher and Patrick Battiston, Germany’s amazing extra-time comeback from 3-1 behind, and the World Cup’s first dramatic penalty shootout. Sevilla 1982 had it all: skill, nerve, drama and no little controversy.
Klaus Fischer celebrates his goal in the classic Seville semi-final, completing Germany’s miraculous extra-time comeback against France
The other three World Cup encounters were far from shabby either. In 1958 in Sweden, France strolled to a 6-3 third place playoff triumph in Göteborg courtesy of a master class from record goalscorer Just Fontaine. In 1986, a talented French outfit, fresh from knocking out favourites Brazil in the quarter-finals, were eliminated 2-0 by a solid and professional German team. Then, in Rio de Janiero in 2014, a single Mats Hummels goal separated the two teams in a tight quarter-final encounter. We all know what happened after that.
So here we have the first statistic: France have not beaten Germany in a competitive international since 1958.
History Lesson 2. The overall record
Overall, the Mannschaft’s record against les Bleus is not that fantastic. France are one of the handful of teams to have a better win-loss ratio than the Germans, and the current record stands at ten German wins (including the penalty shootout victory in Seville, which some record-keepers count as a draw), five draws and twelve defeats.
The goal tally is identical at forty-three apiece, and in all of the twenty-seven matches played since the first meeting in 1931 – a 1-0 win for the French – there have been no red cards.
The two teams have played once since Germany’s victory at the World Cup in Brazil, but on what was an otherwise ordinary midweek evening in November, the match at the Stade de France will forever be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
France would triumph 2-0 with goals from Olivier Giroud and Pierre-André Gignac, but the prestige fixture would be overshadowed by the bomb blasts outside the stadium, the start of a night of terrorist horror that saw 130 people murdered, including 89 at the Bataclan nightclub in the centre of Paris.
There had been much talk of the Euro 2016 hosts taking on the world champions before the match, but by the end of the evening football was pretty much a footnote.
History Lesson 3. Germany in semi-finals, and against tournament hosts
Germany (and before that, West Germany) are the most successful team in the World Cup in terms of semi-final appearances – they have made the last four on a staggering thirteen occasions out of a possible sixteen, and the meeting in Marseille against France will be the eighth time that have reached the semi-finals at the Euros (though it is also worth noting that they made the final in 1980, when there was no semi-final stage).
Of their previous five Euro semi-finals, the Mannschaft have won three (v Sweden 1992, v England 1996 and v Turkey 2008) and lost two (v Netherlands 1988 and v Italy 2012).
The record against the hosts in major tournaments is even more impressive. Since a 2-0 win against Chile in 1962, Germany have played the ultimate party poopers, dispatching the Gastgeber no fewer than ten times.
Chile (World Cup 1962, 1R 2-0)
Belgium (Euro 1972, SF 2-1)
Yugoslavia (Euro 1976, SF 4-2)
Spain (World Cup 1982, 2R 2-1)
Mexico (World Cup 1986, QF 0-0, 4-1 PSO)
Sweden (Euro 1992, SF 3-2)
England (Euro 1996, SF 1-1 6-5 PSO)
South Korea (World Cup 2002, SF 1-0)
Austria (Euro 2008, 1R 1-0)
Brazil (World Cup 2014, SF 7-1)
Of these ten victories against host countries, an amazing six have come in semi-finals. The last of these would come just two years ago in Belo Horizonte against Brazil, where Jogi Löw’s men registered their stunning 7-1 win – arguably one of the greatest moments in German football history.
The last time Germany played a host nation on a major tournament final. One of the most memorable days in the history of the Nationalmannschaft
Germany’s ten wins stands against host nations is contrast to just two defeats, the most well-known being the World Cup final against England fifty years ago. Interestingly, the Mannschaft’s first ever encounter with the tournament host was in 1958 when Sepp Herberger’s team were controversially beaten 3-1 by Sweden.
Their opponents in the following third-place playoff? France.
So, in addition to not being beaten by France in international competition for fifty-eight years, Germany have not been beaten by any tournament host in half a century.
On the other side of the coin, France have some pretty solid records going for them too. The have won their last two competitions they have hosted – the Euros in 1984 and the World Cup in 1998 – and they have not been beaten at home in any tournament finals match since 1960, when they were beaten 2-0 in the now-defunct third place playoff game by Czechoslovakia.
Since that defeat in – yes, you’ve guessed it, Marseille – the French have played sixteen tournament finals matches on home soil, winning fifteen (including a penalty shootout victory against Italy in quarter-finals the 1998 World Cup) and drawing just one – a goalless draw against Switzerland in their second group stage match at this tournament.
Until drawing that blank, Les Bleus had won a staggering thirteen home tournament games on the bounce – including that penalty shootout. Not even Germany can match that.
(Out of interest to all of you statisticians and number-crunching geeks that are still reading this, the Mannschaft’s longest unbeaten record in home tournament finals matches stands at seven – the last four matches of the World Cup in 1974 following the first group phase defeat in Hamburg by the GDR, and the first three matches of Euro 1988 until the semi-final loss against the Netherlands – also in Hamburg).
This all shows that either side could consult the record books and massage the figures to “predict” a triumph in Marseille – which probably suggests that all of this pre-match chit-chat is just a load of old nonsense just to make us feel good and counter pre-match nerves. Records are there to be broken, as Germany’s defeat of Italy illustrated perfectly.
That said, when it all came down to a penalty shootout in Bordeaux, it was like that old riddle of a cat jumping off a roof with a slice of buttered toast on its back.
If history cannot be relied upon in making predictions, then omens are even more sketchy.
We have already touched on one possible omen. The last time France lost a home match in an international tournament, the venue was the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille. Could their long unbeaten run come to an end in the modern, revamped stadium against Germany?
Having said this, France did beat Portugal 3-2 after extra time in the Euro 1984 semi-final in Marseille, and disposed of South Africa 3-0 in the World Cup group phase in 1998… So if the series did not end on either of those two occasions, one has to ask why it should have to come to an end now.
In addition to the fact that Germany have not last to France since 1958 and have not lost a to a host country since 1966, we can also point to the fact that forty-two years to the day before the meeting in Marseille, the Mannschaft beat the Netherlands 2-1 to win the World Cup final.
On the other hand, on 7th July 2010 – six years to the day before – Germany were beaten 1-0 by Spain in the World Cup semi-final.
Let us choose to forget about the omens, then.
Both teams come into the semi-final unbeaten, having showed sparks of brilliance and plenty of ordinariness. We all know about the German approach to the last four: two patchy games against Ukraine and Poland, a better showing against Northern Ireland where the opposition ‘keeper had a rare afternoon, a sparkling display against Slovakia in the second round, and then a long battle of attrition against the Italians in the last eight.
While Germany’s attack is not exactly firing as it was in Brazil in 2014 and striker Mario Gómez is now having to watch the rest of the tournament from the sidelines, the key to the Mannschaft’s game this time around has been their solid defence. They have only conceded one goal in their five matches, and that was from the penalty spot.
France meanwhile have conceded four goals in their five matches, but had also gone through their first four without conceding in open play.
Key to France’s success has been their ability to grab been last-gasp victories; their opening game against Romania was won with a minute to spare when the Romanians had looked good value for a 1-1 draw, and a frustrating encounter with pre-tournament group minnows Albania was only settled with with a goal in the final minute and a flattering second six minutes into injury time.
The hosts recovered from conceding an early penalty to beat the Republic of Ireland 2-1 in he second round, before finally switching on in a stunning four-goal display against Iceland in the last eight – thought they did concede their first goal from open play, which was quickly followed by a second as Didier Deschamps’ team ran out 5-2 winners against the tiring Icelanders.
While France have conceded those four goals to Germany’s one, they have found the back of the net eleven times to the Mannschaft’s six – though almost half of these did come at once.
France’s defence is suspect, and their is attack capable of turning on the style; Germany’s defence has been solid, while their misfiring attack has struggled to put chances away. It really is too tight to call – tighter even than the last competitive meeting between the two teams in Rio.
Having gone through their first four matches without any injury problems – shock, horror – Germany suffered three at once during the quarter-final against Italy. Gómez was forced off with a hamstring and is now out of the tournament, while both Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger are doubtful.
With Mats Hummels suspended for the semi-final after picking up a second yellow card, it is going to be a completely different German team that takes to the field in Marseille. There could be a return for Skhodran Mustafi in the back four, and it is likely that one of Emre Can or Julian Weigl will fill slot into the defensive midfield alongside Toni Kroos.
Up front, the coach will be under pressure not to return to the false nine concept, with Thomas Müller moving into the front-man role – or perhaps André Schürrle. A really left-field choice to roll back the years? Lukas Podolski.
We are going to have lots of interesting moments before we see that final team sheet, and it doesn’t hurt by throwing in some of the more crazy permutations.
As for the French, they have no worries whatsoever. Everybody in their squad is fit, nobody is suspended, and Monsieur Deschamps can pick any team he likes. We are just hoping that he picks the wrong one.
With things so nicely balanced, both coaches – and to a large extent the media commentators – are keeping their cards firmly to their chests. If anything, both sides are emphasising just how good/dangerous/in form the opposition are.
In this respect I am no different. The German team has what it takes to beat the hosts and then win the final against either Portugal or Wales, but the French are without doubt the biggest obstacle in the Mannschaft’s mission to claim a record-setting fourth European crown.
The records can be bent to point in both directions, and it is the same with the omens. The only real difference will be home advantage.
In all of their previous matches there has been something of a home atmosphere for Jogi’s Jungs, but the semi-final promises to be something completely different. There will be plenty of German supporters there, but it will pretty much be a sea of bleu, blanc et rouge.