Well, they did it again. It’s four on the trot now – a record. Germany have not missed a World Cup semi-final date this century: 2002, 2006, 2010, now 2014.
It was 1998, in France, when they last failed to be in the competition in the final week, and they will be there again, in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday. And back here, in the Maracana Stadium, one last time a week on Sunday? There is no reason why not.
Germany did not have the best chances, or necessarily play the best football, but they were excellent in possession, decisive and sharp at key defensive moments and found a way to win, as the best teams do. As Germany do, so often, in fact.
That the goal came from Mats Hummels, a bold selection by coach Joachim Low who also abandoned his false nine system and restored Philipp Lahm to full-back, merely adds to the evidence that Germany are World Cup naturals in a way other countries – you know who – are not.
France have a good record of going deep into the competition once beyond the first round, too. but they met their match here.
Germany’s defensive shield was set up too efficiently to let them pass, despite the best efforts of Mathieu Valbuena, Antoine Griezmann and Karim Benzema. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer was exceptional, again, on what was his 50th international appearance.
There was a lot of French pressure in the second-half, but the best chance still fell to Germany. When Mesut Ozil broke down the left flank, his cross sat perfectly for Thomas Muller, who should have claimed Germany’s second and took the last remaining tension from the game. Instead, he missed his kick and the ball fell to substitute Andre Schurrle who could not continue his run of five goals in consecutive internationals. Hugo Lloris saved with his feet.
This was far from the most impressive German performance of this World Cup. Yet that, in its way, makes it all the more impressive.
This is a team that cuts a path through, even in adversity; that came to Rio de Janeiro with seven players suffering a viral illness, yet didn’t even pack its big suitcases for the journey home, because it had no intention of departing early. Confident? Arrogant? Check the record. They have every reason to be both. There have been 13 World Cups since 1966 and Germany have made the last four in ten of them. England, the other finalists that year: one.
It was an outcome that vindicated Low in so many ways. His changes worked, most particularly the reintroduction of Hummels for Per Mertesacker. Low worked out that France’s greatest threat came with pace and the ball over the top and that Mertesacker would be ill-equipped to deal with this. He was right. In addition, Hummels scored the only goal of the game and made a vital block. Tactically, it was a full house.
France had the best chances of the first-half, but Germany secured the all-important goal. That it came from a header and a set-piece is rather fitting.
This was the most ordinary game of the knock-out rounds so far and, after the fireworks of the last 16, probably felt something of an anti-climax. Yet that is to deny Germany’s mastery of tournament football, of game management, of getting a nose in front and staying there.
France have been lively in Brazil and even German hero Michael Ballack feared the worst. He said if his countrymen were not at their best would go out. He was wrong. Germany weren’t great, but it is France who are going home. Yes, it would be nice if every match could go off like a 4th of July parade – but there is enormous merit in what Germany did here, too.
Hummel’s goal came in the 12th minute, from a straightforward free-kick that found France’s defence wanting. Toni Kroos whipped the ball in and Hummels got the better of Raphael Varane – so impressive until now – to head past the helpless Lloris.
A reasonable penalty shout in the 25th minute aside – Mathieu Debuchy certainly appeared to pull Miroslav Klose’s shirt, but the fall was needlessly theatrical and did the case for the prosecution few favours – the best of the game belonged to France. Yet Germany’s ease in possession was to be admired, as was their measured game-plan and, once again, the performance of Neuer.
He was talked of as Germany’s new sweeper after the match with Algeria, when he appeared to spend much of his time patrolling the outfield area behind the defensive high line, and that seems to be more deliberate ploy than happy accident.
Low deserves credit for recognising that Neuer is as much footballer as goaltender and can allow Germany to play in a different way.
Many years ago, Malcolm Allison said that the change in the backpass rule would make football evolve so that a goalkeeper would need to be as capable with his feet as any defender, but Neuer appears to be the first to truly support this.
His skills were not required as much this time but he remained engaged and alive to the French danger. It also helps that when needed to perform conventional duties he is about the best around, too. A professional rush goalie? We could be seeing the first of a breed.
Had Benzema found his range in the seventh minute, however, there is probably little Neuer could have done. Valbuena moved superbly to put in a cross for Benzema which the striker should have at least got on target. Germany’s defence does not offer up too many opportunities and it was not until the 34th minute that Neuer needed to fully demonstrate his talent.
Griezmann put in a cross which Valbuena met, forcing a stunning, one-handed save. The ball flew up and dropped for Benzema, but Germany’s massed ranks deflected it over. It was a similar story in the 42nd minute when a fine cross by Patrice Evra – who has looked a different player at this World Cup than he did for Manchester United for much of last season – picked out Benzema only for his header to be blocked by Hummels on its way to goal.
Tuesday’s semi-final will be Low’s second as coach of Germany, and he was also assistant to Jurgen Klinsmann in 2006. He will be aware, though, that he is yet to reach the final itself. The thought of taking the big luggage to Belo Horizonte will not have occurred though?
And as this World Cup approaches it peak with England long departed, you want to know what is funny? The way the Football Association talk about planning for the European Championships in 2016 as if they are the only ones who have thought of it.
Germany do these things differently. Four consecutive World Cup semi-finals. You never know, that might work, too.