It was a game of two halves, as the cliché goes.
An open, entertaining first period, followed by a sluggish, uninspired second as both sides wilted somewhat in the early afternoon heat, which Joachim Loew acknowledged by saying "fortunately the other matches are played later in the day".
France had entered the clash of Europe’s titans buoyed by a team spirit unseen since 2006, when senior players discarded the ‘wisdom’ of coach Raymond Domenech and inspired themselves to the final. Germany, meanwhile, were toiling, scraping out wins and draws against inferior opposition.
But, as Loew hinted before the match, the Germans are in this for the long haul, conserving energy, playing with slightly different tactics to previous tournaments, seeking to dominate possession, press high up the pitch, tire their opponents.
That’s how it panned out on Friday as Germany – thanks to a header from man-of-the-match Mats Hummels – scraped past France with a 1-0 victory that had all the hallmarks of Spain’s performances in South Africa and Poland/Ukraine. Plus the heat.
As Germany made changes following their much-criticised extra-time win over Algeria, Per Mertesacker – who struggled but also appeared to pay the price for comments made in the press – was one of three players dropped, along with Mario Goetze and Shdokran Mustafi. Mustafi, the young right-back, was actually fairly competent in his duties in Porto Alegre, but it was decided that Philipp Lahm would be better deployed in his natural role, with Mats Hummels returning in central defence alongside Jerome Boateng. Miroslav Klose was also given a chance to extend his goal-scoring record, as he was handed a start as Joachim Loew shifted Thomas Mueller to the right.
France, meanwhile, did as expected, taking Olivier Giroud out of the firing line and giving a start to exciting youngster Antoine Griezmann. That didn't work out in the end. There was another possible selection error too – Laurent Koscielny was benched, and, his replacement, Raphael Varane, was partly responsible for the game’s only goal. Experience was needed against the Germans, but Didier Deschamps trusted his youth.
Perhaps they had prepared for a different Germany XI; certainly most reporters had. It was a bold move by Loew, but not a risky one – after all, these players have plenty of experience working together for Die Mannschaft. It's not as if Klose and Khedira are a pair of young bucks looking to make a name for themselves – their team-mates know them inside out, regardless of recent selections.
Germany have been underwhelming if effective at this World Cup, while France among the entertainers; but Loew’s side started the brightest, as Mueller combined neatly with Klose, who gave them a focal point in attack that had lacked in previous matches.
France took nearly 10 minutes to hit their stride, and when they did it was almost spectacular. A lovely, crisp passing move culminated in a Karim Benzema volley that flashed just wide of the diving Manuel Neuer’s post; warning, if needed, that Germany were facing a formidable opposition.
As Loew pointed out pre-match, Neuer’s positioning higher up the pitch is a deliberate ploy, allowing his centre-halves to push forward. However, France are not Algeria, and they were getting a lot of joy out wide: the ultimately disappointing Griezmann’s run in behind should have yielded a better cross to the unmarked Benzema.
But it was Germany who took the lead, from a trusted set piece. The delivery from Toni Kroos was excellent, dipping on to the head of the returning Hummels, but the marking was poor as Loew celebrated his side’s efficiency with the dead ball. For Hummels, read Carles Puyol.
Mats Hummels celebrates scoring Germany's winning goal against France
It was the engaging, open match everyone had wanted. None of this deep-lying, play-for-penalties nonsense of the second round: both teams wanted to win it in the 90.
Germany, having been rattled by the criticism, were doing exactly what coach and fans had promised – rising to the occasion. France, in spite of Didier Deschamps’ pre-game claims, were feeling the pressure, struggling to cope.
As half-time beckoned, France improved, electing to play to their relative strengths instead of submitting to Germany’s pressure. They should have equalised but for Neuer and Lahm’s blocks from Mathieu Valbuena and Benzema.
In true Spanish style, Germany were seeking to break up the play: in addition to Klose’s simulations, Mueller got in on the act, while Sami Khedira spent an age on the deck after his face was brushed by a football.
But France, having toiled early on, were now making a fist of it, Benzema stinging the palms of Neuer after a fine take and turn. The second half initially continued in this vein, the balance of power shifting towards France.
Now it was Hugo Lloris loitering outside his area as his defenders pushed high up the pitch, pegging Germany back as cries of ‘Allez Les Bleus’ started to ring around the Maracana.
They were getting closer and closer, an errant first touch denying Griezmann a clear run at goal, Valbuena repeating the trick minutes later. Blaise Matuidi was going on those surging drives of his, Varane went close with a header, Germany were pegged back and surely it was a matter of time?
Had Germany pushed too hard in the early afternoon heat? Was this ‘dope-a-rope’ strategy the correct one from Deschamps, as his side grew into the match?
Not really, for France had gone too hard and were now running out of steam, the afternoon sun still blazing over Rio. The match was losing its spark and thus any chance of a turnaround. The neutrals grew restless, the French nervous.
Germany made the first change, replacing the exhausted Klose with Andre Schuerrle, unfortunate not to start after his match-winning turn in the last 16. Seconds later, Mueller flashed a low drive just wide, as that early energy returned to their game.
It came when midfielder Yohan Cabaye was replaced by striker Loic Remy, as France went three up top. There was a touch more zip about them, Benzema's flashing drive valiantly blocked by Hummels, before Neuer palmed away Matuidi’s effort.
A lucky ricochet at a corner almost did for Neuer, landing inches wide of the post, and then – against the run of play, of course – Germany should have killed the game on the break, Lloris saving brilliantly with his legs as Schuerrle looked set to put it to bed.
Time was ticking away and Germany already sensed an opportunity to kill the game, taking the ball into the corners for successive set plays.
With five minutes left Deschamps elected to introduce the battering ram of Olivier Giroud. Why he wasn’t used earlier will remain one of this tournament’s great mysteries. At that point it was better not bringing him on at all and retaining some guile in Valbuena, or bring on an attacking midfielder with some drive or vision? However, Remy Cabella and Moussa Sissoko remained on the bench.
There was a late chance as Benzema forced a smart stop from Neuer at a tight angle, but the day was Germany’s. France go back to the drawing board, although with plenty of positives from this tournament it is likely Deschamps will still be holding the chalk.
And what of Germany? After unconvincing displays earlier in the tournament, they now enter a semi-final with either hosts Brazil or the delirious Colombia.
One match from a final showdown, Argentina the favourites to get there, although the Dutch and Belgians will fancy their chances.
Predicting an all-European final would be premature though – Colombia and Brazil had no struggles maintaining a quick attacking tempo in similar temperatures, and the winner of that match will fancy their chances against the Germans.
But, as they have shown time and time again, write them off at your peril.
- Sports & Recreation