After the Champions League and the conquest of la décima, the days leading into the World Cup continued to be dominated by Real Madrid. If the public at large were worried about the health of the lord of the Bernabeu, Cristiano Ronaldo, ahead of the festivities in Brazil, then Germany were pinning considerable hopes on one of his deputies in the Spanish capital.
Sami Khedira only just made it. With Joachim Loew keeping the door open as long as possible, the midfielder came back into view in the domestic season’s home straight having – in the strictest medical sense – recovered from the cruciate knee ligament injury he suffered on international duty the previous November.
A pair of La Liga matches later and there Khedira was, pressed into action in the Champions League final against the notoriously indefatigable Atletico Madrid, with Xabi Alonso banned. In a pitiless scrap in the centre of the pitch, he looked lost, and was withdrawn after less than an hour. Loew must have winced.
Khedira could easily have gone the way of Radamel Falcao or Costa Rica’s Bryan Oviedo, just a few steps of recovery behind him. Closer to home the failure of international team-mate Mario Gomez to recover anywhere near his best after his own knee problem, leading to the Fiorentina striker’s exclusion, must have occupied the mind.
That Carlo Ancelotti included Khedira in Lisbon was at least indicative of his importance, something that the coach had not been shy in volunteering in the couple of months before. Against the odds – and contrary to the evidence of the Champions League final – Khedira has emerged as one of Germany’s key performers as they have surged into the final.
Tuesday night did not just see a tournament pinnacle – his performance was more the stuff of career pinnacles. Khedira was quite magnificent in Belo Horizonte’s Minerão as Germany powered home. If much was made – and with fair reason – of the crucial absences of Neymar and Thiago Silva from Luiz Felipe Scolari’s line-up, it was the midfield in which Loew’s men truly ratified their superiority.
In partnership with the dazzling Toni Kroos (and what a combination he promises to be with his new club-mate once his move to the Bernabeu is confirmed) and Bastian Schweinsteiger, Khedira helped trim Luiz Gustavo and Fernandinho to pieces as the trio’s metronomic passing and intelligent movement made them look as if they had recently landed from another planet. The 27-year-old helped himself to a goal and an assist, and deserved to do so.
In truth, his rise to brilliance was almost – almost – as jaw-dropping as Germany’s general level of majesty. There had been indications of what Khedira’s presence could mean earlier in the competition. He was back close to his prowling best in the tournament opener against Portugal – and a good job he was too, in the absence of Schweinsteiger, another fitness question mark at the base of Germany’s midfield, with the pair’s questionable fettle casting a huge shadow over Die Nationalmannschaft’s ambitions up to now.
Sure enough, Khedira’s peak against Portugal was followed by a trough against a much fitter, more energetic Ghana team. After 70 minutes of increasingly chasing shadows, he was hooked with Loew’s side 2-1 down. Sitting out the next match, against the United States, one suspected that Khedira’s physical condition would limit his influence, or that we’d have to accept him as a hit-and-miss option for the next weeks.
How wrong that suspicion was. The beginning of the knockout rounds, against Algeria, fully confirmed his importance. When he entered the fray with 20 minutes left in normal time, something changed. Germany had floundered, looked twitchy and tense, but with Philipp Lahm returning to right-back and Khedira patrolling midfield, they recovered their composure. It was a grip they maintained in the quarter-final with France, a more comfortable triumph than the one-goal scoreline suggested.
It has been a natural return to a stage that suits Khedira down to the ground. It was the last World Cup that fully propelled him from promising talent onto the global stage. There was a lucky break to get him there – in fact, an unlucky one for Michael Ballack, with Kevin Prince Boateng’s infamous tackle in the FA Cup final ruling Germany’s talismanic, then-Chelsea midfielder out of the tournament in South Africa. Gasping the opportunity to join Real Madrid from Stuttgart (a move that many thought overly ambitious at the time) straight after a successful competition, he has never looked back.
Preparing for his own debut campaign at the Bernabeu, Jose Mourinho had hand-picked Khedira as one of his desired key signings even before the 2010 World Cup began, something that Diego Torres claims in his rather uncomplimentary recent biography of the Portuguese gave him significant early credit within the club’s corridors.
Khedira joined a bloated Real Madrid squad, particularly chubbily stocked in his preferred central midfield area, yet quickly rose to the top of the pecking order. Hardly a dressing-room loudmouth, he is a character of unobtrusive substance. He captained Horst Hrubesch’s European U21 Championship winners in 2009. Manuel Neuer, Mesut Ozil, Mats Hummels, Benedikt Hoewedes and Jerome Boateng were alongside Khedira in that side, and he will feel the pressure to finally deliver a trophy at senior level as much as anyone. None of these players flinched against Brazil, certainly.
His goal in Belo Horizonte may have ultimately been window dressing, but when Khedira does score, it tends to be significant. Just over two years ago, Khedira’s goal restored Germany’s lead in the Euro 2012 quarter-final in Gdansk after Greece’s unlikely fightback. Even further back, as a 20-year-old in 2007, he headed the final day winner against Energie Cottbus that gave Stuttgart an improbable Bundesliga title win.
Those strikes are rare enough that we should not expect another one on Sunday in the Maracanã. Yet Khedira’s excellent work in Brazil is just one step from being completed. He will never have the profile of his club-mate Ronaldo but if Germany close out a World Cup triumph, Khedira’s role and resurrection will be a feat to rank alongside many of those posted by his more illustrious colleague.
Andy Brassell is covering the World Cup finals for us - you can find him on Twitter @andybrassell
- Sports & Recreation
- Sami Khedira
- Real Madrid
- Joachim Loew
- Cristiano Ronaldo