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There is that scene in Steven Spielberg’s classic movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Indiana Jones opens the Well of Souls to find a pit full of vipers, cobras and other nasties. “Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?” said our rueful hero, and that is how Gareth Southgate and his England players might have felt on Wednesday night upon learning, after a night of extraordinary twists and turns, that they will have to overcome their long-time tournament nemesis if they are to end 55 years of hurt.
For a while on a rain soaked night in Munich, it looked like Germany would not only not be England’s opponents at Wembley next Tuesday but out of the tournament altogether. Hungary were magnificent and, having eventually surrendered the lead they had fought so hard to keep when Kai Havertz cancelled out Adam Szalai’s stunning opener, they recovered to restore their advantage within 91 seconds of Germany equalising courtesy of Andras Schafer.
But Leon Goretzka’s goal six minutes from time ensured Germany avoided the ignominy of exiting back to back tournaments at the group stage for the first time in their history after their World Cup debacle in 2018 to set up a mouthwatering contest against the country they just love to torment on the big stage.
What’s that you say? This Germany are beatable? Well, yes, they probably are, and Hungary illustrated how to neutralise their wingbacks, shut down space and break at pace, not least with that emphatic first goal. What’s that you say? England are now on the right side of the draw and cannot meet any of France, Belgium, Portugal, Italy or Spain until the final at Wembley on July 11? Well, yes, again you would be right.
But the problem is it is Germany who stand between these players and a fairly inviting shot at immortality. You know, the side we always lose to on penalties, the team we have not beaten in a knockout game since the 1966 World Cup final at Wembley, England's last and only taste of international glory. Ah, but we have home advantage again?
Well, indeed, but did we not at Euro 96, too, and look what happened then? No one, of course, will need to remind Southgate about that particular tournament. The England manager, then a defender with Aston Villa, missed a penalty in that fateful semi-final shootout and, as much as ensuring his tactics are sound and his selection is right, he will also have to spend the coming days trying to free his players’ minds of the psychological baggage that comes with playing Germany.
Anyway, enough of the scaremongering. Germany may have dismantled Portugal 4-2 in their previous outing but they got lucky against Hungary, who made them look quite ordinary for long periods of a game you could not take your eyes off. While Hungary may have finished bottom of Group F as everyone anticipated, they did not accept their fate quietly.
They had shut out Portugal for 83 minutes and led the world champions France for 65 minutes and came within six minutes here of pulling off an extraordinary upset against the three time European champions. Hungary’s coach, Marco Rossi, is Italian born and his side are well drilled in the arts of catenaccio but their approach was about more than defending deep in numbers and squeezing the space in which Germany could manoeuvre.
Hungary were determined to spring the counter attack when the opportunity arose and there was no more vivid illustration of that than Szalai’s goal. After Matthias Ginter’s pass was cut out by Szalai, Laszlo Kleinheisler picked up possession and fed the artful Roland Sallai, who swept the ball out to Loic Nego on Hungary’s right before receiving the ball back. Germany were on the backfoot but it still required an audacious pass of unerring accuracy from Freiburg’s Sallai to penetrate Joachim Low’s back line and a perfectly timed run between centre-backs from Szalai to elude Ginter and Mats Hummels. Having done that, Mainz striker Szalai then had the composure to stoop and head low into the corner.
Germany did have chances - Hummels heading against a crossbar and Ginter shooting straight at Peter Gulacsi - but they looked short of ideas and only a mistake from Hungary’s goalkeeper offered them a route back into the game. When Toni Kroos whipped in a free-kick, Gulacsi rushed out to meet the ball and missed it, allowing Hummels to head towards goal where Chelsea’s Havertz nodded in on the byline.
It was harsh on a Hungary side who had neutered so many of Germany’s threats but, 91 seconds later, they were back in front after a long ball forward from kick-off was not dealt with. Szalai stabbed the ball in behind for Schafer to chase ahead. Manuel Neuer raced out but Schafer got to the ball first, bravely heading it past the Germany goalkeeper despite the risk of a heavy collision.
Suddenly, from the depths of despair, Hungary’s dream was alive again. Germany, though, seldom know they were beaten and when it mattered most, they found a way back thanks largely to a trio of Low’s substitutions. After a nimble piece of wing play from Jamal Musiala, Bayern Munich’s German born Chelsea academy graduate drilled a pass into Goretzka, who laid the ball off for Timo Werner. The Chelsea striker’s shot was blocked but the ball ricocheted back to Goretzka to lash a shot home.
Agony for Hungary. Sheer relief for Germans. And, no doubt, a sense of familiar foreboding from England.
Germany (3-4-2-1): Neuer (Bayern Munich) 6; Ginter (Borussia Monchengladbach) 5, Hummels (Borussia Dortmund) 7, Rudiger (Chelsea) 6; Kimmich (Bayern Munich) 6, Gundogan (Manchester City) 5, Kroos (Real Madrid) 7, Gosens (Atalanta) 5; Sane (Bayern Munich) 5, Havertz (Chelsea) 7; Gnabry (Bayern Munich) 5.
Hungary (5-3-2): Gulacsi (RB Leipzig) 6; Nego (Fehervar) 7, Botka (Ferencvaros) 8, Orban (RB Leipzig) 8, At Szalai (Fenerbahce) 8, Fiola (Fehervar) 7; Kleinheisler (Osijek) 7, Nagy (Bristol City) 7, Schafer (DAC) 8; Sallai (Freiburg) 8, Ad Szalai (Mainz) 8.