It’s starting. It’s really heating up now. We have arrived at the section of the tournament when, almost with trepidation, the suffix “final” is added. The quarter finals are here and what a blockbuster of a match we have first up. Germany and France, a knockout matchup that drips with aristocratic elegance. It’s strange, both these nations have a sort of old fashioned-ness about them, they are former winners of the World Cup, of course. But the last time one of them won it, France in 1998, seems just long enough ago that the air around this clash is one of blue-blooded, but aged warriors. A little like the way you saw Real Madrid in the Champions League (until this season, obviously), both these nations glorious histories are just beginning to fade into the mist of the past. Or maybe it’s because I’m 24, and the only memory of France ’98 I have is sitting on my dad’s bed watching him wince and Paul Ince’s meekly struck penalty, and although not really knowing what was going on, immediately recognising the richly infamous relationship England have with penalty shoot outs.
But I digress. France and Germany are indeed preparing for battle, and everything points to this match being a vigorous and breathless encounter overflowing with pacey attacking and muscular midfielders. It’s been 8 years since France put out a decent team capable of not self-destructing, and this team is certainly decent enough to beat the Germans. Karim Benzema, a surly tempestuous presence, seems to have shrugged arrogantly and decided that he may as well become the most important player on his nation’s team. Griezmann is up there with Neymar and Robben in the slick-winger stakes in this World Cup. He is quick, of mind and foot, and will be praying Jogi Low decides to play Jerome Boateng at right back. Mathieu Valbuena runs powerfully, with such a low center of gravity, and has been performing well so far in the tournament (albeit against opposition not quite on Germany’s level). The reason this attacking trio has flourished however is partly due to the most solid of midfield foundations it is resting on. Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi and Yohann Cabaye are an archetypal midfield three; Cabaye the mercurial creator, forward thinking and flighty, Matuidi, the hustler, a hard-tackling bulldog, and then Pogba, a supreme athlete garnished with a sprinkling of technical brilliance, who can be a disciplined defence-shield, but can surge forward devastatingly, ala Yaya Toure. It is a most accomplished structure. The defence is largely solid as well, maybe Debuchy being the weak link. Varane and Koscielny have formed a strong partnership, and Patrice Evra has quietly (which can only be good) been going about his left-back business with modesty and ease. Lloris is an excellent keeper and Giroud could be an effective super-sub late in the game. They will take some beating.
Intuitively though, it feels like a bad idea to bet against the Germans, particularly this German team, because they are, and it is, so good. They wobbled against Algeria, but then again, teams that win when playing badly are always dangerous. There is an issue for the Germans, with Gotze playing badly, Schurrle might well come into the side to play on the left. Muller, that gangly genius, will move upfront, with Ozil playing out of position, but still creating chances, on the right. They always have Klose to rely on as well, and he will be itching to get that record goalscorer’s goal. Lahm will either play in midfield in Low thinks Schweini and Khedira are not defensive enough, but it would be a risk against the French. Playing your best fullback at fullback might just be the best option. Neuer will be sweeping again, one presumes, and if not, just making incredible saves and generally being a boss. It must be nice to be able to harness a history of organisation, stoicism and confidence at this level (England look on jealously), and it must breathe a sense of poise through the side.
So the table is set, the candles lit, and the wine decanted. On to the game…
Well, the match turned out to be a fizzer, which is unsurprising when you consider the conditions under which it was played. It was stiflingly hot in the Maracana, and, with the stakes so high, it was hardly a stretch of the imagination to think that the match would be decided by fine margins and scrappy goals. The touted France midfield started very slowly indeed, Matuidi struggled to get into the game at all, and Pogba and Cabaye seemed content to rely on dinked balls over the top to Valbuena, Greizmann and Benzema in the first half, only 1 of which created a meaningful chance. The German midfield of Khedira, Schweinsteiger and Kroos began the match determined to show up their Gallic opponents, with Khedira in particular sweeping forwards, making the defence/attack transitions look effortless. To the surprise of many, Klose started up front, with Muller and Ozil flanking him, but the old feller may have been struggling with the conditions. He had many more touches and passes than Benzema, but the stat sheet defied his apparent anonymity. 13 minutes into the first half, Evra was beginning to look like an attacking threat down the left, starting a sequence that ended with Benzema shooting wide, then Germany, almost predictably, scored in efficient fashion.
A free kick was won on the German left hand side, and Kroos flighted a ball into the box. The ball seemed to float slowly through the air, despite travelling a considerable distance, and this allowed Mats Hummels (an apparent goal machine with two in the Cup so far now) to edge Varane too far under the ball, then nod it over himself and past Lloris. It was a wonderfully composed bit of head-work. He sprinted off to the corner flag, aggressively celebrating. It was an early gut punch for the French, just as they were starting to wake up. The game was a little chippy after that, settling a little too much, and France’s best chance occurred 20 minutes after the goal. A chipped ball to Greizmann was collected and then crossed for Valbuena, who spiked a volleyed shot across Neuer. The German’s considerable arm was more than match for it, and he scooped it into what could have been a tap-in position for Benzema. The Madrid striker was unable to control it and shoot before it was hacked away. It was France’s only chance of note in the half. Already there were signs that this game might fizzle out.
The majority of the second half was utterly unworthy of any mention. Both teams seemed to start in a sprightly manner, both midfields unconcerned with stopping transitioning attacks. But the final elements were missing from most of the forward surges. It was only when the clock ticked over to the 80th minute or so that France realised how urgent their situation was and began playing in a fashion befitting it. They brought on Remy and Giroud, and it fell mainly to Hummels, Schweinsteiger and Neuer to quell the danger, which they did with aplomb. All game Schweinsteiger had defied the sapping heat by rushing around tackling and blocking like a maniac. Hummels himself made a number of important blocks, while making time for a potentially embarrassing moment by almost scoring at the wrong end, but he falcon’d wide. Schurrle, who had replaced Klose, had two gilt-edged chances to kill the game for Germany, but shot meekly and weakly both times. Neuer finished the game in glorious fashion, making an immense reaction save to deny Benzema at the last. The game didn’t thrill like a lot of us thought it would, but what it did show is that Germany have all the grit and composure to win this World Cup.