Thomas Mueller is at it again, and with a few repeat performances, Germany might be too.
Mueller helped deliver a perfect start to Germany's 2014 World Cup campaign, scoring a hat-trick in an impressive 4-0 victory over Portugal in both teams' Group G opener Monday at the Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, Brazil.
The Bayern Munich forward scored twice before half-time as Germany raced to a 3-0 lead over Cristiano Ronaldo's stunned Portugal. Mueller then added Germany's fourth in the second half to polish off one of the tournament's top team displays so far.
Not that this is unfamiliar ground for Die Mannschaft.
Four years ago, the Germans opened their march to the semi-finals with a 4-0 romp over Australia, with Mueller finding the scoresheet. After finishing that tournament with five goals, Mueller now has eight in World Cup matches, a record that only seems likely to improve in Brazil.
Portugal played more than 50 minutes with 10 men following Pepe's first-half dismissal for a headbutt on Mueller. The Iberians also lost full-back Fabio Coentrao and Hugo Almeida to injuries and must now hope to produce positive results against the United States and Ghana in their next two group matches.
For Germany, victory not only sent a message to the rest of Group G, but perhaps also to the entire field. Die Mannschaft are hoping to win a fourth World Cup this summer, a feat that would represent the next step in a progression that has seen the side come close to international glory multiple times in the past dozen years.
Having reached the World Cup final in 2002 before being eliminated at the semi-final stage in 2006 and 2010, Germany are once again among the favourites to advance deep into the tournament.
Only time will tell if Germany's time has finally come, but in beating Portugal, Joachim Low's side has made the perfect start. Mueller, meanwhile, has installed himself as one of the favourites to win the tournament's Golden Boot award as top goalscorer.
Portugal were also considered one of the favourites, entering the tournament ranked fourth in the world by FIFA. But in addition to suffering a demoralising loss, Portugal will likely play at least the next match without both Pepe and Coentrao, two or their four starting defenders.
Both teams posed a threat going forward early in the match, and Germany nearly went ahead in the eighth minute as Portugal goalkeeper Rui Patricio's poor clearance rolled straight to Sami Khedira in an inviting position. But with the goal gaping, Khedira could only fire wide.
Portugal's relief was only momentary, though. Two minutes later, Mario Gotze drew a penalty for the Germans after being hauled down inside the box by Joao Pereira. After a delay during which Pereira was booked, Mueller slotted in the spot-kick low and to his left to make it 1-0 in the 12th minute.
Portugal came close to an equaliser in the 25th minute, with Nani blasting a powerful shot narrowly over the bar. But seven minutes later, Portugal instead found themselves two goals behind as Germany doubled their advantage.
Moments after Gotze had a shot deflected off target, Toni Kroos curled in a corner from the right. Mats Hummels, whose momentum carried him toward the goal, met the ball along the edge of the six-yard box and powered his header past Patricio to make it 2-0 in the 32nd minute.
Portugal had another chance in the 36th minute, as Eder headed over the bar from Joao Moutinho's corner. Once again, though, the missed chance was followed quickly by disaster. And this time the blow was self-inflicted.
After playing a pass inside his own half in the 37th minute, Portugal defender Pepe caught Mueller with an arm and the German reacted theatrically, throwing himself to the ground while holding his face. Incensed, Pepe leaned down and headbutted Mueller, drawing a red card and reducing Portugal to 10 men for more than 50 minutes.
Germany took advantage of their numerical advantage quickly, with Mueller scoring his second goal in the first minute of stoppage time.
Danger seemed to have been averted when Bruno Alves met Kroos' cross into Portugal's box, but Mueller stepped in front to stop Alves' attempted clearance, knocking the ball to the pitch inside the box. The German then reacted quickest, dispatching a deflected shot in off Patricio for a 3-0 half-time lead.
Already facing a difficult task, Portugal almost fell further behind early in the second half. Gotze sliced the defence open in the 51st minute with an angled pass to Mesut Ozil on the left, but Ozil was unable to beat Patricio with his low shot.
More bad news hit Portugal moments later as Coentrao left the field on a stretcher in the 65th minute after suffering a leg injury.
Four minutes later, the Germans nearly struck again, hitting Portugal on a counter. Substitute Andre Schurrle led the move, crossing from the right for Gotze, who cut inside before seeing his shot deflected off target.
Germany had an injury scare in the 73rd minute as Hummels limped off with a knee injury following an aerial challenge. He was replaced by Shkodran Mustafi.
That was only a blip for Germany, however, as Low's side made it 4-0 in the 78th minute.
Schurrle was involved again, playing the ball from the right flank into the middle, which Patricio parried directly into Mueller's path. From there, the Bayern Munich man only had to tap in to finish off his hat-trick.
Portugal were finished as well, and even Ronaldo's stinging free-kick in the second minute of stoppage time was unable to breach Germany's goal. Manuel Neuer punched it clear to preserve the clean sheet—and a dominant, statement-making win.
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|Portugal Player Ratings|
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Mueller, a veteran of Euro 2012 and the 2010 World Cup, said pressure does not affect him. As quoted by BBC Sport, he said:
I've been involved in the last three major tournaments so I'm used to the pressure.
But to score three goals in one game - that's pretty amazing, and the goals just got better and better. It's fantastic, but the merit also goes to the rest of the team.
I just felt a blow from Pepe's fist, but I can't really remember much of what happened after.
Winning, according to Low, was Germany's "only option. Speaking to FIFA.com, the coach said:
Winning was our only option and the team went out there with that in mind. Thomas (Mueller) did really well in attack and created a lot of space for us. We dominated the midfield and got the ball up to the forwards, where we were very fast. We were compact and stopped Portugal from launching counter-attacks. The second half was different, because the main thing for us was to keep possession of the ball and hit them on the break. (Jerome) Boateng also did a very good of marking Cristiano Ronaldo.
Portugal coach Paulo Bento lamented his side's poor start, telling FIFA.com that the match was "fairly even" until the first goal:
The first half was the problem for us. With the exception of the first few minutes, when we made a slow start, we were pretty much in control of things, and it was a fairly even game until the first goal. In the second half we just tried to cope with being a man down the best we could. It’s very strange to have someone sent off in a game like this. That’s pretty much what the match hinged on.
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