World Cup Daily Digest: Stuttering European Giants Barely Hold Off African Push

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World Cup Daily Digest: Stuttering European Giants Barely Hold Off African Push
AP Images

So there will be at least one European team and at least one South American team in the semi-finals of this consistently surprising, persistently entertaining World Cup.

There will not even be one African team, however, after both the continent's remaining representatives in the competition were knocked out by European opponents on Monday.

Such a turn of events was anticipated, perhaps even expected, but it nearly panned out so differently, as Nigeria and Algeria more than held their own against France and Germany, respectively, before ultimately wilting agonisingly late in the day.

There was a similar pattern to both games. In the early kick-off, France struggled to find the form that eased them to this stage, with Olivier Giroud and Karim Benzema forming an awkward attacking partnership that stunted the flow of their team. As a result, Nigeria quickly gained confidence and ambition, pushing forward and threatening France on the counter-attack.

They could not take their half-chances when they were presented, however, and eventually France withdrew Giroud for winger Antoine Griezmann, a move that altered the flow of the contest. The deadlock was broken when Paul Pogba scored from a header, and France duly rounded off matters late in the day when Joseph Yobo inadvertently flicked a near-post cross past his own goalkeeper.

Nigeria were out, with France the second European representative into the quarter-finals.

"We had a very strong last half an hour with more dynamism and more speed," Didier Deschamps said, per Reuters (via Eurosport.com). "We had space to create chances and we could have scored quite a few times.

"I tried to create some more speed by bringing on Griezmann and we tried to exploit the space with short passes and it worked."

They will now face Germany, who outlasted Algeria in similar fashion later the same day. Again, the European side seemed to struggle with a cumbersome tactical setup in the first half, one that was eventually tweaked at half-time. But the quality of the Fennec Foxes seemed to also catch it by surprise, as the North Africans created opening after opening on the counter-attack.

In the second half, however, Germany solidified noticeably, going on to force goalkeeper Rais M'Bolhi into a number of brilliant saves to ensure parity was maintained. Algeria continued to have chances, but they were fewer and further between, and despite a late flurry from the Germans, the game went to extra time.

In the second minute of the additional 30 minutes, Andre Schurrle scored with an improvised backheel, a strike that felt at the time like it would settle the tie. Algeria, tired from their earlier efforts, struggled to create another clear-cut chance, as Mesut Ozil then added a second in the closing minutes.

Abdelmoumene Djabou then prodded home in added-on time at the end of extra time, but unsurprisingly, there was not enough time for an equaliser.

The wait for an African team to reach the semi-finals of this competition goes on. But the Europeans can guarantee they will have at least one representative in the last four, with Germany and France now set to meet on Friday.

Despite their struggles, France arguably remain the continent's strongest hope—even above the Netherlands, who are in the other half of the draw. They will be confident in their chances of disposing of Germany, especially after seeing how disorganised Germany's midfield appeared to be for much of Monday's game.

With France's greatest strength coming in that area, it could prove a nice matchup for Deschamps' side.

Julian Finney/Getty Images


Results in brief—Day 19

France 2-0 Nigeria
(Pogba, Yobo o.g.)

Germany 2-1 Algeria
(Schurrle, Ozil; Djabou)

France will face Germany in Rio de Janeiro on Friday 4 July.


 

1. Notes from Day 19

Great goalkeeping continues... Add Rais M'Bolhi (and keep Vincent Enyeama) on the list of goalkeepers who have boosted their reputations with fine performances so far this World Cup, joining the likes of Guillermo Ochoa and Keylor Navas.

Four years ago in South Africa, almost every goalkeeper seemed to make a horrible mistake at one point or another, yet at this tournament, such disasters have been noticeable by their absence (although, in fairness, Enyeama should have done far better for France's opener). Has the standard of goalkeeping improved that much? Or is the Brazuca also a far better ball than the Jabulani was?

Lahm chop... It will be interesting to see how Joachim Low sets out his side to face France. With injury ruling out Mats Hummels, Low continued to field four centre-backs across the back four, a clumsy arrangement that did not really seem to work. Philipp Lahm might be a great holding midfielder, but considering he might be the only quality full-back in the squad, perhaps he would be better utilised in that position?

Perfect Paul... Here's your weekly reminder that Paul Pogba looks like exactly the midfielder Manchester United were screaming out for last season. Good on the ball, covering a lot of ground and with an end product in the final third, Pogba was impressive against Nigeria—as he has been all tournament. Only 21, the World Cup figures to be his stage for a number of years yet. And Manchester United fans will have twinges of regret every time.

Gunner gets lucky... Mesut Ozil had a horrible game for Germany for the first 118 minutes or so, looking tentative on the ball and reluctant to shoot even when presented with a number of fine openers. But then, in the final moments of injury time, he was in the right place at the right time to score what would prove to be the winning goal. From zero to hero in record time.

 

2. Quote of the Day

At that moment, it's only him that can decide the reason he parried the ball. I am very far from where he was, his decision is final. What happened happened, and it cost us big.

—Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi, on Vincent Enyeama's mistake for France's opener, per The Guardian

Enyeama had been one of Nigeria's standout performers prior to that moment, as he has been for the past four years. Far be it from us to criticise Keshi, but it seems harsh to single him out.

 

3. Tweet of the Day

Honorable mentions...

 

4. Goal of the Day

We can debate for days how much he meant it, but Andre Schurrle's clever finish to break the deadlock against Algeria was crucial in relieving the tension on his side.

 

5. A good day for...

Antoine Griezmann. Before Franck Ribery's injury ruled him out of this tournament, it was slightly doubtful whether Griezmann would even make France's squad for this tournament. Now, after a game-changing cameo against Nigeria, he could well be in line to start in a World Cup quarter-final. And who knows? With another performance like that, he might have a few big clubs ringing up Real Sociedad about his availability.

 

6. A bad day for...

Julian Draxler. When Germany needed to change things up to turn the tide against Algeria, coach Low turned to Andre Schurrle. When that did not work, Low made a tactical switch—bringing on Sami Khedira in midfield for Shkodran Mustafi. What he did not seem to consider doing at any point was bringing on Draxler.

It looks increasingly likely that, barring a blowout win (or third-fourth place play-off contest), the Schalke playmaker will not get a chance to appear at this World Cup.

 

7. Tuesday's Schedule

Victor R. Caivano/Associated Press

Argentina vs. Switzerland (5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET)

Three games, three wins, three man-of-the-match awards for Lionel Messi. The best way to stop Argentina is clear, but do Switzerland have the players or the system to do it? Having looked defensively suspect against France, that seems doubtful, but if Xherdan Shaqiri is on form, they might be able to hurt the Albiceleste at the other end.

 

Belgium vs. United States (9 p.m. BST/4 p.m. ET)

If Belgium truly are contenders for this tournament, then this is the sort of test that they will have to pass. Arguably, they have not faced a side as well-organised, well-motivated and dangerous as the United States, who will be full of confidence after escaping a strong group. Would it really be a surprise if Jurgen Klinsmann's side escaped from this one with the win?

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