There are four European teams remaining in the 2014 World Cup, and at least one of them will be going home in the quarterfinals, as Germany and France are set to face off in one of the most anticipated and intriguing matchups of this World Cup thus far.
Traditional powers and rivals, both teams have yet to lose in this World Cup and both have looked extremely impressive in stretches. But neither is without its weaknesses, either, and here we'll try to identify a few keys to victory for both countries.
France: Track Germany's Attackers
The attacking trio that Germany have generally employed in Brazil thus far—Thomas Mueller in the center of the pitch flanked by Mesut Ozil and Mario Goetze—has proven quite difficult to deal with for opposing defenses.
The three players interchange regularly, running into spaces behind defenders or playing incisive passes into teammates. All can create, all can score (even if Ozil has become alarmingly hesitant to shoot). Trying to keep track of where each is attacking from has to be a headache for opposing defenses.
Or the Germans can choose to play with more natural wingers in Lukas Podolski and Andre Schurrle if they see fit. They also have the option to bring in the only natural No. 9 on the roster, Miroslav Klose. It must be nice to have so many options in the attack, eh?
But Ozil and Mueller in particular have really been difficult to track, with Ozil playing the role of facilitator from wide positions and drifting centrally, and Mueller poaching goals and working his butt off in a false-nine role. If France can deal with their overlapping runs and positional versatility, they'll have a great chance of advancing. But if they snooze for even a moment, the German attackers will make them pay.
Germany: Neutralize Paul Pogba
There wasn't a better player on the pitch during France's 2-0 victory over Nigeria than 21-year-old midfielder Paul Pogba.
You could look at the numbers to try to put the performance in perspective. He had 73 touches, completing 81 percent of his passes while winning four dribbles, taking three shots, scoring a goal and earning Man of the Match plaudits while earning an 8.3 match rating from WhoScored.com for the performance.
Here's the goal in case you missed it, per ESPN FC:
But the numbers don't tell the full story. He was the epitome of a box-to-box midfielder in the game, roaming everywhere in the midfield, joining the attack, finding his teammates in open spaces and crusading forward with the ball at his feet. Nigeria had no answer for him, to the point that his teammate Yohan Cabaye compared him to former French superstar Patrick Vieira after the match, per Sky Sports:
Yes, fortunately for us, Paul is like Vieira. He is very important for the team dynamic and we just enjoy playing together with him. That unity is the best way for us to progress as far as we can.
Paul deserved to be man of the match against Nigeria and to score because he is a very good footballer. He keeps his confidence even though he has been getting a lot of criticism. He stays relaxed and he knows the team is with him. He showed what he can do on the pitch and it is the best way to give a response to those who criticize him.
Germany are pretty stacked in the midfield, with players like Toni Kroos, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira all available in the middle of the pitch. But they'll have quite the test matching wits against Pogba and Blaise Matuidi.
France: Attack Germany Wide
Germany have been one of the more balanced sides in this year's World Cup, but there's no question that they have major questions in defense. Right-back Shkodran Mustafi is out for the rest of the tournament, per FIFA World Cup on Twitter:
Meanwhile, the status of centre-back Mats Hummels remains up in the air, though it's likely he'll be able to play against France, as he tweeted the following:
So gut wie wieder hergestellt :) Almost back at 100% :) pic.twitter.com/Mp1ncU81fw— Mats Hummels (@matshummels) July 2, 2014
His return will be key, but Germany have nonetheless played most of this World Cup without natural full-backs, instead turning to Benedikt Howedes and Jerome Boateng—both of whom generally play centrally at the club level—to fill the positions out wide.
And don't expect Germany to relent and move Lahm back to right-back, where he's spent most of his career. Karolos Grohmann of Reuters has more on that front:
A question mark hangs over Loew's shaky defence and how it will react to its biggest test so far in the tournament, with France's Karim Benzema, Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann posing a far bigger threat than the Desert foxes attack.
'We have to do it better against France,' Loew warned, insisting captain Lahm would not slip back from midfield into his traditional full back position, where he rose to become one of the best in the world, despite his defence's obvious weaknesses.
'I have taken my decisions, including the role of Lahm and I will stick to those until the very end,' said Loew.
Grohmann didn't add the dangerous Mathieu Valbuena to the list of French attackers, but the diminutive attacking midfielder will give the German defense all sorts of problems, be it from a central or wide position.
With elite attackers capable of attacking from width—Benzema has looked very dangerous cutting in from wide positions, while Griezmann and Valbuena have given opposing full-backs all sorts of problems—expect the French to identify and attack the weak position on this German team.
Their 4-3-3 setup has served them well thus far. It might just be the perfect approach to taking down the mighty Germans.
Germany: Manuel Neuer, Sweeper-Keeper Extraordinaire
With France having the players capable of quickly turning a counter-attack into a goal, Manuel Neuer's play in the back will once again be vital. Yes, he'll need to be sturdy in front of the net, but against Algeria he also erased any potential through balls or lobs over the top by regularly scurrying out of his box and clearing the ball away from danger.
Just check out his heat map, via Squawka Football:
That's insane. If we remember this World Cup for 'keepers, for Guillermo Ochoa stealing a draw for Mexico against Brazil and Tim Howard nearly saving the Americans against Belgium, let us not forget Neuer sweeping Algeria away, either.
And it's likely he'll need to offer a similar performance against France. Yes, the Germans surely will tighten things up a bit more than they showed against Algeria, where it appeared the Germans thought the game would be a far breezier affair than it was.
But Germany's suspect defense will also be far more tested against the French attackers. You can make a strong argument Algeria would have pulled off the upset were it not for Neuer. You can make just as strong an argument he may need to be even better against France if Germany are to advance.