RIO DE JANEIRO—This always looked like it would be a battle between the power of France's midfield, with Paul Pogba, Yohan Cabaye and Blaise Matuidi, and German resolve and determination to dominate with possession and close control—and, if the Algeria game was anything to go by, the highest defensive line in the competition.
But against a fast, counter-attacking France, Germany boss Joachim Low decided to become less adventurous—and it paid off with a 1-0 win.
Waiting to seize the moment in attack, we expected to see Karim Benzema dominate. In defence the speed and physicality of Raphael Varane and Laurent Koscielny would be useful against Miroslav Klose and the mobility of Thomas Mueller and Mesut Ozil—the latter still trying to make an impact but limited by his positioning in wide areas, Friday on the left.
The line-ups suggested France were going to be the France of the tournament (fast, strong in midfield, happy to give the ball to the opponent), and the addition of Antoine Griezmann was supposed to make sure the 4-3-3 worked better, as it would take Benzema back to the centre of the attack.
For Germany, the divisions within the side (the Khediras vs. the Schweinsteigers) were resolved by including them both in a team affected by flu. But it is not the same to play Philipp Lahm rather than Sami Khedira in the middle (the contrast between a more modern and a more orthodox Germany), or having the versatile Mueller in the No. 9 role rather than Klose.
Was it the illness, doubts or versatility that brought the changes? The game was going to have the answers.
Both teams positioned themselves in the 15 metres each side of the halfway line. Hardly any risks were taken, and a lot was going to depend on how the midfielders would distribute the ball. But soon it became clearer that the heat, the dry pitch and the stage of the tournament where any mistakes are punished meant the game was conservative early on, slow, predictable.
It was difficult to surprise the defenders, who were covering the space in behind well. So with hardly any space or pace, depth or much mobility, individual gestures and set pieces took on increased relevance. That was true in the telling German goal—Toni Kroos with the free-kick and Mats Hummels with the header.
It was hot at the Maracana, and little by little Germany started resting by actively keeping the ball. They were not in a rush. France had Pogba, who can beat lines of pressure with will, talent and power but needed someone between the lines to find pockets of space that would allow him to send through balls to the forwards. Mathieu Valbuena had that job but spent too much time stuck on the right-hand side.
Germany did not allow any counter-attacks as they pressured the man with the ball, and the defensive line was not too deep so they couldn't be caught. But there were not many runs into space by Griezmann or Benzema, and without that France become a lesser team.
Did we have to wait for a technical detail to give the game a twist? A free-kick again? Is it the 30th minute already? Wow. Not much had happened—France attacked and lost the ball near the Germany box, Germany attacked and lost the ball near the French box. And so on.
Hold on. A ball in behind the German defence, but as usual it was placed from too deep. Wasn't that the previous French move? No, it is another one. Just a copycat of the previous one and the one before, all dealt with by the defenders or Manuel Neuer.
The German goalkeeper only made his first save on the 37-minute mark when Valbuena, who finally started getting away from the wing and appearing between the lines, found himself in space near the six-yard box.
But the heat and the humidity...uff...an improvised stop for water was needed and took place before the break.
There was some entertainment in the stands, with brave Colombians showing off their national flags, the hateful Mexican wave and bursts of silence as the game gave little for fans to shout about with the exception of one or two exquisite Pogba touches.
Half-time arrived, and France needed to conjure new questions, alternatives to their predictable football.
A higher tempo was required, more help from the full-backs, better pressure high up to recover possession early. But not enough of it arrived.
As tiredness crept in, the teams became more stretched. "Give us a show," the stands seemed to demand, with whistles and silence in parts.
The substitutions had to unbalance the match, so Loic Remy came on for midfielder Cabaye. And something happened. The French did push, and it took a fine block from Hummels to keep Germany in front.
But as France pushed, they left themselves open to the counter. Andre Schurrle twice had chances to kill the game; twice he failed to take them. A final chance, in the dying seconds, fell to Benzema, but a strong hand from Neuer guaranteed Germany's place in the last four.
Not a great game but the Germans are remarkable. Four semi-finals in a row now...incredible. France will know they never got going— Jason Burt (@JBurtTelegraph) July 4, 2014
Not a classic—the weather conditions were difficult, and France showed that they struggle to do damage when they have to dominate. And the Germans...well, they reach the semi-finals again: They call it home.
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