German steel sufficient as French fold

Germany's Mats Hummels, left, and Miroslav Klose celebrate at the end of the match. Picture: AP Photo/Martin Meissner

WORLD CUP QUARTER-FINAL:
France 0 Germany 1
Why did we ever doubt them? Germany have become the first country in World Cup history to reach the semi-finals for the fourth successive time, after they sent France home from Brazil in what was an almost numbingly routine fashion at the Maracana.

The French had come into the game in the unaccustomed role as favourites in the eyes of many, their focus and flair supposedly at odds with the perception of a laboured German side suffering from open wounds at the back, not to mention a bad dose of the galloping chills.

But it was France who were caught cold by a set-piece early in the first half which, with Karim Benzema choosing a bad day to leave his shooting boots at home, ultimately proved the difference in a game which fell well short of the superpower classic the tournament craved.

By the close of play, all you could do was reflect yet again on the wisdom of that hoary old saw which holds that football is a game of 11 and 11 — and in the end, Germany win.

Or at least they do until they reach the semis or even the final, at which point a very different kind of conventional wisdom takes hold — the one which, especially since their loss to Brazil in the 2002 final in Japan, casts them as the bridesmaids but never the brides.

But even if Germany still have two huge hurdles to overcome before they can claim their first world title since 1990, Joachim Low and his team are entitled to bask in the satisfaction of a job well done.

Low had bowed to popular opinion in his starting line-up, leaving out Per Mertesacker and the underwhelming Mario Gotze, putting in the veteran record-chaser Miroslav Klose and, most significantly, moving skipper Philipp Lahm back from midfield to his best and most influential position at right back — one of the few ostensibly defensive moves in world football which has a measurable offensive effect.

France coach Didier Deschamps had also reshuffled his troops, replacing Laurent Koscielny with Raphael Varane at the back and, at the other end, opting for Antoine Griezmann ahead of Olivier Giroud, which allowed Benzema to play as the spearhead of a three-pronged attack.

Unfortunately for France, the spear would prove woefully blunt, despite being presented with some inviting opportunities chances to plunge it deep.

After six minutes of almost uninterrupted, if leisurely, German possession came the first shot in anger, and it was a French one, Benzema — in a sign of things to come and not come off — side-footing a volley just wide of the post.

But even as it began to look like French midfield flair and pace on the flanks might seriously unsettle their opponents, Germany struck early — and struck hard — Mats Hummels brushing aside a poor aerial challenge from Varane to head a Tony Kroos free kick in off the underside of the bar, with just 12 minutes gone.

France responded and German keeper Manuel Neuer was called upon to make a superb one-handed saved to deny the diminutive Mathieu Valbuena.

As France got back on the front foot, Benzema should again have done much better in the 41st minute, heading directly into defender Hummels from a good position in front of goal — and then vainly claiming hand ball — before the Real Madrid man had another chance to test Neuer but this time shot directly at the keeper.

As the teams went off at half-time, the sense was of a game perfectly poised, with German advantage on the scoreboard offset by a gathering French threat.

The threat seemed set to intensify right from the restart, Neuer having to pluck a fine header by Varane from under the angle of post and crossbar. But, thereafter, any real sense of coherence, let alone urgency, began to drain away from the men in blue.

There would be no new World Cup scoring record for Klose, the old legs making way for the fresh ones of Andre Schurrle after 68 minutes. And the French fans then had something to cheer about when Loic Remy finally entered the fray five minutes later, replacing his former Newcastle teammate Yohan Cabaye.

France continued to probe but not penetrate, and Schurrle should really have settled it for the Germans in the 81st minute but, at the end of a sweeping counter-attack, the Chelsea man blew a great chance by failing to beat Lloris, the goal at his mercy.

In a last throw of the dice, Didier Deschamps sent on Olivier Giroud for Valbuena with five minutes to go but, by then, French spirit was well and truly flagging.

Still, Neuer was called into action one last time at the death, raising a strong hand to bat away one final, unsuccessful Benzema effort.

The day might yet come for Paul Pogba and France’s other bright young things. But not this day and not this tournament.

Instead, it’s Germany who head for Belo Horizonte on Tuesday for yet another semi-final date with destiny.

As if it could ever have been otherwise.

FRANCE (4-3-3): Lloris; Debuchy, Varane, Sakho (Koscielny 70), Evra; Pogba, Cabaye (Remy 73), Matuidi; Valbuena (Giroud 85), Griezmann, Benzema

GERMANY (4-2-3-1): Neuer; Lahm, Boateng, Hummels, Hoewedes; Schweinsteiger, Khedira, Muller, Kroos (Kramer 92)l, Ozil (Goetze 83); Klose (Schurrle 68)

Referee: Nestor Pitana (Argentina).

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