Germany coach Joachim Loew was constantly touching his nose on the sidelines. What was he sniffing? With the kind of football his side was playing, he smelt danger.
Six days after suffering a shock defeat to Mexico, the defending champions found themselves a goal down to Sweden and in need of a big turnaround. The Sochi Stadium witnessed a German side struggling to click as a team. None of the players showed the courage to inject energy into the team. And the team’s shape looked disorganised, when the whole idea of German football is about staying Gut organisiert (well-organised).
Once a structurally superior well-oiled machine, Germany had become a star-studded team dependent on individual brilliance. Like a Mercedes car running on a Yugo 55 engine.
Ahead of the tie, everybody knew that Sweden were going to be a tough nut to crack. Moreover, Swedish custodian Robin Olsen entered the game having not conceded since October last year.
But Loew’s attacking quartet could have ended Olsen's streak and Sweden's stoic defence as there were flashes of brilliance in the early stages of the game with Julian Draxler teasing defenders on the left and Marco Reus running into those little pockets of spaces to help forward Timo Werner. However, there was nothing to show for their attacking nous. By the end of 10 minutes, Germany had completed 122 passes in comparison to Sweden’s six. It was the ideal start many would have expected but soon they invited pressure.
After testing the Swedish backline with a handful of clear-cut chances, their own defensive frailties came to the fore. Emil Forsberg, who plays for Bundesliga side RB Leipzig, found acres of space to run through the middle and spray a neat throughball for Berg, who was denied by Manuel Neuer, but with a tinge of controversy. Several TV replays showed that Berg was sandwiched by Boateng and Anthony Rudiger inside the box. The Scandinavian boys outpaced the German defence with ease and it looked like it was the end of the road for Loew’s army.
However, this wasn’t the first occasion where Germany’s high defensive backline was stretched. The scene was similar against Mexico when Hirving Lozano ran between the two centre-backs with ease to register a historic win for the El Tri.
By the half-hour mark, it was clear that Germany didn’t rectify issues at the back, making life difficult for them as the game progressed. Toni Kroos' stray pass proved costly and within a few seconds, they were made to pay for the rare error. An unmarked Ola Toivonen chested Viktor Claesson’s cross in the 32nd minute and lobbed the ball over onrushing Neuer to send the yellow-clad Swedish quadrant of the stadium into a pandemonium.
One-nil. A stupid goal to concede. Even Toivonen couldn’t believe that he had put Sweden ahead against the Germans. And rightly so, the German defence had allowed Toivonen, who had failed to net in 23 Ligue 1 matches for Toulouse, to score.
They reeked of panic and needed Neuer to rescue them just before half-time. Everything about Germany appeared disjointed. Perhaps this is how Loew’s team plays now, but he needed to prove that he was right in dropping Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira for this particular clash. That was brave and fortune favoured him.
An uncharacteristic first half saw German players enter the tunnel with heads drooping. They needed Loew to deal with their low self-esteem. Maybe the 57-year-old manager's tactics were outdated or maybe, just maybe, this German side does not have the potential to defend their crown.
The Nationalmannschaft was 45 minutes away from an embarrassing exit. That called for a quick team talk. While the players failed to inject energy and spark, it was time for the manager himself to pick up the pieces.
Interestingly, the German attacking in the second half was relentless and, unlike the first, the Scandinavians dropped deeper and deeper. In an an adventurous move, Loew introduced 32-year-old Mario Gomez for the second half, with Werner moving to the left wing and Thomas Muller shifting to the second striker’s position.
It took three minutes for Reus to justify his selection ahead of Ozil as he scored the equaliser from Werner’s cross. It was all Germany from here on. The likes of left-back Jonas Hector, Joshua Kimmich, Ilkay Gundogan and Kroos joined the four attackers upfront in attack as Sweden succumbed to pressure quite easily.
For all their hard work in defence, the Swedes had just 24 percent of ball possession. They were looking for a quick counter-attack to tame the Germans yet again but that moment never arrived. Germany kept on attacking but they just could not finish. On the other end, Sweden finally enjoyed a short spell of possession which was halted by a rash challenge from behind by Boateng, for which he was sent off. Madness. The Swedish camp felt this was their moment. But the Germans didn’t stop.
Andreas Granqvist and Manchester United’s Victor Lindelof were terrorised by the repeated German attacks as Sweden parked the bus after the 75th minute. Werner fluffed his finish, Reus couldn’t connect the ball accurately and Gomez was denied by an incredible save by Olsen. Germany surged forward, in a race against time.
They needed a win here. A 1-1 draw with Sweden would throw up the prospect of the Swedes and Mexico scraping through to the Last 16 with even a draw in Ekaterinburg on Wednesday, irrespective of Germany's result against South Korea in Kazan.
But there was more drama. In the 89th minute, Germany were denied yet again as Brandt’s half-volley hit the woodwork. By now, Germans supporters had given up. It seemed like they were waiting for the match to end. The world champions were on the brink of World Cup elimination.
And then in the fifth minute of stoppage time, Kroos — the villain in the first half for giving the ball away rather uncharacteristically to Berg — stepped up to become an instant hero. He curled the ball beyond the grasp of Sweden custodian Olsen with flawless technique. Madness, again. He didn’t cave in after the setback but roared back into the game with a match-winning goal which could prove decisive.
“Happy, of course. Happy. Was a tough game again today for us. We suffered, but it’s normal if you not score the early goal, and we had the chance, and it’s going to be difficult in the end. It was, but now, of course, we’re happy,” said Kroos.
But despite their dramatic late victory, Group F is still delicately poised as Germany could still qualify with a draw against South Korea. But should they just just as well miss out with a win due to a wide range of results. "At half-time, I told them to keep calm, not start panicking or trying long balls into the penalty area. I wanted them to be incisive, but calm. We had 45 minutes to turn it around and that's what I told the team," said Loew after the match.
Germany still don’t appear to be comfortable defensively and their finishing remains a serious concern. They look disconnected on the field. It is safe to say that their title defence could still be in jeopardy if their uneven form continues. The team had their own problems ahead of the World Cup, showing signs of nervousness against well-organised teams. And after two matches against Mexico and now Sweden, they have done nothing but reaffirm that.
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Updated Date: Jun 24, 2018 16:13:57 IST