Germany edge past France
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Three thoughts from Germany's 1-0 win vs. France in the World Cup quarterfinal.
1. Low changes his mind
Bastian Schweinsteiger or Sami Khedira -- there could only be one. That had been the message before and during the tournament, as Germany coach Joachim Low had to come to terms with both his regular central midfielders not being quite ready for the full exertions of a World Cup in Brazil. The job-sharing had worked reasonably well, all things considered.
However, against France on Friday, Schweinsteiger and Khedira were back together in the starting lineup for the first time since October 2013 -- a 3-0 win versus Ireland in World Cup qualifying. Schweinsteiger was the deepest of Germany's central midfield trio, Toni Kroos was slightly to the left and Khedira a bit to the right. And where was the captain Philipp Lahm? The Bayern Munich man was back in his traditional right-back position.
Before the game, that news was greeted with a sharp intake of air in the German section of the Maracana media centre. Having stood by his decision to field Lahm in the centre in the face of much criticism, Low did actually relent. Or was the shuffle simply a by-product of an altogether different decision? Per Mertesacker being left on the bench for Jerome Boateng made sense because Low persisted with a high defensive line -- Boateng, despite appearances, is fairly quick -- but still came as a surprise given that Mertesacker had performed well in the four prior outings.
Only the Germany coach will know which of these two interconnected moves had come to him first. By doing what many people had expected of him in relation to Lahm, he had actually done the unexpected. Fielding the 36-year-old Miroslav Klose from the start in the midday Rio de Janeiro heat was another curve ball and it's hard to say whether the Lazio striker vindicated that decision. But when you win, that sort of detail ceases to matter.
2. France have the right idea but get caught early
Leaving the ball and a bit of space to the Germans was an eminently sound plan from Didier Deschamps. It was a very hot day, Klose was not going to outrun anyone and France were solid enough in the middle to make Germany largely reliant on Thomas Muller's runs.
The Bayern forward mostly took on Patrice Evra on the right flank but also switched positions with Mesut Ozil, who posed a different, quieter sort of threat to the back four of Les Bleus. France's main idea, meanwhile, was to exploit the space behind the high defensive line of Low's team with diagonal balls to Mathieu Valbuena -- who had France's best opportunity but saw his angled shot tipped away by Manuel Neuer -- and vertical balls to Karim Benzema.
The Real Madrid striker also frequently took up wider positions to create space for the central midfielders and escape the attentions of Mats Hummels and Boateng. Twice he managed to shoot at Neuer's goal, but the accuracy was lacking. When he did hit the target, in second-half stoppage time, he was denied by the German goalkeeper.
Unfortunately for France, the early goal by Hummels -- Raphael Varane could have done better defensively -- made it more difficult for France to stay faithful to their reactive style. They often played the final ball too early and Germany found a bit more composure, albeit without ever having full control of proceedings.
France, in turn, couldn't bring their powerful, direct game to bear because they couldn't counterattack. Leading 1-0 also made it easier for Schweinsteiger and Khedira to hold the midfield, as neither had to go forward too much to support Germany's attack.
3. Another "dirty" win for Germany
Low has achieved one thing after leading the Nationalmannschaft to their fourth semifinal in the last four World Cups: nobody will accuse this Germany team of playing too much beautiful football to succeed. (That had been the suspicion in some quarters before the tournament started).
Muller set the tone in an interview after the much-maligned Algeria game, where he set out his team's priorities in no uncertain terms. "If other sides win this way, they are seen as clever," the 24-year-old told Bild, "people rave about them and say they are cool dirtbags. I don't want to win the World Cup and be forced to say: Sorry that we won the final with only one goal difference."
They haven't won the World Cup yet, but in the Maracana they reconnected with a trait that all trophy-winning German teams have had: they can win games without being exciting, totally dominant or aesthetically pleasing. Being a "Turniermannschaft" -- a tournament team -- is what they call that back home.
Next stop: Belo Horizonte.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.