France run out of steam against Germany
RIO DE JANEIRO -- After all the talk of a repeat of 1982, Friday's match at the Maracana only ended up recalling the last few years: Germany making another World Cup semifinal (their fourth in a row); France meekly bowing out of a tournament they promised so much more in.
This was a long way from the drama of that 3-3 classic -- which Germany won on penalties -- 32 years ago, and not even close to the same levels of entertainment. That was because there was one clearly superior side, who never even had to stand tall in a siege. A 1-0 final score made this game look far closer than it actually was; Germany were just never made to worry. That will be the most encouraging aspect for Joachim Low, but the most galling for France boss Didier Deschamps.
As France looked for a way back into the match, there was no crescendo at the end, just a huge anticlimax. Some of the scenes with just three minutes of normal time to go were so disappointingly notable, especially given the previous games of this World Cup (see the USA against Belgium in the round of 16).
But with their entire tournament teetering on the edge, France just couldn't raise the required energy. It was only Karim Benzema who showed anything like the kind of urgency that reflected the situation, and it came as no surprise that it was his shot that gave the Germans their only moment of anxiety in those oddly mundane final few minutes -- although it was easily saved by keeper Manuel Neuer. Much of that might have had to do with the suffocating conditions under the Rio sun, but it still does not feel like enough to explain why France couldn't make Low and his team feel any heat whatsoever. The joy of their play from the earlier games had seemingly evaporated and, as the Germans closed ranks, used the ball well and held them off with ease, they only looked jaded.
That will be all the more frustrating because, after a World Cup that felt so dynamically different to pretty much anything from the French team in the last decade, it only ended up offering their fourth underwhelming exit in succession. In the end, when you look back in hindsight, it may not seem that different from the 2-0 quarterfinal defeat to Spain at Euro 2012. Yet if France ultimately returned to the disappointment of the last few years, Germany finally banished some of their doubts of the last few games.
With Philipp Lahm restored to right-back and Sami Khedira in defensive midfield, there was much greater balance to their team, and much fewer chances being given away. This was Germany at their most polished yet, and a performance that suggested Low may be right: they may finally be ready to grow as the quality of the opposition increases. That would mark a change, and at last see them peak at the right time, particularly without the presence of the Spanish.
At the same time, it should not go unnoticed that they didn't even need to be at their peak here. Germany still made errors; France illustrated their flaws at times, but never offered the conviction to suggest they could properly punish them. On repeated occasions in the first half, Germany were opened by the easiest of long balls. One such move ended with a ragged cross that still caused all manner of chaos, but Mathieu Valbuena just couldn't offer the finish.
As on so many other occasions in the game, Neuer stood tall, and never needed to extend himself much. It was even notable that his forays outside his area had been toned down since the round of 16 game against Algeria brought him so much attention.
France couldn't go any further themselves. At the times when Germany did manage to close down the option of that over-the-top pass, Deschamps' attack didn't know where to go, and looked much less dynamic than they had done previously. Valbuena and Antoine Griezmann never offered the vigour of recent matches; they were hugely underwhelming, and it would not be outlandish to say France were a little overawed.
Deschamps admitted afterwards: "Germany are accustomed to these big matches. They are a more experienced team and we were a little timid in the beginning of the match. We were not efficient. Maybe toward the end of the game, we were too exposed, but all in all, when you look at what Germany stands for and where we come from, we are frustrated. There is a massive gap between the two teams, but today we had a good game and played at a very high level."
Of those who could be said to have played at a high level today, only Benzema was really trying to force the issue -- although even he could barely force a save until that final moment.
At the other end, there was the simplicity with which the French defence was exposed. For all the suggestions that Germany were susceptible to set pieces, Mats Hummels shored them up at one end and opened things at the other. He got the only touch necessary for Toni Kroos' divine cross to seal what turned out to be the winner.
The early goal set up their performance, and apparently set France right back. Deschamps can take encouragement from this World Cup, but not from this quarterfinal. Germany, meanwhile, can finally look forward; France couldn't expose them at the back.
Miguel Delaney is London correspondent for ESPN and also writes for the Irish Examiner, the Independent, Blizzard and assorted others. He is the author of an award-nominated book on the Irish national team called 'Stuttgart to Saipan' (Mentor) and was nominated for Irish sports journalist of the year in 2011.