Germany break Scotland's hearts in Euro 2016 qualifying
They made hard work of it at Hampden Park, but the world champions are back on track. Just. If Germany's qualification for next summer's European Championships was ever really in doubt, it no longer is. This surprisingly tense 3-2 victory over Scotland leaves Joachim Low's side in need of a single win to book their place in France.
The situation did not look so positive in October when Germany followed their unconvincing opening night win over Scotland with defeat to Poland and stalemate with Ireland. Much has changed since then. Low's men have now won their past five qualifiers and for much, but not all, of this game, they looked irresistible.
They should have had this wrapped up long before halftime, but there is something of the Black Knight about Scotland. It doesn't matter how many limbs you hack off, they continue to insist it's just a flesh wound and then they threaten to bite your legs off.
But for all of their spirit, Scotland's own progress is now seriously jeopardised, a result not of this game but of the wretched defeat in Georgia last week that has allowed Ireland to overtake the Scots in third place in Group D. It seems to be Scotland's duty in life to fight bravely against the best in the world and then trip over their own feet when they face a team ranked between Guam and Curacao. Two defeats in a matter of days has ended any hope of automatic qualification, and Scotland must beat or draw with Poland next month and hope Ireland lose both their remaining games to have a chance of making the playoffs.
Scotland started brightly enough with James Morrison doing his best to impose himself on the game from the first whistle, eagerly pressing defenders, hoping to force a mistake. His team resisted the temptation to clear their lines at every opportunity, instead trying to use the pace of Alan Hutton as an outlet on the right. It didn't work.
The visitors were cool and composed. Every time Scotland lost the ball, Germany tossed it among themselves like a pack of bullies with a crying child's schoolbag. The movement was exceptional. Ostensibly deployed as a centre-forward, Mario Gotze kept drifting left as Thomas Muller slipped into the centre like a falling shadow.
Scotland were forced to adopt a flat back six with the four defenders going compact and central, while wingers Shaun Maloney and James Forrest flanked them and three midfielders did their best to set up a barrier in front. It was as effective as trying to hold back the encroaching sea from your sandcastle. It will work for a while, but the deluge is inevitable. In this instance it took 18 minutes. Under sustained pressure, James McArthur suddenly raced out to intercept Muller, only to see the Bayern man catch him off balance and burst past him. Galloping into space for the first time, Muller fired off a quick shot that caught Russell Martin's leg and slipped past keeper David Marshall. Hampden Park, so loud before kick-off, fell quiet.
But Scotland were granted a route back into the game in the 28th minute. Maloney's unthreatening free kick bounced in front of Manuel Neuer, who slapped it into Mats Hummels, who watched in horror as it ricocheted off his chest and into the goal. Hope returned to Hampden and immediately turned the volume up. After five awkward, noisy minutes, Germany looked rattled.
Then they tore Scotland apart once again.
Gotze, drifting out left, exchanged passes with Mesut Ozil, and the Scottish lines fell apart as they tried and failed to keep up. Emre Can found himself alone on the right side of the box, Gotze slipped the ball in front of him and he cracked off a wicked shot. Marshall reached it but could only parry it up into the air where Muller lurked. Muller is always lurking. It's what he does. His header crept in despite the best efforts of Charlie Mulgrew on the line.
But again, Scotland came back. A corner, wasted by Maloney, was headed out by Ilkay Gundogan only as far as McArthur, who calmly clipped it into the back of the net with Neuer unable to change his momentum in time to stop the ball. Pushed back for almost the entire half, Scotland found themselves trotting happily down the tunnel at halftime with the score at 2-2. Germany looked baffled, and little wonder.
The trend continued in the second half; Germany pushed up so far their centre-backs were camped beyond the halfway line. Scotland seemed tenacious, dogged and yet still unable to keep the visitors at bay. From right back, Can pushed up and found Gundogan. He slipped the ball to Muller on the right, and it was returned hard and low for Gundogan to smash in off the post. There is no keeping up with Germany when they move like this. You might as well run around the garden trying to catch butterflies in a baseball glove.
Still, Germany did their best to allow Scotland back into the game, punctuating huge swathes of possession with silly errors. This had the potential to be a showcase event for a resurgent German side, something for Low to point to as evidence they should be considered favourites next summer. They didn't look like favourites at the end when goalkeeper Marshall was running upfield to contest an injury-time corner, and the anxiety in the faces of the World Cup winners was obvious.
There is so much to admire in this German side in the way they operate on and off the pitch, in the structure that should safeguard their continued success. Yet they do not look quite as impervious as they have in the past. Low still has a little work to do yet.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.