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Jun 20, 2008

Germany stands tall to reach semi-finals

Right, okay. Before we get to the rah-rah you expect (Wow, we've gone through, can't believe it!) and to the chit-chat you probably think I'm trying to avoid (was Michael Ballack's goal legal?), let me say something else first:

This is a gripping and amazing tournament and the first quarter-final was true to the general trend, as it was a much better game than we had any right to hope for.

In the whole history of the European Championships, which goes back almost half a century now, there had been only three previous games in the knock-out rounds which yielded more than four goals in regulation time. One was in 2000, one dates from 1992, and the third goes all the way back to 1960. (By the way, do yourself a favour and look this one up, the France versus Yugoslavia semi-final. It set a few records, although I'm not ruling out the possibility that Russia versus Holland could top these.)

Having said that it was a good game, I think I can now safely assume that Portuguese readers will pepper me with comments to the effect that their team was not good at all, or at least not as good as on June 7 and 11. (Gosh, that already seems like an eternity ago, doesn't it?)

Indeed. But why was that so?

One reason is certainly that Joachim Löw has delivered the first true tactical masterpiece of his two years in sole charge of the national team. I guess there were quite a few German players on the pitch the Portuguese hadn't expected to face, and there were even more German players the Portuguese must have expected to face in other areas of the pitch.

Interestingly, we switched to the very system so many teams are using to great effect at this tournament, including Holland and Portugal themselves. Having only one man upfront may look cautious on paper, but that's only if you have old-style football in mind, with nippy wingers trying to get to the byline and then whip in crosses for the target man.

But that's not what this system, as currently used, is all about. As Ernst Bouwes has pointed out in his pieces on the Van Basten revolution that carried the classic Dutch 4-3-3 to the guillotine, the idea of wingers as set-up men is passé. What you now have is a target man whose job is to open up space for the three strikers-in-disguise behind him, two of whom will come over the wing and then either feed the guy moving up from central midfield or cut inside.

That's not to say that the teams using this system all play alike. Portugal prefer combination football down the middle, which was yesterday effectively slowed down by Ballack, as our first defender once possession was lost, and then stopped for good by Simon Rolfes and Thomas Hitzlsperger behind him.

Holland prefer to exploit the wings, a style Germany copied admirably against the Portuguese. A picturebook example was the first goal, one of the finest moves of this tournament so far. Tellingly, the man who finally put the ball away was not the guy you'd expect in that place at that moment. That is to say, it was not the nominal striker, as Klose had dropped deep to draw the central defenders out of position and open up the space for Schweinsteiger to run into.

But it takes two to tango. As brilliantly executed as this move was, Germany needed a bit of assistance from Simao who lacked the presence of mind to stay in front of Schweinsteiger. Once he'd lost a step on him, all he could do was pray the Germans would make a mistake and waste their chance.

And that leads me to Portugal. Everyone's entitled to an opinion, and yours may differ from mine, but watching the Portuguese I felt strangely reminded of Germany's performance against Croatia. There was something worryingly wrong with the team which can be explained only in part by the strength of the opposition.

Let me explain what I mean by drawing your attention to something that happened nine minutes from time. Germany had won a corner that was cleared, presenting Portugal with a golden opportunity for a fast break. There were four German defenders facing four Portuguese attackers.

Now, this is first where the strength of the opposition enters the equation. Because the German backline played that flawlessly, retreating as a unit at exactly the right pace to slow the counter-attack down without leaving gaps or opening passing lanes. Finally, Simao got the ball some 20 yards in front of the German goal and didn't find a team-mate in a promising position, just as a fifth German defender had made it back.

But that is not to understate the Portuguese weakness on the night. Because four against five is still an excellent ratio for an attack, all it takes to make something happen is some movement, a one-two or a few quick passes. Normally, this is something Portugal excels at. But Simao instantly delivered a distance shot that never had any chance of troubling Jens Lehmann, even if it hadn't gone woefully wide.

That was typical in so far as the Portugese seemed to lack ... yes, what was it? Belief? Confidence? Determination? Luiz Felipe Scolari even said it was concentration, which is a stunning thing to claim after a quarter-final.

Whatever it may have been exactly, there was surely some sort of mental problem involved. Because the 25 minutes or so during which Portugal at least resembled their old selves came when they had scored (for 20 minutes after Nuno Gomes's goal and for the remaining minutes after Hélder Postiga's header). And whenever they conceded a goal, it seemed to knock the air out of them quite thoroughly. Which usually indicates the very problem which troubled the Germans as recently as last week.

But it also indicates how crucial Ballack's goal was - and that, for all the many positive things we saw from Germany yesterday, it also took a stroke of luck to win the game. Of course Scolari was right when he said Ballack's shove on Paulo Ferreira, as slight as it was, constituted a foul and that the referee shouldn't have missed it.

Yet Scolari was also right when he said that his team made grave positional errors at set pieces twice. To me, that almost sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Remember how Scolari read out the heights of the German players at the pre-match press conference, claiming his players were much shorter? (I presume he didn't mean Pepe).

Well, he probably didn't know that the German press has been going on for weeks and months about how abysmal our set pieces are! On the day before the Portugal game, the Berlin paper 'Der Tagesspiegel' headlined '101 corners and no goal', saying: 'No matter which German player delivers corners or free kicks into the box, nothing happens.'

The paper pointed out that the last goal Germany scored from a free kick crossed into the danger zone dated from June 2007 and that the opponent was San Marino. Well ... didn't we just recently run one of my columns under the headline 'What a difference a game makes'?


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