They are indestructible. You can love them or hate them, but there’s no doubt that Germany are always one step above any other team when it comes to mental fortitude. For more than 20 minutes tonight, the Germans were virtually out of the World Cup, with Sweden leading 1-0 over them. Still, the scorecard at full time read 2-1 for Die Mannschaft, with a wonderful free kick by Tony Kroos completing the comeback well into extra time.
Joachim Low’s side had to play the last 10 minutes with one man less, due to the expulsion of Jerome Boateng. Still, they kept pushing like there was no tomorrow, and like they were actually the ones with a numerical advantage. Everything was calculated: The Germans knew that a tie was not enough, as a draw between Mexico and Sweden in their last group game would have qualified both, and sent the defending champions home. They needed to win. And they did. Germany’s victory tonight is a hymn to willpower.
The episode that put Germany on the brink of a humiliating elimination happened in the 32nd minute of a fast-paced game. Kroos badly lost a ball in his midfield area, and ignited a counterattack by Viktor Claesson, who saw Ola Toivonen in the box, and served him with a sublime cross from the right side. Toivonen dashed past Antonio Rudiger and a recovering Kroos to wrap Sweden’s lead with a soft lob, leaving Manuel Neuer petrified: A goal destined to make it to this World Cup edition’s top list.
Germany out, Sweden and Mexico promoted after two games only: This was the shocking scenario that was taking shape in Sochi. And the Swedes were even more in credit, as earlier in the game a vigorous push by Jerome Boateng on Marcus Berg into Germany’s box – which the Polish referee seemed to overlook – would have deserved a different interpretation.
As the expected reaction from the German side unfolded, Swedish goalkeeper Robin Olsen began his dream night – which missed only the happy ending – deflecting a shot by Ikay Gundogan, and then saving from a tap in by Thomas Mueller. Then it was Neuer’s turn to keep his side afloat, as he parried back a tricky header by Berg just before the referee’s half time whistle.
With the Curse of the Defending Champions starting to materialize – Germany was set to become the 4th title holder to be eliminated in the first round in the last 5 World Cups – Joachim Low decided to change something during the break, and resorted to the experience of 33-year-old Mario Gomez.
A wise move indeed, as the Stuttgart striker put his decisive signature on the action that dissipated part of the German nightmares, three minutes after the team had returned to the field. Timo Werner produced a low cross from the left, and Gomez let the ball slide past him, so that Marco Reus could put it in with a lucky knee deflection. Not as good as Toivonen’s goal, but still terribly effective and hard-hitting on the Swedish morale. Coach Janne Andersson’s answer was sending in Jimmy Durmaz first, and then John Guidetti, maybe hoping that an Italian last name would be enough to send the Germans into panic mode, but it was no use.
Boateng continued his pummeling of Marcus Berg, and ended up knocking him down in the 82nd minute, scoring his second yellow card, which gave him an early access to the changing rooms. Still, Low recalled defender Jonas Hector and substituted him with another midfielder – Julian Brandt. The 22-year-old blondie confirmed what he had already showed in the few minutes he played with Mexico, i.e. that he has pretty nice left foot shot. His terrific blaster in the 92nd minute shook Olsen’s right post.
Before that, Gomez had come even closer to score, and it had taken a wonderful reflex by the Swedish goalkeeper to raise his header above the crossbar, and push the Swedes one step closer to the notable accomplishment of holding Germany onto a tie.
But football is a cruel game, and all it took was a naïve foul by Durmaz in the very last stoppage time minute to change again the destiny of the match, giving Tony Kroos the chance to redeem himself from his early mistake. And Kroos reminded everybody that there is a reason why he plays for Real Madrid, firing a perfect free kick directly into the Swedish goal.
It was the 95th minute, and Sweden players didn’t even have the time and the force to realize what had just happened. They remained in shock, sitting on the pitch as they saw an unexpected early qualification slipping out of their hands. Quite different was the reaction of their coach Andersson, who hit out at the German bench, accusing them of showing disrespect during their wild celebrations.
Nothing is actually lost for his side as, by beating Mexico next Wednesday, Sweden would still have the possibility to advance. But this surely was a hard it. One that only a team like Germany can deliver – and one that only a team like Germany could survive.
June 23, 2018 – World Cup Group Stage Pool F
SCORERS: 32′ Toivonen (S), 48′ Reus (G), 95′ Kroos (G)
|GERMANY (4-2-3-1): Neuer; Kimmich, Rüdiger, Boateng, Hector (87′ Brandt); Rudy (31′ Gündogan), Kroos; Müller, Draxler 46′ Gomez), Reus; Werner (Trapp, Ter Stegen, Hummels, Ginter, Plattenhardt, Sule, Khedira, Goretzka, Özil) Coach: Löw
|SWEDEN (4-4-2): Olsen; Lustig, Granqvist, Lindelof, Augustinsson; Claesson (74′ Durmaz), Larsson, Ekdal, Forsberg; Berg (90′ Thelin), Toivonen (78′ Guidetti) (Johnsson, Nordfeldt, Olsson, Svensson, Helander, Hiljemark, Krafth, Jansson, Rohden) Coach: Andersson|
REFEREE: Marciniak (Poland)
NOTES: Yellow Card: Ekdal (S); Red Card: Boateng (G)