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France fade as Mats rises to the occasion

Rio de Janeiro: So many German players rose to the occasion here, driving their team through to the semi-finals with a 1-0 win over France. Mats Hummels blocked and scored. Manuel Neuer made a couple of unbelievable saves. Bastian Schweinsteiger dominated midfield. Thomas Muller, the dynamo of Deutschland, never stopped running.

France failed because too few of their major players responded to the German challenge. Karim Benzema had a couple of chances but never imposed himself properly. The vaunted midfield was largely quiet. The French fans’ desire to avenge results in 1982 and 1986 was never sated. France went out with a whimper. The Germans were too strong, too organised, too clinical.

Some German fans donned Angela Merkel masks, others wore lederhosen while one confidently sported a replica shirt declaring “1954, 1974, 1990 — let’s do it again”. They outnumbered the French fans. They powered through their national anthem. Supporters and players were primed for this, no question. They believed. France, for all their talent, didn’t.

France froze, seemingly in awe of their former nemesis, certainly showing far too much respect. They sat off the Germans, who responded ruthlessly, taking the lead after only 12 minutes. Toni Kroos curled in a free-kick from the left and Hummels was far too strong and canny for Raphael Varane. Hummels bullied the 21-year-old, giving the Real Madrid defender a harsh lesson in the need to stick tighter to an opponent, to lean into him, even to block the run. Varane was too generous, Hummels too determined.

Never losing sight of the ball, the Borussia Dortmund centre-half met it with a flicked header that kissed the crossbar gleefully on its way into the net. Hugo Lloris had no chance.

Since the 2002 World Cup, the Germans have now scored with 15 headers, seven more than any other side. They were typically well-organised, so primed for the French. They played a high defensive line, squeezing the space in midfield. They pressed from the front, Muller as industrious as ever. Muller again highlighted his versatility by shifting right with Miroslav Klose arriving at the point of a 4-2-3-1 system.

Germany’s tactics worked. Joachim Loew reacted to Didier Deschamps’ anticipated inclusion of Antoine Griezmann by switching his captain, Philipp Lahm, to right-back, to combat the threat of the tricky Real Sociedad winger, who had so impressed when coming on against Nigeria in the round of 16.

With Lahm at full-back, Loew moved Jerome Boateng across to partner the outstanding Hummels and dropped Per Mertesacker. The Arsenal defender waved to Arsenal fans serenading him with their “BFG” chant as he warmed up behind Neuer’s goal.

France were too timid for half-an-hour, too nervous. Mathieu Debuchy tugged Klose’s shirt but the veteran fell too theatrically for Nestor Pitana’s liking. The Germans were in charge, their excellence obvious all over the pitch. Muller was driving down the right, socks slightly down, ambition always up, brought down by Patrice Evra. Neuer whipped a perfect right-footed ball to Lahm. Boateng rose above Griezmann to clear. They built inexorably towards their goal.

Hummels was the most influential performer of the game. He made two vital blocks as France gradually came to life. When Griezmann hooked the ball back across goal, Mathieu Valbuena controlled the ball and then shot. Neuer made a marvellous reflex save, keeping the ball out with his left hand. Benzema threatened to maintain the pressure but Hummels cleared with his right knee.

France still seemed energised, throwing off their cloak of caution. Pogba turned Kroos with a mix of athleticism and elegance. But for Hummels and Neuer, France would have equalised. When Evra crossed, Benzema directed a downward header which Hummels cleared. Benzema cut in from left, creating space for the shot well, but Neuer was in the right place at the right time.

France’s coach, Didier Deschamps, who was famous for his rallying cries as a player, must have had a word at the break but it was not enough. Benzema immediately got on the wall, working space for a cross. France moved up a gear but Germany were too organised. Again Hummels defied them, making two clearances. Griezmann escaped from Sami Khedira, who tugged him back and was deservedly cautioned.

The Germans were in control, defending well and counter-attacking at times. Mesut Ozil was quiet on the left, partly because Muller and Lahm were commanding the ball down the right. Schweinsteiger did engineer a move down the inside-left channel, cutting the ball back in for Kroos, whose shot swept wide.

Schweinsteiger was delivering for Germany in the centre, tracking back to assist his defence, cutting out a Matuidi cross. Neuer clutched a header from Varane. Hummels then resumed his defensive master-class. When Benzema turned Lahm and got a shot in, Hummels blocked. Immer Hummels. Always.

The life was draining from France’s World Cup dream. Loic Remy had come on, so too did Olivier Giroud but German’s defence was too resolute. They almost scored a second when Muller laid the ball off to Schurrle, whose shot ploughed into Varane.

France almost forced extra time but Neuer palmed Benzema’s fierce left-footed drive away. Germany go through, deservedly so. Hummels and Neuer, Muller and Schweinsteiger deserved it.

Teams

Germany: Manuel Neuer; Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels, Benedikt Hoewedes; Sami Khedira, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm, Toni Kroos (Chrisoph Kramer, 90+2), Mesut Ozil (Mario Goetze, 83); Thomas Mueller, Miroslav Klose (Andre Schuerrle, 69)

France: Hugo Lloris; Mathieu Debuchy, Raphael Varane, Mamadou Sakho (Laurent Koscielny, 72), Patrice Evra; Yohan Cabaye (Loic Remy, 73); Mathieu Valbuena (Olivier Giroud, 85), Blaise Matuidi, Paul Pogba; Karim Benzema, Antoine Griezmann

Man of the Match: Mats Hummels

Referee: Nestor Pitana (Argentina)