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FIFA World Cup: After fall, spring

Despite 1-0 loss to Germany, USA advance as Portugal come up short on goal difference.

Portugal finished level on points with US in Group G but the Americans advance courtesy of a better goal difference despite their 0-1 loss to group winners Germany. (Source: AP) Portugal finished level on points with US in Group G but the Americans advance courtesy of a better goal difference despite their 0-1 loss to group winners Germany. (Source: AP)

Between two moments, spread over 120 seconds and 1200 miles, the impossible had happened. USA’s chant-happy manic fans lost their collective voices. In what seemed to take no more than an instant in real time, the thundering and repetitive calls of ‘U.S.A! U.S.A!’ in Arena Pernambuco’s wet terraces were overpowered by something far more deafening in a stadium — silence.

The first of those moments was Thomas Mueller’s goal. Arriving just 10 minutes into the second half, Germany’s second most prolific World Cup goal-scorer on the field (by this time, record-hunter Miroslav Klose was also in his national colours) had broken the deadlock with a most sensational strike from an angle outside the USA box.

The goal shocked the army in stars-and-stripes, but not nearly enough to zip their collective lips completely. No, for the Mueller goal hadn’t hurt USA’s chances of making it to the knock-outs just yet. But what surely did was an Asamoah Gyan equaliser for Ghana just two minutes later, against Portugal in far away Brasilia.

That scoreline flashed on both large screens here at the Arena Pernambuco in Recife. The US fans trailed into complete muteness, but must have cursed Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal in their heads. After all, had it not been for a 95th minute Portugal goal (created by Ronaldo) in their previous match, they and their ‘soccer’ side would have already cozied up to the knock-outs.

Then, USA were 30 seconds away from qualification; now, the remaining 30 minutes on the clock began crawling like 30 years. Little of consequence happened on the field for USA in this time as all eyes, including one Jurgen Klinsmann’s, were on the decider in Brasilia. The Americans obviously hoped for Portugal to pull one back. And Germany hoped to press on ahead, just as they had all first-half long.

But just like the opening half it was hard to find the back of Tim Howard’s net.

On a soaked and irreparable field, a going-for-broke Alemania promised much. Germany, with reputation and a top-spot to play for, went full press. Like an aircraft shortly before take-off, Joachim Loew arranged his fullbacks wide and deep on the wings, with Bastian Schweinsteiger taking control of the cockpit. And take-off the pilot did, as early as the second minute of the game.

Story of the half

Releasing Germany’s point-man Mueller into a vast, damp space in the centre of midfield, Schweinsteiger watched the man with a total of eight World Cup goals thus far slide ahead, wrongfooting several American midfielders along the way. Mueller then swiftly tapped right to Jerome Boateng, who lofted the ball into the USA box. But when he soared high to recollect his ball, so did Omar Gonzalez —the North American nation’s phenomenal centre-back, a man who certainly must’ve forced several scouts from top European clubs to sit up and take good notice of his skills.

That early move would be the story of the half. Schweinsteiger and Mesut Ozil would deceive their way through a tight US line and Gonzalez would be there in a jiffy. Then the 25-year old Texan (he is originally from Mexico) would show great maturity by keeping his head about him and sweep up with squeaky cleanliness.

With captain Philipp Lahm and Lukas Podolski (who would get substituted at half-time) near invisible in the falling rain and Gonzalez standing tall to most chances, a few good German men in Boateng, left-back Benedikt Hoewedes and Toni Kroos had to step in and step up. They created plenty, but Klinsmann had prepared his troops well. No spark lasted too long in the downpour.

At the interval, Germany coach Joachim Loew knew that a draw was enough to top the group. Still, he was in no mood to sit back and allow his former boss to dictate terms to him once again. So Loew got rid of the inept Podolski and introduced the man who has scored in four World Cups so far, Klose. And it was the 36-year old’s solo run in search for that Ronaldo-beating goal that caused the corner in the first place.

Standing close to the flag, Kroos played the corner short to Per Mertesacker at the right edge of the US goalie’s box. The giant defender chopped down on it powerfully to Howard’s left, who blocked the chance only with his fingertips at full-stretch. The ball, however, had decided to go in one way or the other. So it rebounded off Howard’s gloves and straight to Mueller on the left edge of the box. Already fallen, the ‘keeper of course stood no chance.

From here on, the chances continued to flow for Germany. But only their fans were watching the action on this field, until Portugal’s Ronaldo released the US fanatics from their misery with his first goal in this tournament. It was the 80th minute and the Yanks burst back into noisy life, surely confusing the Germans just as they threatened to double their lead deep in USA’s box. Funny game this. Following a tight draw to Portugal, USA’s football team looked like they had seen a ghost. Today, minutes after the final whistle confirmed a loss to Germany, the soccer side’s hope and uninhibited joy bounced back.

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