Two knee-caps, belonging to two vastly different number sevens — one a machine and the other an artist — were the deep focus of camera lenses in the lead-up to the Germany-Portugal game. The first, fitted uneasily above Bastian Schweinsteiger’s right shin, wobbled during the pre-match training session, forcing the paramedics to airlift him to a medical facility in Salvador. The second, meanwhile, had caused an immense amount of pain to Cristiano Ronaldo and all of Portugal.
Minutes before kick-off at the majestic Arena Fonte Nova on Monday, Germany coach Joachim Loew announced through his squad-sheet that Schweinsteiger, though fit, would play no part in Alemania’s starting eleven. Loew’s counterpart Paulo Bento, however, couldn’t dare dream of benching the face of world football, considering he is also the soul of this Portuguese side.
Just 45 minutes into the match, how Bento must’ve wished he had. For Ronaldo had done precious little.
In fact, Ronaldo did even less than little as his side’s over-reliance on his legs crippled Portugal. Consider the following as a worthy illustration of that dependence; and also a microcosm of everything that went wrong with Portugal in their opening game.
In the 34th minute, just 120 seconds after conceding their second goal, Nani found himself deep in Germany’s half with only left-back Benedikt Hoewedes to beat to have a real attempt at pulling one back. Despite Hoewedes tugging at his maroon shirt, the swift-footed Nani stepped over the ball, cut to his left and charged dangerously towards goalie Manuel Neuer. The duel had turned Mano-o-Mano.
Only, Nani wanted to make it two-on-one. Just as he reached the right edge of the box, he all but halted and peered over his left shoulder in search of his former Manchester United team-mate. His boss did arrive, but along with German reinforcements. Nani still tapped the ball left and allowed Ronaldo the first bite at the apple; and CR7 obliged by lining up his best shot. But by this time, his best wasn’t nearly good enough. Per Mertesacker, having positioned himself for the block well in time, deflected Portugal’s dream chance into a nighmarish corner.
Instantly, the Portuguese section of the 51,000 strong crowd howled with disgust. But it was too late — for Nani, Ronaldo and Portugal. Over the next 11 minutes and by the end of the first half, they had let in two more goals and let out their best (and most volatile) defender in Pepe, lost to a red card. The match was over for everyone concerned, except perhaps Germany’s Thomas Mueller.
Unlike Portugal, Germany do not depend on one man. Far from it. With a midfield/frontline consisting of Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira, Toni Kroos, Mario Goetze, captain Philipp Lahm and Mueller himself, they don’t need to. Yet, somehow, it’s almost always the last name on that list — a man who is neither a forward nor a midfielder — that lashes the back of the net at World Cups, whether with long-rangers, tap-ins or penalties.
Each of those finishing styles were put on display in Salvador as Mueller added three more to his five from South Africa to take his World Cup tally to eight from six matches.
He must be dreaming of his second consecutive Golden Boot, just as his side must now be dreaming of their fourth golden trophy. Looking too far ahead? Sure. But blame Mueller and a methodic Mannschaft for that.
In the 11th minute, just a move or two after Germany’s Kroos tried to penetrate the Portuguese wall from the left, Goetze now had his chance from the centre. Dribbling the ball with great control, the Bayern Munich man (one of six in the starting eleven) decided to go solo despite having defender Joao Pereira stuck to him like a leech. As Goetze hurtled forward and entered the six-yard box, Pereira still hadn’t let go. So Goetze went down. And Mueller’s penalty went in.
The goal of the game, however, was the only one Mueller didn’t strike. In the 32nd minute, Ozil slipped down the right flank and released Kroos from the centre towards goal. Kroos fired, but Portugal’s ‘keeper Rui Patricio got his fingertips to it. From the resultant corner, the goalie wouldn’t even sight the ball, blindsided by a leaping Pepe (189 cm) and a soaring Mats Hummels (192 cm), Germany’s centreback. Lahm had swerved his corner perfectly on to Hummels head and the big man nodded it in.
The match wasn’t over yet. But it would be when Real Madrid’s Pepe foolishly caught Mueller in the face to stop the German from lurking too close. If that wasn’t enough to flash him the red card just before half-time, his following head butt against a fallen Mueller was. With a gaping hole the size of Pepe in Portugal’s defence all through the second half, no reinforcements could plug the German wave from crashing right through.
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