Germany’s World Cup title defence seemed to be in tatters until Toni Kroos’ late winner earned a 2-1 win against Sweden in Group F on Saturday.
Despite Joachim Low’s side dominating possession, Ola Toivonen gave the Swedes a shock lead in the 32nd minute at the Fisht Olympic Stadium.
Marco Reus then equalised three minutes into the second half but a winner did not seem forthcoming while Jerome Boateng’s sending off for a second booking in the 82nd minute only compounded their misery.
However, Kroos redeemed himself for his part in Sweden’s goal by scoring spectacularly from a free-kick deep into stoppage time.
Here’s a look at some of the key talking points from the encounter.
LESSONS NOT LEARNED
Germany had over 70 per cent of possession in the first half but Sweden always looked the more threatening of the two sides as they managed to muster four shots to their opponents’ seven. While Low’s side dominated the ball, the Swedes were more than happy to sit back and allow the passing to go on in front of them, restricting the reigning World Cup champions to shots from range.
Meanwhile, every time Germany relinquished possession, Janne Andersson’s side posed a real threat on the counter, one that they really shouldn’t have even been capable of. The Sweden team is almost entirely devoid of speed with Emil Forsberg the only forward runner capable of a decent turn of pace. Yet, Germany’s lack of protection at the back left them vulnerable as it only required a basic high press and straightforward direct play to leave Manuel Neuer exposed.
Low’s side pushed higher and higher up the pitch in possession, failing to heed the vast green abyss behind them. Clearly their shock defeat to Mexico wasn’t quite the wake-up call it should’ve been. As soon as they lost the ball, their centre-backs were immediately under pressure and perhaps it isn’t surprising then that Jerome Boateng was left to make a few desperate interventions and was eventually sent off for two bookings in the bargain.
Going forward in this tournament, the holders are going to have to address their palpable vulnerability to the counter-attack, particularly against tougher opposition. So far, they seem to have undermined the attacking quality of their opponents.
Sweden were never expected to get a victory against Germany but having taken the lead and then conceding the winner so late, they will be understandably aggrieved to not at least come away with a draw.
Nevertheless, they can hold their heads up high. They gave a good account of themselves, perhaps only guilty of sitting too deep in the second half and inviting Germany onto them.
The threat they posed on the break though is remarkable. They are a hardworking side and do the basics well. Given the heart they’ve shown in their opening two games, you wouldn’t bet against them progressing despite this defeat.
They will have to beat Mexico by a margin greater than Germany beat South Korea for that to happen but it isn’t outside the realm of possibility.
Germany looked like a different team after half-time and in many ways, they were. Apart from the general attitude of the players in the second half – who emerged from the break with fire in their bellies – it was a single substitution that made a huge impact, altering their approach and upping the tempo. Julian Draxler was sacrificed for Mario Gomez who took up the central striking role with Timo Werner moving to the left flank.
The RB Leipzig forward was largely anonymous in the opening 45 minutes but perhaps the key player in the next. His pace put Swedish right-back Mikael Lustig in a world of discomfort. Suddenly, the Germans were far more direct with Werner tearing down the left side and drilling balls into the box where Gomez proved to be a big and useful target.
That’s exactly how Germany scored both their goals. Reus bundled in Werner’s cross and Kroos converted his free-kick from a foul earned by the youngster.
That only dredges up the controversial omission of Leroy Sane from the World Cup squad. Despite, the Manchester City winger’s sensational season in which he was voted Premier League Young Player of the Year, Low decided against taking him to Russia. Given how Werner’s pace proved to be a threat in this scenario, one can only assume that Germany could’ve been even more effective with Sane bombing down the other side.
England have taken concerns over video assistant referees to FIFA and boss Gareth Southgate has been reassured about the system ahead of the team’s shot at World Cup progress against Panama.
A week that started with a last-gasp winner against Tunisia ends with a shot at reaching the knockout phase. Victory against the Central Americans on Sunday would be enough to assure the Three Lions of qualification from Group G before facing Belgium.
Southgate played down the controversial publication of assistant manager Steve Holland’s training notes ahead of facing Panama, as well as tempering concerns over the sweltering heat in Nizhny Novgorod and officiating in Russia.
Questions over VAR only increased after Monday’s 2-1 win against Tunisia, but the England manager is satisfied with FIFA’s clarification after the football Association went to the world governing body.
“Dan (Ashworth, FA technical director) has had correspondence with the head of the referees, so we’re very comfortable with the responses we had,” Southgate said on the eve of facing Panama.
“My own view is most things that have been referred to the VAR have ended up with the correct decisions.
“I suppose there’s always this element of which bits are going to be refereed and which bits aren’t that seems to be open to interpretation.
“It really isn’t something we can control. We’ve just got to accept whatever decisions are given by the referee on the field or the VAR officials.
“It’s a bit of a different dynamic for everybody, but we’ve got to abide by whatever decisions are given and make sure we keep focus, which was what pleased me the other night.
“A penalty went against us, but our response was good, we kept our discipline, we kept our focus on the game and that’s what we’ve got to make sure we do.
“Emails were exchanged, and Dan asked for some clarity and we were happy with the responses. But no big issues, really.”
England looked to have strong penalty claims against Tunisia when Harry Kane was twice hauled over in the penalty area, but Southgate is content for now.
The heat could be as much as an issue as refereeing as England look to reach the last 16 in sweltering Nizhny Novgorod.
Panama arrived in the city on Friday and trained at the stadium on the eve of the game, whereas the Three Lions’ first taste of playing in the energy-sapping heat and humidity – considerably different to their Repino base – will come on Sunday.
“We never train at the stadium before any of our qualifiers and I think it’s fairly typical for most of the teams when they play in the Champions League,” Southgate said.
“When I came to the FIFA workshop, they were quite keen for teams not to train at the stadiums to protect the pitches.
“It makes sense for us to train earlier in the day, be able to recover and then travel.
“So, really, it’s about the flow of the day and getting our training done to leave maximum time for physical recovery before kick-off.
“We kick off at 3pm tomorrow, so if we train tonight there’s less time between that session and the game.
“The heat is of course different in different parts of the country and we just have to adapt to that. There’s no physiological benefit to training in the heat the couple of weeks before and thinking there’ll be any adaptation.
“We’ve just got to cope with that and I feel that it is important that we are a team that keep possession of the ball, so in the heat that will be key in the moments when we need to attack with the ball and the moments where maybe we rest with possession.”
Southgate says England will have “22 players available” on Sunday, with the thigh strain sustained by Dele Alli against Tunisia likely to see Ruben Loftus-Cheek come in.
It is a match the manager is not taking lightly as England prepared to face the side ranked 55th in the world.
“We’ve seen already the difficulty big countries in terms of rankings have had in terms breaking down lower-ranked teams,” Southgate added.
“That’s been a theme right the way throughout, so there’s no way there’s any complacency in the way we’ve prepared for the game.
“The situation in the group is obviously a healthy one for us, but we have got to focus on our performance.”
Ola Toivonen made the unthinkable seem possible when he put Sweden ahead with a delicate chip in the first half.
Marco Reus spearheaded the German revival when he levelled early in the second half.
They surged forward but Sweden were stout in resisting them and Germany’s progress was halted late on when Jerome Boateng stupidly saw red.
Even so, they pulled their fading hopes of progression out of the fire when Kroos rocketed in a thunderous set-piece with seconds remaining.
Here are our Germany ratings:
Manuel Neuer – 7:
Clawed away Berg’s header to prevent his side going in 2-0 down at the break. Sturdy even if his defence wasn’t.
Joshua Kimmich – 6:
Constant outlet in attack as Germany poured forward. Crossing in particular a threat, but struggled to shackle Forsberg.
Jerome Boateng – 2:
A few wild hacks from distance seemed desperate, while he struggled to marshal his back line. Red card was inexplicable.
Antonio Rudiger – 4:
Extremely lucky not to give a penalty away for a clear foul on Berg. Matched his colleague alongside him for how poor he was.
Jonas Hector – 5:
Struggled as Sweden countered continuously. Settled down and got forward in support in the second half.
Sebastian Rudy – 5:
The combative Bayern Munich man was bloodied by Forsberg’s boot and forced off in the first half, much to his dismay.
Toni Kroos – 7:
Uncharacteristically gave away possession and then failed to track back for Sweden’s opener. Improved after break and sublime free-kick won it.
Marco Reus – 7:
Lively and creative from the off. Hauled Germany level within minutes of the restart. Still questioning his inclusion over Ozil?
Thomas Muller – 5:
Early tug on Forsberg went unpunished. Otherwise toiled and tussled with several opponents as he failed to affect proceedings.
Julian Draxler – 6:
Bright, especially when linking up with Reus. But spent most of his time on the field going backwards.
Timo Werner – 7:
His pace and energy posed problems, especially when pushed out wide. Cross caused chaos and was swept in by Reus.
Ilkay Gundogan – 6:
Came on early and almost immediately contributed with a goal. Anonymous second half though.
Mario Gomez – 6:
Introduction made a difference as he caused havoc in the centre, with Werner excellent out wide.
Julian Brandt – 7:
Brought on as Germany chased a victory. Unlucky not to be a match-winner as fierce strike cannoned off the post.