DOHA, Qatar — This felt, for stretches, like a Champions League group stage game between potential tournament winners. You prod, you push, but, ultimately, you err on the side of caution because you know that you’ll live to fight another day. And the damage of a resounding defeat — even if only psychological, even if only to answer the barrage of criticism and questioning — far outweighs the benefits of three points which, frankly, nobody will remember.
It could have been different, of course, if Japan had not somehow soiled the bed against Costa Rica earlier in the day, contriving to lose 1-0 to an opponent who had shipped seven goals against Spain and who, on paper, looked distinctly overmatched. Had Japan won, the arithmetic for Germany would have been brutally simple: Beat Spain or go home after just two games, along with Canada and Qatar (well, in the latter’s case, staying home).
Instead, Japan’s result meant that Germany’s fate will be decided, come what may, on the final matchday. The 1-1 draw against Spain, however, means Germany do not control their own destiny. They need to beat Costa Rica and hope that Spain beat Japan. Both likely, maybe even very likely, but then past World Cups have taught us not to take anything for granted. And, frankly, is Japan beating Spain or Germany failing to beat Costa Rica that much less likely than, say, a World Cup being awarded to a nation of 3 million in the middle of winter?
Besides, Germany know all about not taking things for granted. Their group stage exit at the hands of South Korea four years ago still smarts. And, at least on that occasion, they held the future in their own hands. Here in Qatar they do not.
Still, there was a vibe of conservatism and lack of urgency from both teams at the Al-Bayt Stadium Sunday night.
Manager Hansi Flick’s changes showed he was playing the long game. He moved Niklas Sule back into the heart of defence (nice idea, being the world’s biggest full-back, but not against Ferran Torres and Dani Olmo) and inserted Thilo Kehrer at right-back (you’ve got lemons, make lemonade). Leon Goretzka joined Joshua Kimmich and Ilkay Gundogan in midfield, in an effort to counter Luis Enrique’s patented “death by possession” approach.
Most tellingly, he shifted Thomas Muller to center-forward. It’s a role the Bayern Munich man hasn’t played regularly in more than a decade. At 33, he’s not what he was in terms of athleticism, and he was never the most technically refined player, but intelligence, charisma and mastery of spatial relations still make him an asset.
For much of the game, Flick was proven right. Germany did concede a few chances, but the press worked — if not to create the high turnovers so prized by Flick, then at least to contain Spain’s build-up to areas where it was less threatening.
For his part, it felt as if Spain coach Luis Enrique was also looking past Germany. His only change — Dani Carvajal for Cesar Azpilicueta — was more about load management for his aging right-backs than any tactical reason.
Spain played their game and Germany countered with a basic but effective press that limited Spain’s chances to a single Dani Olmo shot, brilliantly saved by Manuel Neuer. By half-time, it wasn’t much to write home about, but a clean sheet after the Japan collapse was already something.
Enrique can be unpredictable, but the introduction of a true center-forward like Alvaro Morata for Torres 10 minutes into the second half was straight out of the basic coaching manual. But sometimes the simplest moves are the most effective. Jordi Alba found space down the left and sent in a ball which Morata, after stealing ahead of Sule, let run across his body and stabbed home with the outside of his right foot. Shortly thereafter, Marco Asensio missed the chance to make it 2-0 and Flick decided it was time to gamble.
On came Leroy Sane (still maybe not fully fit, but fit enough to make an appearance) and battering-ram central striker Niclas Fullkrug. Jamal Musiala moved inside, where he could finally influence play, with two speedy wingers like Sane and Serge Gnabry either side of him and Fullkrug ahead of him.
The logical consequence? Spain pinned back. And, at this point, you were either going to get a Spanish goal on the counter or a German equalizer. We got the latter, seven minutes from time, with Sane combining with Musiala to set up a vicious Fullkrug blast into the top of Unai Simon‘s net.
Ten minutes later, after full-time and injury time, there was Enrique, his arm around Flick’s neck, chattering away and laughing. It felt cozy, as if these two men know they may well meet again.
Unless, of course, Costa Rica and Japan have something to stay about it.