Sport | European heavyweights survive tests
At least one European side will reach the semi-finals of the World Cup, after Germany and France booked a tantalising quarter-final date against each other on Friday. Both emerged shaken but not stirred from their respective round of 16 games, France beating Nigeria 2-0 and Germany taking care of Algeria 2-1 in what surely must count as one of the most intense games of the tournament so far. Euan Cunningham looks back at the action and previews todays games.
France played in the 5pm kick off and looked the more composed side from the off. Paul Pogba, Karim Benzema and Yohann Cabaye all had chances to put Les Blues ahead, with a rightly disallowed goal from Emmanuel Emenike the only opportunity Nigeria had to break the deadlock. Pogba almost took Nigerian goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama’s head off with a thumping volley, Benzema had an effort fortuitously cleared off the line and then Cabaye’s powerful lob from a hastily-cleared corner crashed back off the crossbar. With all this pressure, a goal was perhaps inevitable and it duly arrived after 79 minutes to settle some growing French nerves. Enyeama uncharacteristically flapped at a corner from the left, and with him out of the picture Pogba was left unchallenged at the back post to loop a header home.
The second goal came in injury time and put a seal on what had been an impressive performance from Didier Deschamps’ team. Mathieu Valbuena skimmed in a cross from the right, which took an unfortunate nick of Joseph Yobo (remember him Everton fans?), to settle in the far corner of the net and wrap up progression to the quarters for the French.
Germany will meet them as a result of winning a nervy, tense affair against Algeria. The midfield that had looked so slick and sharp during qualifying and the group stages suddenly appeared one-paced, jaded and (very surprisingly, given the players on show), lacking in quality. Thomas Muller was looking frustrated as he ploughed a lone furrow up front on his own, starved of good service, while the central defenders (Mertesacker and Boateng), were often troubled by the pace and willingness to run in behind of the Algerian forwards.
With chances at a premium in the first half, it took until roughly 20 minutes from time for the Germans to start creating chances. Muller saw a thumping header from a lovely cross saved, several players had shots blocked and the Algerian keeper M’Bolhi distinguished himself. As the match entered extra time, a Germany goal looked almost certain. It duly arrived after just a minute of the extra 30, substitute Andre Schurrle cleverly flicking a low cross into the ground, where it bounced up and over the despairing dive of M’Bolhi. This seemed to knock the stuffing out of a visibly-exhausted Algeria and with only a few minutes remaining Germany wrapped the game up. Mesut Ozil was given the freedom of the penalty area to hammer home after Mullers effort had been blocked on the line. Although the Algerians did pull a goal back in the dying embers of the game, it was all a little too late for a team that had dominated the early stages and will feel very hard done by.
In todays matches, the USA take on Belgium in Salvador and Argentina face Switzerland in Sau Paulo. Belgium, despite winning their group and all 3 games, have not yet showed the flair and skill as a unit which so many of their individual players (Hazard, Lukaku etc) show in the Premier League on a consistent basis, and will have to be careful as they play a USA side which has impressed so far. With a solid back line, a combative midfield and the industry and ability of Clint Dempsey up front, it was no real surprise to see Jurgen Klinsmann’s troops qualify from a group that contained Germany and Portugal.
Argentina also need to be slightly wary of the Swiss, who have added flair in the shape of Bayern Munich winger Xherdan Shaquiri, a slight, tricky player who scored a brilliant hattrick against Honduras. However, if Messi can continue the goalscoring form he has showed in the tournament so far, and if he is backed up by Di Maria, Aguero and Lavezzi, a quarter-final berth should be Argentina’s.