Five Points: Germany show cracks in title chase, Deschamps faces France selection dilemma

The latest challenge to a presumptive World Cup contender unfolded in rather unexpected fashion in Porto Alegre on Monday. Germany expected to dispatch Algeria with relative ease; Algeria, however, harbored a rather different idea about how the match should proceed and implemented a plan to expose evident German weaknesses.

Germany somehow muddled through its difficult afternoon to claim a 2-1 victory after extra time, but its performance – like the blips for Argentina and Brazil along their paths – raised questions about whether it can navigate through to the final on June 13. This edition of Five Points starts with the Germans’ narrow escape.

Germany survives Algeria scare with second-half uptick

These are the sorts of matches Germany usually wins with ruthless precision, but Algeria presented awkward opposition and there was no such precision on this occasion. Algeria’s combination of a compact defense and a direct approach out of the back tested the Germans for much of this game. Their poor display before the interval left them exposed to a shock upset, but the improvement after the break eventually placed them on the proper path.

Jogi Löw altered things after the interval to prompt some improvement, though the sum of those switches did not entirely come as a result of his own thought process. Andre Schürrle proved an inspired substitution even before he scored his winner. His movement created some openings and restored some of the menace to the disjointed work in the final third. Shkodran Mustafi’s injury prompted the arrival of Sami Khedira and the shift of Philipp Lahm back to his natural right back berth. Khedira influenced the game with more direct service out of midfield and represented a significant improvement over Lahm in that spot, though the decision to leave Miroslav Klose on the bench – particularly with the Algerians susceptible on crosses – felt a bit odd.

As the second half progressed, the Germans looked like the more likely side to win the game. They forced Rais M’bolhi into action – including a stunning stop on the snakebitten Thomas Müller – and reduced the streamlined threat of the Algerians over the top. Schürrle’s clever finish in extra time pulled the Germans clear before Mesut Ozil sealed the date with France with his late strike.

This performance reinforced some of the flaws inherent in this side. This group – even with Manuel Neuer functioning ably as sweeper keeper – is particularly exposed when the opposition plays over the top and tests the defense for pace. The possession does not necessarily translate to potency without Klose to supply the final touch. And there is a frailty about the group right now nearly exposed by a game Algeria side.

Germany mustered just enough to oust Algeria, but it must improve substantially in order to handle a French side capable of punishing errors and justify its continued inclusion among the title contenders. The cause isn’t lost yet and this side is still capable of winning the tournament on July 13, but Löw and his players have work to do before their quarterfinal tie on Friday.

Deschamps may need to drop Giroud to usher Benzema back into the fold

Karim Benzema rose through the ranks as a forward often deployed on the left side of a front three. His strengths – including the slicing run into the channel and onto his right foot – fit neatly within the role. It does, however, leave him on the periphery of the game if he is not brought into the play often enough. His superfluous role for much of France’s 2-0 victory over Nigeria and his subsequent menace after Antoine Griezmann’s arrival might force Didier Deschamps to reassess his star striker’s initial deployment.

Griezmann replaced the ineffective Olivier Giroud just after the hour and sparked the French to life. His arrival pushed Benzema into the middle and stretched the Nigerian defense. Nigeria – and Joseph Yobo, in particular – simply could not cope with another player scurrying about the attacking third to supplement Mathieu Valbuena’s industrious work on the right. Griezmann’s influence on Benzema (three shots in final 20 minutes after barely grazing the game in its first hour) and his role in the second goal – running across to the near post to force Yobo to turn into his own net – vindicated the decision to bring him into the match.

The question for Deschamps now: does he keep the faith with Giroud or turn to Griezmann from the outset in the quarterfinal against Germany? The latter choice makes more sense given the dearth of mobility along the German back four. Griezmann and Valbuena can dart into the channels and exploit the nominal fullbacks. Benzema can toil earnestly through the middle to occupy defenders and place himself in good spot.

Deschamps used a similar arrangement against Honduras to good effect, but he veered away from it after that point to accommodate Giroud. A return to that approach could lay the foundation for a better French performance and a possible berth in the semifinals.

Nigeria undone by a lack of concentration once again

Credit the Super Eagles for a largely effective display against France. Stephen Keshi – as he has established at previous major tournaments – knows how to construct a team and make life difficult on the opposition. Nigeria proved a formidable and worthy adversary for France on the day.

The eventual defeat stemmed from a couple of key factors. Ogenyi Onazi’s departure through injury – caused by a nasty Blaise Matuidi tackle that could have seen red from referee Mark Geiger – left the Nigerian back four exposed and stripped away the side’s best performer in the midfield. The alterations from Deschamps exacerbated the concerns by highlighting Yobo’s weakness to mobile forwards at this point in his career. And the continued inability to cope with set piece demands eventually handed France the critical first goal.

It proved particularly disheartening for Nigeria to concede the opener in such wanton fashion from a corner kick. Vincent Enyeama – brilliant for much of this tournament – flapped at the delivery for no good reason. Paul Pogba jumped freely at the back post to punish the error, sap any Nigerian desire to chase the game and usher France into the last eight.

AS GOOD AS IT GETS

Nigeria leaves the tournament after a mostly positive trek. It reached the round of 16 for the first time since 1998. It performed well for extended stretches with Enyeama, Onazi, Emannuel Emenike and Kenneth Omeruo as the outstanding performers. The dearth of fight in the final 10 minutes will sting, but the Super Eagles will return home with credit in the ledger.

Algeria nearly produces shock with relentless pursuit and tactical flexibility

The display against Germany represented the very best of Algeria at this tournament. Vahid Halilhodzic showed a keen ability to adapt to the demands of each game and tailor his selection and his tactical approach in kind. Those astute efforts squeezed Algeria into the knockout stage and nearly underpinned a place in the quarterfinals.

Halilhodizic made five changes to freshen his side and tinkered with his shape to frustrate the opposition. The compact setup crowded the preferred German operating areas and facilitated a direct approach out of the back. Algeria eschewed possession for long balls toward the front and forced Neuer off his line time and time again in a bid to expose the high German line. Sofiane Feghouli and El Arabi Soudani scampered through the channels, while Islam Slimani always offered a threat through the middle.

Those adjustments – combined with the commitment and the energy shown throughout the tournament – troubled Germany enough to pull the match into extra time. Algeria faded a bit after that point and ultimately succumbed after a valiant display, but its overall contribution to this game and the tournament as a whole represented a significant step forward.

Argentina, Switzerland search for steady footing

Expect a few goals when Argentina and Switzerland meet in Sao Paulo (12 p.m. ET on Tuesday). Argentina will make at least one change with Sergio Agüero ruled out. The potential injection of Ezequiel Lavezzi offers some much need width to the cause to provide more operating room for Lionel Messi. Switzerland faces a Herculean task to contain Messi and shore up its rickety defense without Steve von Bergen (facial fracture) to organize matters. Ottmar Hitzfeld may have a surprise or two in store for this match, but he must hope Johan Djourou and Fabian Schar improve in order to give his side a chance to withstand the Argentinian pressure. If the Swiss can hold out a bit, then they can foray forward with Josip Drmic and Xherdan Shaqiri both capable of posing problems for an Argentinian defense with problems of its own.

USA then meets Belgium in the last of the round of 16 fixtures (4 p.m. ET). Leander Schaerlaeckens previews the match from Salvador, while Five Points explains how the Americans can oust the Belgians and reach the last eight for the first time since 2002.