Germany, France square off in World Cup with lingering history

RIO DE JANEIRO —

Everyone, it seems, has a grudge against the Germans, who could be forgiven for finding it a bit tedious.

No sooner have they disposed of Algeria — who were supposed to be driven by the notion of revenge for the 1982 arrangement by which West Germany and Austria qualified from their group at the North African nation’s expense — than along comes France (live, Saturday, 12 p.m. ET), complete with memories of the hideous assault by goalkeeper Harald "Toni" Schumacher on Patrick Battiston during a classic semifinal of the same tournament.

What next? Well, the Netherlands are still in this World Cup and their feelings about the Germans can be acute, as anyone who saw the orange celebrations when Marco van Basten and company won a European Championship semifinal in Hamburg is 1988 would testify. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. And anyway, as Henry Ford said, history is bunk. Especially as no French player who will take the field in Rio de Janeiro, save for Patrice Evra, was born when Battiston suffered his tooth-removing collision with Schumacher.

A look at the goalkeepers about to do duty in the Maracana is nonetheless significant, given the adventurous style of German’s Manuel Neuer in this tournament. The Bayern Munich star has been likened to a sweeper due to his eagerness to race from his line and far out of the penalty area to clear threatening through balls.

MONEY ISN'T EVERYTHING

He has not been caught out, but it might have happened in the Round of 16 game had his Algerian opponent flicked the bouncing ball over him instead of controlling it and being tackled. France will have noted that and Karim Benzema, say, could be expected to make a different choice if he runs behind a high defensive line. Neuer will have to be careful not to get stranded.

Although Nigeria proved a tougher nut to crack, a header from the magnificent Paul Pogba did the trick and substitute Antoine Griezmann forced an own-goal in stoppage time. Meanwhile, Hugo Lloris kept his third clean sheet out of four. The keeper, whose Neuer-like advances were a subject for discussion among Tottenham fans and others in the past English season, has been excellent in Brazil, emphasizing that this a French team without an obvious weakness.

Not even temperamental — as we have mentioned before, Deschamps’s players all seem to like each other. And it’s also acknowledged that the coach has been able to take advantage of a relatively undemanding group to reset and refresh players. Pogba looked a beneficiary of this against Nigeria, when the former Manchester United youngster, now with Juventus, gave arguably the finest all-round performance by a midfielder in the whole tournament.

If France have a particular strength, it’s midfield. Pogba, Yohan Cabaye and Paris-St Germain’s wonderfully energetic Blaise Matuidi provide a solid platform from which the wide men can make forays. Little Mathieu Valbuena has been highly impressive with his craft and courage on one flank, while Griezmann’s arrivals on the other side have suggested that the succession to the injured Franck Ribery is assured. All that’s needed is for someone to share the scoring burden with Benzema.

Based on current form alone, France should be favored to progress to a semifinal with Brazil or Colombia. Thomas Muller, naturally, begs to differ. Although the Germans’ main attacker has been fighting a cold, like other squad members, since the trip south to chilly Porto Alegre to face Algeria, he’s confident everyone — including midfield leader Bastian Schweinsteiger, who came off with a cramp — will be fit to face the French.

SEEKING GREATNESS

If we cast our minds back four years to when Germany graced the South African World Cup with a young and gifted team in the images of Muller and Mesut Ozil, there were some of us who wondered if it was worth any other nation turning up at this one — the Germans, having matured, would be a class above the lot. It hasn’t quite worked out that way. There are still defensive issues and Miroslav Klose, one goal off a World Cup record, is now 36; hence Low’s frequent use of Muller at the front.

But the Germans are experts at developing in the course of tournaments, and Muller’s view of this one might be seen as ominous. "You have the sense that we should have apologized for getting to the quarterfinal,’’ Muller admitted. "We made mistakes [against Algeria] but won the game. If the Italians had won like that, they’d be clever. For us it’s the end of the world. Our campaign is much better than in 2010. To suggest anything else is laughable. We didn’t have the quality then that we do now.’’

Then, you may recall, they beat Argentina 4-0 before losing in the semifinals to eventual winners Spain and finishing third. So, France will be under no illusions. Deschamps, who knows what it takes to lift the greatest trophy, will make sure of that.

We have played a very good World Cup and we will have a major opponent in Germany who is used to these situations," Deschamps told reporters on Thursday. "They always seem to get to the quarterfinals, semifinals or final so are more experienced. Our strong points are that our players are very competitive and some play for major European clubs at a top level so we have had to make them more united."

Deschamps added: "The fact that you are in the French team means you have duties and responsibilities and the spirit has been very high since the beginning of our preparation period. There is no pressure on the players, history is what has been and gone and tomorrow we will maybe write a new page in history."

I’m sticking with the French. No European nation has ever won a World Cup this side of the Atlantic. But what was it Henry Ford said about history?