”We played like a team again,” said Germany captain Philipp Lahm, who returned to right back in one of a string of tactically astute changes made by coach Joachim Low. ”Overall it was a good performance from us.”
In truth, the French depart this World Cup with something of a whimper. While they were hardly considered world-beaters — they struggled through qualification and needed a playoff to get here — they had shown flashes of class in the group stages and looked to have some genuine attacking threat. But against an assured German side that took their chances when they had them, history was put on repeat for Les Bleus. They have yet to win a World Cup match after going down a goal — and this is also Germany’s fourth straight semifinal, the first team ever to do so in the World Cup finals.
The conditions at kickoff were blistering. It was 86ºF by the half, and on the field it was a good ten degrees hotter. As a result, the game was notably slower than some of the other games staged at the stadium, but since both sides were playing more of a chess match, it’s difficult to argue that it affected the early going.
The Germans set up their traditional high line, looking to stroke the ball around and control the tempo, while France soaked up the pressure and tried to spring the counter. Didier Deschamps looked to use Antoine Griezmann and Mathieu Valbuena to get behind Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng, and expose the painful slowness of Benedikt Howedes.
Karim Benzema nearly demonstrated that inside the first ten minutes, when he, Griezmann and Valbuena combined for an attempt that caught Manuel Neuer going the wrong way, but eneded up missing the frame entirely. It was an early warning for both sides. As Algeria showed in the Round of 16, the Germans can be caught out. As an entire season of football has shown, Mr. Benzema can also be flagrantly wasteful.
And that waste was costly as the patient Germans struck first, and after only 12 minutes, capitalizing on a free-kick conceded by Paul Pogba. Up stepped Toni Kroos, and his looping ball in met Hummels, who headed it off the crossbar and past Hugo Lloris. It was a set-piece run to perfection, with Rapahel Varane kept out of the play until far too late.
The French tried to respond immediately, and as the half wore on, it became apparent that Griezmann and Benzema would make an impact. On the half hour, Griezmann raced past Boateng, then sent a cross through the box to Valbuena, who tried to square it to Benzema. Neuer made a fine stop, just tipping the ball away enough to ensure the Real Madrid man could not volley it on frame, with Hummels kneeing it away.
Hummels, recently returned from a bout of the flu that has swept through the German camp, was everywhere, blocking a Benzema header a few moments later. Yet as the game trickled to the half, France did look a team in the ascendance and after the break, the Germans looked leggy and tired.
But the French were unable to impose their will on the match and aside from a flash here and there, such as when Blaise Matuidi charged down the flank on the hour, sending in a fierce cross that Bastian Schweinsteiger was forced to parry away; or when on the ensuing corner, Varane tried to beat Neuer to the top corner but to no avail, they were largely held at bay. The Germans did enough to keep the French honest, with Thomas Muller his usually harrying presence, but they looked a team content with their slim advantage, particularly after their testing game against a surprising Algerian side.
It wasn’t until late — when the game became stretched and the Germans’ high line began to wobble — that Neuer was forced to do any serious work. Matuidi got off a good shot with 15 minutes to play that the keeper ably parried, but the French attack was better summed up by a play that had occurred only moments earlier. Benzema had the ball with time in the box, only to see his attempt blocked out again by Hummels.
France can take away the fact that they looked far more unified than the laughingstock of a squad that showed up in 2010. Deschamps has this side playing in a recognizable style, and has some fresh talent to boot. It was perhaps a step too far for them to expect to get past one of this tournament’s favorites. ”There was not much in it,” France’s Deschamps said after the defeat. "We don’t have the international experience Germany has.”
France will host the European Championships in two years time, and if they can continue to grow and gel, they will be a force to be reckoned with. ”We just weren’t efficient enough,” said Valbuena, who sat, dejected, on the field after the final whistle. ”Our efforts just weren’t enough, it’s incredibly disappointing.”