Ken Early: Niclas Füllkrug’s beefy riposte earns Germany draw against skilful Spain

Pedri appears to be the Vishnu of legs as he dazzles on the pitch in World Cup clash

A late equaliser by Niclas Füllkrug rescued Germany at the Al Bayt stadium tonight after a chastening night spent chasing skinny Spanish shadows.

The midfield three selected by Hansi Flick was tough, hard and vastly experienced. Manchester City’s brain İlkay Gündoğan (32), FC Bayern’s engine Joshua Kimmich (27), and general-purpose muscleman Leon Goretzka (also 27). Between them they have won 16 league titles in Germany and England and played in more than 1,400 senior matches for club and country.

Against these Luis Enrique sent out Pedri, who turned 20 last week, and the 18-year old Gavi, playing the 84th senior match of his career. Sergio Busquets’s (34) vast experience made up the deficit somewhat – but for the title-laden Germans, to be asked to compete against opponents of this inexperience was not far off a professional affront.

Just imagine how it felt hardly being able to get near them.


It was stunning to behold the casual superiority of the 20-year-old Pedri over everyone who came near him. You know the Hindu god Vishnu, he of the extra arms? At times Pedri appears to be the Vishnu of legs. When he slows down and you look carefully you can see he has the same number of feet as all the other players but he creates the effect of having more by using both of them all the time, passing the ball from left foot to right around challenges the way Andres Iniesta used to.

Besides his many-footed dribbling skills Pedri glides over the ground like a young Ryan Giggs, has the endurance of a marathon runner and combines laser-guided passing with the kind of awareness of what is going on around him that makes you wonder if there’s a drone somewhere above the pitch feeding images directly into his brain.

Imagine the feelings of Germany’s three senior men confronting this brilliant upstart. Did they have the humility and solidarity to accept their inferiority and the grim determination to cling on regardless? There had been talk of division in the German camp since the defeat to Japan. İlkay Gündoğan, who had been withdrawn after 70 minutes with Germany leading 1-0, afterwards accused his team-mates of failing to show for the ball. His agent then let it be known that Gundogan was fully fit and hadn’t needed to be substituted for any physical reason.

Showing for the ball wasn’t going to be such a big issue in this game because most of the time Germany didn’t have it. The one vaguely promising move they created in the first half came when Gundogan sent a quick lay-off into the path of Goretzka bustling through the centre. He tried to play in Serge Gnabry but the winger ran offside.

There was hardly anything else in that 45 to answer a stream of Spanish attacks, the closest of which saw Neuer divert Olmo’s shot on to the bar. Germany were reduced to the situation Ireland so often find themselves in, trying to keep it tight at the back and hoping to get something from a set piece. Their most creative player was the Spanish goalkeeper Unai Simon, who passed the ball straight to Gnabry on 25 minutes, but Gnabry couldn’t make him pay.

Just before half-time it looked as though fortune might be smiling on Germany, when Rüdiger rose unmarked to head home Kimmich’s free kick, but the replay showed he had run needlessly offside. The cheer celebrating the goal’s cancellation was louder than the one for the goal itself.

The moment highlighted Spain’s biggest apparent vulnerability, besides Simon’s error-prone distribution. Their all-Manchester City central defence pairs Aymeric Laporte with Rodri, a classy defensive midfielder not renowned for his aerial battling. Spain have evolved beyond worrying about whether their center backs can head the ball; the opponent is usually too far away from goal for it to matter, and not many teams these days have the centre-forwards to test them with long balls. But when the opposition has players like Jamal Musiala you will always give away a couple of free-kicks.

When Gavi brought down Musiala on 60 minutes Germany had another set-piece chance, but Kimmich’s delivery was uncharacteristically awful, missing everybody in the area and bouncing out for a goal kick. Spain restarted quickly, moved the ball right and then switched, and suddenly Alba was running free down the left. His low cross found Morata at the near post, getting there ahead of Süle to help the ball into Neuer’s near top corner. The striker had been on the field only eight minutes as a substitute for Ferran Torres.

Flick had to try something different. Having been thoroughly outclassed in 21st century-style football he decided to see how Spain would handle a bit of old-fashioned kick and rush. Gundogan, Müller and Kehrer came off, Leroy Sané, Lukas Klostermann and Niclas Füllkrug went on as the German coach sought to add speed and physicality to the attack. Füllkrug is the kind of strong journeyman centre-forward who might get to drive the team bus in Spain. This time, at least, Flick did not make the mistake of taking off Musiala, his most gifted attacker.

With seven minutes remaining, Germany’s prodigy conjured an opening, spinning past a couple of Spanish defenders on the edge of the box. Before Musiala had time to steady himself for a shot, Füllkrug came steaming on to the ball and hammered a shot over Simon and into the top of the net. It was a magnificently beefy riposte to everything that had gone before it.

Thanks to Japan’s unexpected failure against Costa Rica, Germany are still alive in this World Cup. After this schooling at the hands of Pedri and Busquets, staying humble shouldn’t be a problem.

Ken Early

Ken Early

Ken Early is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in soccer