Germany labour but pick up all three points against Ukraine
Goals from Mustafi and Schweinsteiger enough for world champions to open with win
Germany’s Bastian Schweinsteiger celebrates with Joachim Loew after scoring his side’s second goal during their Ruro 2016 clash with Ukraine. Photo: Getty Images
One game gone and, as usual, three points chalked up. Germany began this major tournament in familiar fashion, easing their way in with a win.
While not always totally convincing, Joachim Löw’s side suggested his blend of experience and exuberance are maturing at just the right rate. And to the delight of their large following, Bastian Schweinsteiger added the final touch with the last kick just minutes after coming on as a substitute.
Germany had exuded their usual air of calm confidence during the buildup, but there was always the vague suspicion that it masked an uncharacteristic vulnerability.
With Mats Hummels ruled out of the match injured, Shkodran Mustafi of Valencia slotted into the back four alongside Jérôme Boateng with Jonas Hector, the Cologne left-back who has filled the huge boots of Phi lipp Lahm, at left-back and Schalke’s Benedikt Höwedes preferred to Liverpool’s Emre Can on with the right.
Early on, the pattern was set. Ukraine, who conceded only five goals during qualifying, would sit deep and try and catch Germany on the break as they began their quest to match the achievements of Spain and France in winning the World Cup and European Championship back to back.
An early scare when the captain Manuel Neuer saved from Seville’s Yevhen Konoplyanka aside, Germany looked predictably menacing, their dazzling trio of attacking midfielders, Julian Draxler, Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller, buzzing prodctively behind Mario Götze.
Their early approach work was slick but the final touch lacking. On 11 minutes, Draxler made it to the byline and hung the ball up for Müller and he nodded it back across goal to Hector, who could barely connect and sliced the ball so badly that Müller was able to keep it in play.
When the breakthrough came, it was the man who only made the team due to the absence of Hummels – who was not considered by Löw to have recovered sufficiently from a calf injury – who scored it.
The referee Martin Atkinson, making his debut in a major tournament, harshly adjudged that Ukraine’s centre back Yaroslav Rakitskiy had brought down Müller on the right when he had cleanly won the ball – albeit from slightly behind the German attacker.
When the ball was expertly swung over by Kroos, it was Mustafi – who made only one appearance for Everton during his three years with the Merseyside club – who rose to head it past Andriy Pyatov. On the bench Low, natty in a fitted grey T-shirt, wore the look of a man who had planned it all along.
Germany could have doubled their lead 10 minutes later when a purring Kroos played a masterful ball to Sami Khedira, whose first touch was sublime. But Pyatov, rushing from his goal, saved smartly.
Yet for all Germany’s possession, Ukraine were far from backward in coming forward. Judging from their rhetoric before the match, Mykhailo Fomenko’s Ukraine side might have been expected to park the bus. They began by yielding possession but they started to pour forward as the half wore on, with Yevhen Konoplyanka particularly impressive marauding down the left flank.
The closest they came was when Yarmolenko crossed for Konoplyanka, who scuffed the ball back across goal. It hit Boateng on a thigh, who sent it spinning towards his own goal before he recovering to clear from his own line.
Yevhen Khacheridi also went close with a fine header from a corner, smartly saved by Neuer, as Germany’s uncharacteristic nervousness at set pieces returned.
Before the match there had been disturbing reports of skirmishes between rival fans in Lille city centre, the entire country seemingly on edge after events in Marseille over the weekend. Inside the stadium, a rousing atmosphere from both ends, hit a lull early in the second half.
Germany were still working the ball well but unable to find a way through. Kroos skimmed the top of the cross bar, Khedira had a shot well saved from long range and Müller also tested Pyatov from distance, but the menace of the first half hour had dissipated.
Yet Ukraine, who had ended the first half strongly, also seemed becalmed after the interval. A Rakitskiy free kick that stung Neuer’s palms was the closest they came.
Germany have never lost an opening game in a major championships, while Löw has won his last four as manager of the national side. They largely remained in control here but for that 10-minute spell at the end of the first half when Konoplyanka, a reputed target for Leicester City, had upped the ante.
Ukraine later threw Yevhen Seleznyov on for their lone striker Roman Zozulya but to little immediate effect.
Germany began this match with six of the players who started at the Maracana two years ago, emphasising the extent to which this is a team metamorphosing into a new phase.
One of the heroes of that campaign, Wolfsburg’s André Schürrle, entered the action with just over 10 minutes to go and injected some pace, forcing a meaningful save from Pyatov and looking to stretch the Ukrainian defence.
There was a late scare when Germany’s opening goalscorer, Mustafi, had a communications breakdown with Neuer and Ukraine forced a late flurry of corners.
While Germany failed to extend their lead, the theoretical risk always remained that they would throw it away as England had in Marseille the previous evening. But, this being the Germans, that never looked a serious possibility and Schweinsteiger added the gloss to the evening at the death from a superb Özil run and cross.