Germany vs Sweden
Fisht Stadium, Sochi - Saturday, 7pm
Joachim Löw is sick of hearing about the Champions Curse. When a Russian reporter started talking about Italy failing to get out of their World Cup group in 2010, and Spain also failing in 2014, the Germany coach was already looking impatient long before the question meandered to its inevitable conclusion.
“I’ve answered that question a couple of times now, I’ve been asked very often,” Löw said. “Of course, when you have won the title, it’s very difficult to keep up the determination, the passion, to repeat the feat - which is why in the last 100 years not many teams have done it. Spain were not able to dominate in 2014 like they had in 2010, it’s clearly not easy. But we will show a reaction. If we win, we’re back in the race.”
Germany have endured a difficult week since beginning their campaign with a 1-0 defeat to Mexico, with almost every player that started the game coming in for criticism, and Löw too has taken his share. It was striking that he had begun his pre-match press conference with a demand for the players to show passion. "I've told the players, the most important things are energy and body language, and that was lacking in our match against Mexico," he said. "Those are prerequisites. It is a World Cup about passion and really defending with all you have. The mindset plays a very important role. You need to show power, you need to show determination."
Some of the most scathing criticism of Germany's performance against Mexico came from their own central defender Mats Hummels, who accused his teammates of forgetting their defensive responsibilities. The German TV network ZDF produced an analysis package showing how the referee had out-sprinted the young right-back Joshua Kimmich in the move that led to Mexico's goal.
Maybe that demonstrated a lack of passion and determination on the part of Kimmich. More likely it was a kind of complacency - he expected his teammates to deal with it. The stories coming out of the German camp suggest that nobody will be in that frame of mind when they play Sweden. They are said to have spent much of the last few days venting home truths at each other in heated team meetings.
It was clear against Mexico that Germany’s problems ran deeper than a lack of passion. Their commitment to a particular kind of attacking football had started to look a little ideological, as though they had fallen in love with the theory of what they are trying to do - keep the ball high up the pitch, pen the opponents back in their third - and forgotten that you still have to guard against whatever measures the opposition might take to disrupt your plans.
Mexico exposed two big tactical problems in the holders' team, one defensive and one offensive. The defensive one was the one Hummels complained about - the shocking vulnerability to counter-attacks. Mexico only scored once from the four quick breaks they engineered against Germany's exposed defence: it could have been much worse. Löw must decide whether Sami Khedira is still mobile enough to act as Toni Kroos' minder in the centre of midfield. If he stays in the team it is clear that he is going to need help from the full-backs to guard the spaces in behind.
The offensive problem was the lack of a penalty box predator like Miroslav Klose. Klose was not very fast but he was quick over five yards, he was not physically dominant but he was sharp and precise in the air. Not many players were better at attacking crosses. With his anticipation and timing, Klose regularly turned hopeful balls into goals, which is why he ended up scoring 15 in the World Cup, more than anyone else in history.
Germany's attacking against Mexico could be characterised as 90 minutes of hopeful balls. How Germany could do with a 27-year old Klose now, instead of the 40-year old version who sits alongside Löw in his new role as assistant manager. The pacy Timo Werner is probably a better all-round footballer than Klose but a lot of his best work happens outside the box, running in the channels. Since Germany spend most of every game surrounding the opposition penalty area, this is precisely the skill set they don't need. Mario Gomez is more of a Klose-type, but even at his peak a few years ago, he never seemed entirely comfortable in the national team shirt.
In any case, Löw is hoping for a more sophisticated attacking game from Germany this time around. “We need people who go deep, who go vertical, we’re talking about people cutting vertically through the defensive lines. It’s about putting in the physical effort and making the runs. We cannot believe that we can score simply by slinging the ball into the penalty area,” he said.
All this talk of clever vertical runs makes it sound as though Marco Reus, who came on as a substitute against Mexico, may be in line to start against Sweden. "If the team brings to bear on the pitch their idea, their talent, their ability - we will prevail," Löw promised. For Germany, the process of proving themselves has to start over again.