The curse of Champions. It’s something that would’ve crossed Joachim Löw’s mind as he readied the most important half-time team talk of his managerial career. Whatever he said must have worked though, as his side produced a breathless, last-gasp winner to down a resolute Sweden 2-1 and keep their heads above water in this Group F thriller.
Löw rang in the changes following the defeat against Mexico, benching the likes of Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira. Mats Hummels missed out through a neck injury and Marco Reus was the man brought in to give a sense of purpose to what seemed like a listless attack in the opener. Sweden had their preparations hampered by a bout of flu which in part were responsible for manager Janne Andersson bringing in Victor Lindelöf in the heart of defence. They continued with their fairly standard 4-4-2 formation designed to maximise counter-attacking potential much like the Mexicans.
Germany predictably started by dominating possession – Viktor Claesson was the only Swede to complete more than one pass in the first fifteen minutes – but it was Marcus Berg who had the first real chance when he went clean through on goal with Germany caught high up the field. A combination of Boateng and Neuer was enough to foil the striker, the former perhaps lucky to not give away a penalty, but the alarm bells were ringing once again for the defending champions.
They ultimately paid the price when Toni Kroos’s loose ball was picked up in midfield and worked out to Ola Toivonen who made no mistake. Rocked by the prospect of an early exit, Die Mannschaft ramped up their efforts but were unable to break through the crowd of bodies parked in the Swedish penalty area.
1 – Ola Toivonen 🇸🇪 in 2017/18 (club + national team):
19 shots in Ligue 1 = 0 goal (23 games)
2 shots in World Cup = 1 goal ⚽️ v Germany (2 games)
— OptaJean (@OptaJean) June 23, 2018
Memos were presumably handed out to every German player at the break to get the ball into the box at all costs with Mario Gomez’s introduction, and it worked instantly. Werner, now on the left, beat his Full-Back before drilling it in for the arriving Marco Reus to sweep home. Now at 1-1, the Germans continued to press but the disciplined Swedes continued to resist as they had done before the goal.
Already on the brink, the task for Löw’s men became that bit harder when Boateng was shown a second yellow for a clumsy tackle on Berg. Down to 10, the champions went for one last roll of the dice, throwing on Julian Brandt. With an almighty save from Olsen and Brandt’s rasping volley striking the woodwork at the death, hope was slowly beginning to leave German eyes. That was until Toni Kroos stepped up to take one last free-kick.
Toni Kroos, take a bow. pic.twitter.com/1SWFbrLVii
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) June 23, 2018
As the curled effort nestled in the top corner it reminded the world, after his earlier mistake, of why Kroos is among his generation’s finest and most decorated midfielders. Indeed, it reminded us of why Germany are champions in the first place. It’s an important feeling, hopefully, one they’ll hold on to as they live to fight another day at this World Cup.
A far from typical victory for the Germans, but one that puts them in pole position to qualify. Their last game is against South Korea while Sweden take on leaders Mexico. You would expect them to wrap things up with relative ease, but tonight was a reminder of the treacherous nature of this tournament. Expect more drama on the final day.
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