SEMI-FINAL 2 – GERMANY v FRANCE
State Velodrome, Marseilles, 9pm local time
ROAD TO THE SEMIS
Germany have not really been tested too much at the Euros, and have looked comfortable in almost all their games without impressing too much. Their 1-0 victory over Northern Ireland should have been much more, but they were unimpressive against Poland (0-0) and Ukraine.
In the knock-out rounds, Germany destroyed Slovakia 3-0, and finally overcame their Italian jinx by knocking out the Azzurri on penalties, despite the most un-Teuton penalty shootout i’ve even seen Germany take part in (with Germany missing 3 out of their 5 first penalties after going 22 for 22 in previous shootouts). That would give Germany confidence going into the semis.
For France, they similarly haven’t been faced too much quality opposition on their road to the semis. Nevertheless, they were unconvincing in Group A and were poor in the first half of their Round of 16 clash against the Republic of Ireland but recovered well in the second half.
Against Iceland, they showed their impressive firepower by taking apart the tournament darlings with 4 clinical goals in the first half. With Griezmann, Payet and the oft-criticised Giroud leading the line (and with Coman and Martial in reserve), France may have the most potent attack in the tournament. However, the 2 goals they conceded to Iceland clearly showed their defensive weaknesses, especially from headers and set-pieces, which Germany will no doubt look to exploit. In Germany’s 1-0 win over France at the 2014 World Cup, the winner came from a Mats Hummels header from a Kroos free-kick. Strong omens.
Germany have a slew of injury worries, with their only striker Mario Gomez as well as midfielder Sami Khedira ruled out for the rest of the tournament after picking up injuries against Italy. Replacement (and captain) Bastian Schweinsteiger is also doubtful. Influential defender Mats Hummels is also suspended.
Mario Gotze is expected to take over as a False 9 (a position that he hasn’t impressed in), while Valencia defender Shokodran Mustafi should replace Hummels. However, in defensive midfield there doesn’t seem to be a like-for-like replacement, and Jogi Low may play Liverpool defender Emre Can in that position (he generally plays centre back for Germany).
France have no suspension or injury worries, and will welcome back Leicester City’s N’Golo Kante and Sevilla’s Adli Rami after suspension against Iceland. However, the 2nd centre-back slot (alongside Laurent Koscielny) is up for grabs, and new Barcelona signing Samuel Umtiti may be selected for only his second cap (his first was against Iceland).
KEY QUESTION (GERMANY): Is this team too imbalanced?
This German team is stock full with creative midfielders, good at finding space and creating chances. Players like Ozil, Draxler, Kroos will walk into any team in the tournament.
Nevertheless, they lack an out-and-out striker to be on the end of those chances. Gomez was literally plucked from semi-retirement and thrust into the role of being Germany’s only striker. He has done well enough, but he is out for the rest of the tournament. Apart from him, Germany’s only other ‘striker’ options are Mario Gotze (whose form has dropped off precipitously, and doesn’t seem to be a false-9) and Leroy Sane (who is technically a winger). Comparing with France (who seem to have plenty of strikers), Germany’s options are meagre.
Even in midfield, Germany’s only so-called ‘holding options’ are Khedira and Schweinsteiger, both of whom are not getting any younger, and are particularly injury-prone. Against a France team that is best on the attack, can Kroos and whoever plays along him hold the dynamic midfield of Pogba, Matuidi and Kante?
This imbalance is a problem, and against an arguably more balanced France, Germany will need to be on their best to keep them out. A slow, passing game in which Germany have the bulk of possession might be the best game plan. Frustrate the French into giving away stupid free-kicks and corners, and exploit their weaknesses from set pieces.
KEY QUESTION (FRANCE): What is France’s best team?
France has been blessed with an abundance of talent. However, it seems that Deschamps still can’t get the pieces to fit that well.
In attack, Giroud has been under huge (and to me unfair) criticism for his apparent failure to hit the back of the net enough, but he has 3 goals in the tournament and has been an excellent source of knock-downs for Griezmann. As for Griezmann, Deschamps seems to be uncertain whether to play him as a winger, a shadow striker or a proper striker. Griezmann seems to play best up top, but how does he pair with Giroud?
If Deschamps plays with 2 strikers, what does he do with Dimitri Payet, arguably the star of the tournament so far? Play him as a central-attacking midfielder? Against Iceland, Deschamps opted for Payet on the left, Griezmann down the centre and Newcastle’s Moussa Sissoko on the right, which was effective against a tired Iceland, but may not be that effective against a more quality opponent. Should Deschamps abandon the wings and play more centrally?
Even in central midfield, Deschamps has tried playing Kante, Pogba and Matuidi with mixed results. They seem to be very similar players, and Pogba in particular has gotten some criticism for his mixed displays. Should Deschamps go back to 4-3-3 to try to overwhelm a slow German midfield?
Ironically enough, Deschamps has the least worries in defence, particularly because all his choices seem to be crap. Evra and Sagna are in by default, and so is Koscielny as well. Rami seems to be a liability, and anyone who has seen Mangala play for Manchester City will understand why Deschamps doesn’t want to play him. Is Umtiti ready to step up in the biggest game of his young career so far?
France has many questions, and if Deschamps can’t sort it out, they risk getting defeated by a tactically more settled (and astute) Germany.
KEY MATCHUP: Joshua Kimmich v Antoine Griezmann
The 21- year old Bayern midfielder/defender has been one of the revelations of the tournament, excelling as a wing-back and defensive midfielder in the quarter-finals against Italy. He might be called upon to replace Khedira in the centre of midfield if necessary. Hardworking and excellent at winning the ball back, he’ll be crucial to Germany’s chances in this game, as well as in the future.
Wherever Kimmich plays, you can expect him to be up against Griezmann, who is on hot form and the current leader in the race for the Golden Boot. Griezmann combines pace and a finisher’s touch and instinct, and can score goals from deeper positions as well as your standard poachers’ goal. If you stop Griezmann, you’ll stop France.
This might be the hardest prediction to make in this tournament. If both teams are at full strength, I would pick Germany simply because I trust their ability to win a knock-out game more than France, who haven’t really faced quality opposition so far, and are probably still finding their best team.
However, Germany have injuries and suspensions in critical areas, and it’s not clear that the replacements will be of the quality that is necessary to defeat a France team that is more balanced in all areas.
I do believe that the pressure is higher on France, being the hosts and touted as the best team since the 1998 World Cup winners. As such, they have the greater chance of disappointing, especially since they haven’t played an excellent full 90 minutes yet at this tournament. In particular, I’m not convinced of the French backline, and their ability to cope with the likes of Ozil and Draxler.
As such, since I bet $5 on Germany winning 2-1, i’ll go with Germany. Barely.