Spain, Germany happy to survive heavyweight bout and fight another day

Spain, Germany happy to survive heavyweight bout and fight another day

7: 14 PM ET

  • marcotti gab m

    Gabriele MarcottiSenior Writer, ESPN FC

DOHA, Qatar — This felt, for stretches, like a Champions League group stage game between potential tournament winners. You push, you prod, but ultimately you decide to be prudent because you know you will live to fight another day. The psychological damage of a crushing defeat, even if it is only psychological, far outweighs the three points that, frankly, nobody will ever forget.

It could have been different, of course, if Japan had not somehow soiled the bed against Costa Rica earlier in the day, contriving to lose 1-0 to an opponent who had shipped seven goals against Spain and who, on paper, looked distinctly overmatched. Had Japan won, the arithmetic for Germany would have been brutally simple: Beat Spain or go home after just two games, along with Canada and Qatar (well, in the latter’s case, staying home).

– World Cup 2022: News and features | Schedule | Squads

Instead, Japan’s result meant that Germany’s fate will be decided, come what may, on the final matchday. The 1-1 draw against Spain, however, means Germany do not control their own destiny. They must beat Costa Rica and hopefully Spain will beat Japan. Both are possible, and possibly very likely. However, past World Cups have taught me not to take anything for granted. It is not as likely that Japan will beat Spain or Germany defeat Costa Rica than it is for a nation with 3 million people in the middle of winter.

Germany knows all about not taking things as they are. Their group stage exit at the hands of South Korea four years ago still smarts. They held the future in their hands at least that time. They don’t in Qatar.

Sunday night at the Al-Bayt Stadium, there was a feeling of conservatism and lackluster urgency from both teams.

Manager Hansi Flash’s changes indicated that he was playing the long-game. He moved Niklas Sule back into the heart of defence (nice idea, being the world’s biggest full-back, but not against Ferran Torres and Dani Olmo) and inserted Thilo Kehrer at right-back (you’ve got lemons, make lemonade). Leon Goretzka joined Joshua Kimmich and Ilkay Gundogan in midfield, in an effort to counter Luis Enrique’s patented “death by possession” approach.

Most tellingly, he shifted Thomas Muller to center-forward. It’s a role the Bayern Munich man hasn’t played regularly in more than a decade. At 33, he’s not what he was in terms of athleticism, and he was never the most technically refined player, but intelligence, charisma and mastery of spatial relations still make him an asset. Flick proved right for much of the game. Germany conceded a few opportunities, but Flick was right for most of the game. The press worked — if they couldn’t create the high turnovers Flick so admired, at least to limit Spain’s buildup in areas that were less threatening. It felt like Luis Enrique, Spain coach, was also looking beyond Germany. His only change — Dani Carvajal for Cesar Azpilicueta — was more about load management for his aging right-backs than any tactical reason.

Spain played their game and Germany countered with a basic but effective press that limited Spain’s chances to a single Dani Olmo shot, brilliantly saved by Manuel Neuer. Although it wasn’t much at half-time, it was still a good result after the Japan collapse.

Enrique can be unpredictable, but the introduction of a true center-forward like Alvaro Morata for Torres 10 minutes into the second half was straight out of the basic coaching manual. Sometimes the simplest moves can be the most effective. Jordi Alba found space down the left and sent in a ball which Morata, after stealing ahead of Sule, let run across his body and stabbed home with the outside of his right foot. Shortly thereafter, Marco Asensio missed the chance to make it 2-0 and Flick decided it was time to gamble.

On came Leroy Sane (still maybe not fully fit, but fit enough to make an appearance) and battering-ram central striker Niclas Fullkrug. Jamal Musiala moved inside, where he could finally influence play, with two speedy wingers like Sane and Serge Gnabry either side of him and Fullkrug ahead of him.

What was the logical consequence? Spain is now pinned back. At this point, either a Spanish goal was going to be scored on the counter or a German equalizer. We got the latter, seven minutes from time, with Sane combining with Musiala to set up a vicious Fullkrug blast into the top of Unai Simon‘s net.

Ten minutes later, after full time and injury time, Enrique was there, his arm around Flick, laughing and chattering away. It was as if they knew they might meet again.

Unless Costa Rica and Japan have something else to do.

Read More