It’s fitting that Germany and France should play now, 100 years to the week that World War I broke out across Europe. For an idea of how rare this is, these two footballing superpowers haven’t met since 1986, as if the powers that be were saving it for this particular moment.
It’s also the clash of the two most complete teams in this tournament. Brazil is all about Neymar, Argentina wouldn’t exist without Messi, Colombia lies at James Rodriguez’s feet, and the Dutch rely heavily on Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie. The Costa Ricans are the plucky underdogs, the Belgians are full of youthful promise, but the Germans and the French have strength in every position and players who believe their time has come. Neither team is the favorite, and anything can happen in Friday’s quarterfinal. The last five times France reached the knockout phase, they made it to the semi-finals, while Germany are on their eighth consecutive quarterfinal appearance.
While confidence is high in the French camp, the Germans are, rather characteristically, pessimistic. They haven’t met the lofty pre-tournament expectations yet, the Algeria game gave everyone a serious scare, and to top it all off, seven players are now suffering from flu-like symptoms one day before the quarterfinal. Defender Mats Hummels missed the Algeria match due to the flu, and it seems that his illness has spread. Perhaps for reasons having to do with morale, the team has only released one name, midfielder Christoph Kramer who made his first appearance as an extra-time substitute against Algeria, in the list of those suffering from illness.
In addition to the flu, the Germans have serious tactical concerns ahead of the France game. Jogi Löw and his players have been on the defensive since the Algeria game, with Per Mertesacker visibly irritated in a post-match interview. “Would you rather we played beautiful football but got knocked out?” But it’s not just about the beauty of the football. The Algeria game, as well as the Ghana and U.S. games, revealed flaws in the German midfield and defense—flaws that the talented French team are more than capable of exposing.
Löw will probably stick to playing four center-backs, with Hummels returning to the middle and Boateng moving to full-back. Hummels’ presence will be a welcome relief for Mertesacker, who was unable to cope with Algeria’s pace and had to rely on goalkeeper Manuel Neuer as backup. But playing four center-backs rather than two quicker full-backs is a risky move against a fast and powerful French side, and France’s triple threat of Giroud, Benzema, and Valbuena could easily overrun Benedikt Höwedes on the left. The defense was considered Germany’s weakest point going into this tournament, and while they haven’t suffered any disasters so far, they will face the sternest test to date against France’s prolific attack that put five past the Swiss.
In midfield, all eyes will be on Mesut Özil, who has been one of the primary targets for criticism. His manager leapt to his defense, but also conceded that the Arsenal player has not been “in top form.” Özil looks lost in the 4-3-3 system with three interchangeable forwards, which does not suit his style of play. Captain Philipp Lahm, playing in midfield rather than in defense, has also fallen short of his normally sublime standards, and even the classy pass master Toni Kroos was less accurate than usual against Algeria. They will have little time on the ball against France’s trio of Pogba, Cabaye, and Matuidi, and must rally to ensure that the Algeria game was only an off day and not their new norm.
The French seem confident ahead of this historic clash, the Germans nervous. Quips about Germans’ natural propensity for pessimism aside, that is due largely to the burden of expectation. This team, which has come so close to glory in the last three international tournaments, has now come of age. There are no longer narratives about youthful potential or a lack of experience. Germany must improve to progress to the semis. It’s now or never.