Another cracker in store

SAO PAULO - The hallowed turf of the Maracana has hosted many a classic. On Friday (11.55pm, Singapore time), it will host another when Germany and France clash for a spot in the World Cup semi-finals.

Finals rivalries do not come any bigger than the one between the two European neighbours. They have met three times, all in the knockout stages, with Germany holding a 2-1 advantage. All were tight, thrilling affairs and the 2014 edition is unlikely to be any different.

When the pair were drawn in the same half for Brazil 2014, there was little doubt that this match would take place. The likelihood of an all-European clash gained momentum when both were matched with relatively weaker African opposition in the second round.

But Monday's matches were anything but easy. France had to rely on goals in the final 11 minutes before eking out a 2-0 win over a spirited Nigeria. The Germans, despite dominating the game, were made to slog for a 2-1 win over a stubborn Algeria over 120 minutes.

"You need to catch your breath after a game like that, and at the end it was sheer force of will that got us the win," said Germany coach Joachim Loew.

"You get matches like this at tournaments and you need to fight. Other teams such as Brazil have also struggled at times, it's no walk in the park here."

His French counterpart echoed similar sentiments.

"Nigeria played a very physical game and had a real presence across the pitch," said Didier Deschamps. "It was a challenge to go up against that, but we managed it. For an hour, the teams were pretty even, but then we were able to get the upper hand in the last half hour. The Nigerians were tired, and they started leaving gaps in their defence."

The difficult ties would have done both sides a world of good. Both coaches got an idea of their benches, assurance that their men have the ability to go the distance, and satisfaction that their players can break down even the most determined of teams.

Such information will prove invaluable on Friday. After all, what are Germany-France World Cup clashes if not intense?

A Just Fontaine hat-trick gave France a 6-3 win over the Germans in their first clash in 1958. And in their most recent encounter, a Rudi Voeller goal in stoppage time added the gloss to a 2-0 win in 1986, a match much closer than the scoreline suggested.

But it is the 1982 clash in Seville, Spain, that defines the intensity of the rivalry. In a match that went to the wire, Germany and France traded goals right up to the 108th minute. With the score at 3-3, the match went to a penalty shoot-out and after six shooters each, Germany won 5-4.

France captain Michel Platini described the match as his "most beautiful game". But it was also marred by a vicious challenge from German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher on Patrick Battiston, which left the Frenchman unconscious and with serious injuries.

It is unlikely that Friday's clash at the Maracana will be as violent. But one can still expect the football element to follow in the same vein as the epic clash 32 years ago.

Both have caught the eye in Brazil. France are the best attacking side here, conjuring up 192 forays on goal in four matches, just ahead of the Germans on 190. Germany are the new practitioners of Spain's tiki-taka football. In Brazil, they have outpassed other teams, attempting 3,060 and completing 2,560 or 83.7 per cent. Chile are a distant second (2,395 attempted, 1,850 completed).

As if the attacking talent on the field is not enough, both teams demonstrated on Monday that in Andre Schuerrle of Germany and Antoine Griezmann of France, they have men who can change a game. Both came on with the scores at 0-0 and turned the match in their teams' favour.

But even as both camps take away positives from the second round, the Africans have exposed their weaknesses.

Algeria showed that there is a way around the Germans' high-intensity pressing style of play by bypassing the midfield and hitting Germany on the counter-attack with long balls. Their speedy forward line caused the usually steady German defence all sorts of problems and with the French possessing equally quick attackers in their arsenal, that could spell trouble for Loew and his men.

France, on the other hand, showed Germany that there is a way to nullify the tournament's best attack. Nigeria deployed two defensive midfielders to act as destroyers in midfield and enjoyed better possession as a result. It was not until Blaise Matuidi's horror tackle on Ogenyi Onazi, that left the midfielder with a broken ankle, that France began to find a way through.

It leaves both coaches with plenty to think about ahead of Friday.

Loew, for one, is relishing the challenge. He said: "I wouldn't want to talk about France-Germany in 1982, but those have always been dramatic classics between the team. We're looking forward to another classic."

This article was first published on JULY 2, 2014.
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