By Mitch Phillips
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - "Don’t change a winning team" is a mantra beloved of armchair coaches but when it gets to the business end of a World Cup there is no room for sentiment, as Joachim Loew showed when his reshuffled Germany beat France 1-0 to reach the last four.
There is also no reason why a coach should be expected to keep his promises, as Loew also showed by finally switching Philipp Lahm back to his natural position of fullback.
"I have taken my decisions, including the role of Lahm and I will stick to those until the very end," Loew said two days before the match after yet again being pressed about his decision to retain his captain in the midfield berth he has occupied for most of the season at Bayern Munich.
The perceived issue was not so much Lahm's failure to add anything to midfield during Germany's bumpy progress to the quarter-finals but the problem of filling his place on the flank, where Germany were routinely exposed in the group stage and in their extra-time second-round win over Algeria.
Loew also bit the bullet up front, dropping the misfiring Mario Goetze and giving Miroslav Klose a first start of the tournament, while he also brought back flu-victim Mats Hummels for Per Mertesacker at center back, adding a bit of pace to combat key French striker Karim Benzema.
With Lahm back in his number one position, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira were reunited as a holding midfield duo, giving Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil and Thomas Mueller freedom to roam behind Klose as a clear point of attack.
"The team wasn’t surprised (by the changes)," Loew said. "They know I’ve got a variety of different lineup plans. I always said when I have the feeling that I need to set a new stimulus, I’ll do it and the players know that."
It was a credit to the coach's and the players' tactical discipline that the new lineup settled instantly and took command from the kickoff.
The only goal came after 13 minutes when Hummels bullied Raphael Varane out of the way to get to a Kroos free kick first and it was a fair reward for Germany's early dominance.
Although France did find some space on the flanks there was precious little to aim at in the middle as the organization and concentration of the German defenders was absolute.
Lahm's switch also eliminated the threat posed by quick France winger Antoine Griezmann, given a start to allow Benzema to spearhead their attack.
On a hot Rio afternoon the pace dropped as the match progressed, suiting the Germans who could sit back and protect their lead and leaving France ever-more desperate.
In truth, however, Didier Deschamps' team never showed enough guile, invention, pace or trickery to give their rivals more than the occasional scare.
Smashing five goals past Group E top seeds Switzerland and thumping Honduras 3-0 in their first two group games seemed a distant memory as France, like so many before them who have come up against Germany, learned that tournaments are not won in the first two weeks.
Deschamps had voiced pre-match concern that Germany's superior experience would count in their favor and it is not by luck that they have now reached a record 13th World Cup semi-final and unprecedented fourth in a row.
"They had us under control and they controlled that one goal lead well," said Deschamps as he digested his first-ever World Cup defeat as a player or coach.
(Additoinal reporting by Karolos Grohmann, editing by Nigel Hunt)
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- Joachim Loew
- Philipp Lahm