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For most of Saturday’s match against Sweden, defending World Cup champion Germany’s hopes of repeating appeared to be hanging by a thread.
Germany, which beat Lionel Messi’s Argentina in the final four years ago to lift the trophy in Brazil, lost its opener to Mexico last week and therefore came into their second match at Russia 2018 needing a win to control their fate and get their hopes of a repeat back on track.
But as the clock ticked toward full time at Fisht Stadium in Sochi, Die Mannschaft seemed destined to settle for nothing more than a tie that would have put them on the brink of the first group stage elimination in their illustrious history.
Write off the four-time titlists at your peril. Almost five minutes into stoppage time, midfielder Toni Kroos stepped up to a free kick deep in Sweden’s end and curled his right-footed shot past keeper Robin Olsen, the 2-1 victory pole vaulting Germany into second place in the Group F behind leaders Mexico, which beat South Korea earlier in the day.
Germany’s changes (eventually) pay off
German coach Jogi Low made several changes to his lineup heading into the match. The most notable was his decision to sit playmaker Mesut Ozil, who had started 26 consecutive competitive games for his country. Fellow veteran midfielder Sami Khedira was also dropped along with Mats Hummels, who was ruled out after suffering a neck injury in training earlier in the week.
The shake-up seemed to work. Germany came out with far more resolve than in their opener, attacking the Swedish back line with wave after wave of attack. Julian Draxler nearly scored. It was a high-risk, high-reward strategy that betrayed Low’s desperation, and it opened up room for Sweden’s dangerous counterattack. It didn’t help Germany that tough tackling Sebastian Rudy had to be substituted in the first half after taking an inadvertent cleat to the face from Ola Toivenen, who would add the insult by scoring Sweden’s goal shortly after Rudy came off.
Germany was lucky not to be two down by then (see below). But they had created some glorious changes of their own, only for Olsen to stand on his head keeping them out.
The crucial equalizer came just minutes into the second half, though, and while Sweden nearly stole another goal just before Kroos’ winner, the famous-never say-die mentality of Germany — down to 10 men by then after Jerome Boateng was a shown a second yellow card — was on full display for what most teams would’ve considered a mind-bendingly frustrating evening featuring several potentially spirit crushing misses. Instead, that championship swagger helped save Germany in the end.
VAR gets it wrong
In perhaps the most consequential decision yet by the new video assistant referee system at Russia 2018, officials opted not to advise Polish ref Szymon Marciniak to take a second look at what replays clearly showed should have been a foul – and therefore a penalty and potentially a red card, too – on Boateng for a clumsy challenge on Marcus Berg. The lack of action was almost inexplicable given that Boateng clipped Berg’s left leg, from behind, as he shot the ball with his right. The one argument against a review was that the call wasn’t an obvious one or that Marciniak had a good view of the play and felt it was a fair tackle.
However, photographic evidence proved otherwise. Isn’t that supposed to be the point?
Sweden deserved better
It seems silly to think that the Swedes might have been the most underrated team heading into the competition. They had outlasted elite foes such as Italy and the Netherlands just to get to this World Cup and still most folks seemed to be giving Janne Andersson’s team no better than even odds to make though a tricky but manageable foursome.
Fair enough. And lets be honest: in beating the Koreans in their opener and scaring the snot out of Germany on Saturday, Sweden was far from dominant. They barely had the ball at all in Sochi, with their possession hovering below 30-percent for much of the match.
And still, they probably deserved more against Germany. Who knows how this contest would have played out had Sweden been given that seemingly deserved spot kick in the first half? The Swedes had other chances too, repeatedly executing Andersson’s game plan of defending as a unit and then countering when possible with direct passes to Berg and Toivenen up top.
It says it all that Sweden and their fans were distraught after losing a World Cup game to mighty Germany. Their adventure in Russia is far from over though, as a win against Mexico would probably put them in the second round.
More World Cup on Yahoo Sports:
• Bushnell: The two sides of Toni Kroos and Germany
• Kroos’ dramatic late winner rescues Germany
• FIFA knew of Russian doping, did nothing – report
• Why Swiss goals, celebrations were both political, provocatic