Germany's eyes are on the prize
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Maybe it was Toni Kroos who put it most succinctly and aptly after the surreal 7-1 pounding Germany inflicted on Brazil in the semifinal.
"You don't become world champion by winning the semifinal," he said.
And he's right. There is another game to play and, if you fall at that hurdle, everything that came before becomes meaningless.
The 7-1? In the narratives, it will be more about Brazil's self-destruction and ineptness than Germany's prowess.
Advancing to the final? Meh, we've seen it before, in 2008, at the European Championship and in 2002, at the World Cup.
Mess up against Lionel Messi and the cynics will emerge and begin their inquest. Why could they beat the United States only 1-0? What happened in the 2-2 draw against Ghana? How did Algeria manage to give them such a fright? Why don't they have the clinical instinct of the great German sides of yesteryear?
Kroos knows how it works. When you set the bar higher than any national side has ever set it and reach the final four in five consecutive tournaments, folks begin taking it for granted. And unless you deliver a piece of silverware, they won't remember the sustained excellence that has marked the past eight years. Joachim Low will become the guy who pockets eight straight, messes up on the nine and lets his opponent steal the game.
You look at this team and feel that -- unless Messi shows up for 90 minutes, rather than 90 seconds -- the only way Germany don't win their fourth World Cup is if they beat themselves.
And there are plenty of reasons to believe that this won't happen.
For a start, if you believe there is such a thing as "knowing how to win" then it's a skill that this group has mastered. The Bayern contingent of Kroos, Philipp Lahm, Jerome Boateng, Manuel Neuer, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thomas Muller -- more than half the starting XI -- didn't just win a treble in 2012-13, they steamrollered their way to it. Mario Gotze, Mats Hummels, Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira have all won silverware, often in dominant fashion, with their club sides.
Further, they've also experienced success in those white Germany shirts, albeit at under-21 level. Neuer, Boateng, Hummels, Ozil, Khedira and Benedikt Howedes were all part of the team that won the 2009 Under-21 European Championship, beating England in the final 4-0.
Then there's the fact that they've improved as the tournament progressed, crucially learning from their mistakes and tweaking to find the right balance. The decision to move Lahm into the back four wasn't just a way to allow Low to keep his beloved high defensive line without leaving Hummels and Per Mertesacker exposed. It also was also possible by the fact that Schweinsteiger and Khedira, both questionable physically going into the tournament, overcame their ailments and became a viable midfield partnership.
Khedira especially has been valuable as a spoiler in the middle of the park and he has been used in different ways. Against France in the quarterfinal, he was an added barricade in front of the back four. Against Brazil, he played higher up in a 4-1-4-1, teaming with Kroos to harass the opposition's deep-lying playmaker.
Indeed, his versatility -- it doesn't show up much on television, but it's obvious when you're fortunate enough to see Germany live -- and that of Kroos has allowed Low to employ multiple defensive looks. When he wants to press high, Pep Guardiola-style, it's a 4-1-4-1, when he's sitting it's a 4-2-3-1, when he's looking to hit on the break it's a 4-3-3, with Kroos retreating to launch passes from deep.
Germany's wide men, Ozil and Muller, have grown as well and the fact that they have such distinct skill sets is actually a plus. Ozil has largely played second fiddle and, with responsibility elsewhere, has thrived. He's not asked to create as much offensively, but as a second option to Kroos he has been eerily reliable, whether as an outlet, in holding up the ball or, against deep defending teams, as an extra creative passer. On the other flank, Muller has been his usual gangly, havoc-wreaking self, coming inside and making space where there appeared to be none.
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Germany also have a distinct physical advantage. They outrun the opposition -- Muller, Kroos, Lahm and Howedes are four of the tournament's top eight in terms of distance covered -- and have a significant edge on set pieces, as evidenced by the fact that they've scored five goals from dead-ball situations. And they've been important ones too, such as Miroslav Klose's equalizer against Ghana, Hummels' winner against France and Muller's icebreaker against Brazil. In each case the delivery came from Kroos, who may be as good a dead-ball passer as there is in the world right now.
Throw in the fact that Neuer remains a shutdown keeper who can bandage mistakes with the best of them and you have a unit that appears to be peaking at the right time. And that's everything a manager can ask for.
There's an intangible factor too, one which can be tricky to identify or assess but feels real when you watch them play and speak to them after games. The swagger and bluster that accompanied Germany for much of the 1980s is gone. Those teams were good and they made sure the opponent knew it but they also came across as arrogant and overconfident and, goodness knows, they paid a price for it.
The "new" Germany, for which Jurgen Klinsmann and Low have taken credit, lacked that. They play with a smile and an aesthetic conceit but also a certain timidity: It was almost as if they were apologetic for their talent and, on too many occasions, they were too deferential to the opposition (the semifinal losses to Spain in 2010 and Italy in 2012, when they adjusted to their opponents rather than the other way around, are examples of this). Now you feel the barometer that runs from self-assured to humble is set at the right mark: somewhere in the middle.
They are not lacking self-belief, and they are unafraid to impose themselves on the opposition, yet they also are humble and hard-working up and down the starting XI. And that matters too.
One game to go. Eyes on the prize, young Toni. Eyes on the prize, hold on.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.