Löw must conquer angst and Ronaldo in high-stakes battle with Portugal
Given the new bout of soul searching for which Germany are bracing themselves, a good omen never did anyone much harm. They have never lost against a Portugal side containing Cristiano Ronaldo and in fact it gets even better: the record reads played four, won four, with an aggregate in their favour of 11 goals to three.
That tally suggests a freewheeling spirit Joachim Löw could do with rekindling when they meet again, for the first time in seven years, on Saturday. A win is not essential to their advancement in Euro 2020: the fact they finish their Group F campaign against a workaday Hungary sees to that. But Germany need to show they can topple another of the tournament’s front runners, preferably with a display of ambition and brio. Much less, and question marks will continue to hover well into next week.
Germany did not play poorly in losing narrowly to France. If anything they more or less conformed to expectations, although that observation brings its own unsettling conclusions. They were generally held at arm’s length, one squall of pressure aside, by opponents who were simply a notch more accomplished. To become serious contenders for a quarter-final place, which would usually seem the minimum requirement, supposed peers will need to be faced down on their own terms.
At the start of Friday’s training session in Herzogenaurach, just outside Nuremberg, Löw began to address his players but was drowned out by music from a supporters’ bus. “Germany, shoot a goal!” went the song and the choice of lyric seemed entirely deliberate. It is exactly what a team whose 10 attempts against France yielded only one effort on target must do. But Löw has complex equations to solve.
France were happy for Germany to help themselves to 62% of possession on Tuesday but, as Matthias Ginter put it, “we weren’t able to create any compelling scoring chances”. It is possible Portugal will be similarly content to sit off and counter when the situation presents itself – particularly given the knowledge that a point would surely secure their progress from the competition’s toughest group – so much of the discussion in recent days has centred on whether Löw requires a rethink.
Germany faced France with a back three but at times it seemed inhibiting. Their wing-backs, Joshua Kimmich and Robin Gosens, ate up plenty of ground but the front three of Serge Gnabry, Kai Havertz and Thomas Müller lacked bite. There have been calls in some quarters for a return to a defensive four, perhaps with Kimmich moving into midfield; Leroy Sané, a second-half substitute last time out, appears the leading candidate to add greater penetration and Timo Werner could also come into consideration. Müller, whose return to the squad for this tournament smacked of an effort to bring back the good times, may find his place under threat, although Havertz has come in for particular media criticism this week.
Sané has a proponent in Ilkay Gündogan, who made little effort to hide the view that his former Manchester City teammate requires more love from the head coach. “He needs the feeling of being able to make the difference all the time,” Gündogan said. “It’s not always easy for him to get into the game for the last 20 minutes, maybe start the next game, but be replaced again.”
Löw must decide whether to heed the message and it is a call he must get right, given another early exit from a major tournament would badly taint his legacy when he hands over to Hansi Flick next month. Germany have the raw materials to live with the more cohesive-looking sides over the next three weeks but, like Sané, they need to find some momentum quickly.
Portugal won Euro 2016 by denying their opponents anything of the sort. They were less than convincing against Hungary, although rarely looked like conceding despite the hosts’ second-half bluster, but found a way because sides containing Ronaldo generally do. “We need to keep our feet on the ground and understand that we will have to be even better to win this match,” Rúben Dias said.
That is essentially true, assuming Germany are not paralysed by the stakes. Ronaldo may turn his nose up at certain kinds of fizz but would presumably love to provide some in Munich: he did not score any of Portugal’s goals in those four defeats and, given there are few dragons he has not left writhing in his wake, putting this particular hex to bed would be another minor career milestone. If Germany get the balance wrong then Bruno Fernandes, Diogo Jota and Bernardo Silva – a trio short on blistering pace but laden with guile – will offer him opportunities to reach it.
In the most recent of those pummellings Germany dished out to the Seleção, they won 4-0 in the 2014 World Cup group stage and Müller scored a hat-trick. Returning to those heady days, which will mark the apex of Löw’s career however Euro 2020 turns out, looks a stretch from here but Saturday provides a chance to keep the notion alive.