Germany’s run to the Euro 2012 title encountered some hiccups against Greece, but it wasn’t enough to stop a side that appears to be gaining momentum.
Facing a tricky, yet highly defensive Greece team, Die Mannschaft largely cruised to a 4-2 victory, thanks to goals from Philipp Lahm, Sami Khedira, Miroslav Klose and Marco Reus. Yet it was a scoreline that was deceptive on multiple levels. Germany seized control early, and only rarely loosened its grip on the match. Had Joachim Low’s side been more precise with its finishing, the final score would have been even more convincing.
Early in the second half, Greece actually pulled level on a goal by Giorgos Samaras, and an upset wasn’t out of the question. But the Greeks ultimately had no answer for Germany’s dynamic movement off the ball. Compounding matters was the fact Greece clearly missed the grit and leadership of suspended captain Giorgos Karagounis, and it was punished for an oddly passive defensive effort as Germany scored three consecutive goals. Dimitris Salpingidis scored a late consolation penalty to round out the game.
Now a much tougher test awaits in the semifinals, as Germany will face the winner of the quarterfinal between Italy and England.
Germany manager Joachim Low caused something of a stir with Friday's starting lineup. Rather than persist with the group that earned nine points out of nine in the group stage, he brought in Andre Schurrle, Reus and Klose for Thomas Muller, Lukas Podolski and Mario Gomez, respectively. Low also had Jerome Boateng back from suspension, and he took up his usual spot at right back in place of Lars Bender.
Greece manager Fernando Santos made two changes, with Grigoris Makos taking the place of Karagounis, and Sotiris Ninis playing in place of Fanis Gekas.
Yet for all of Low’s changes, the game started as expected, with Germany on the front foot and Greece looking to counter. Germany thought it had broken on top in the fourth minute when Khedira’s shot was fumbled by Greece goalkeeper Michalis Sifakis and tapped into the net by Klose, but he was judged to have been offside.
The Germans then hit a lull, with some uncharacteristically sloppy play from Bastien Schweinsteiger doing plenty to thwart his side’s attack. But Die Mannschaft’s offense kicked into high gear, creating a quartet of quality chances starting in the 23rd minute, thanks to some breathtaking combination play as well as some slack Greek defending. But the placement of Germany’s shots was such that it was either right at Sifakis, or missed the target entirely, with Mesut Ozil and Schurrle the prime culprits.
The Greeks then sounded a warning in the 27th minute. Kostas Katsouranis sprung Salpingidis on what was poised to be a clear breakaway, but German keeper Manuel Neuer was quick off his line to clear the danger.
Germany was soon back on top, and achieved its long-awaited breakthrough in the 39th minute. Lahm received a seemingly innocuous pass from Ozil, but Ninis opted not to close the German defender down, allowing Lahm to cut inside and hit a swerving shot past Sifakis.
In a bid to get Greece back in the game, Santos made two changes at halftime, with Giorgos Fatakis coming in for Giorgos Tzavellas, and the highly disappointing Ninis making way for Gekas. Initially the changes had little impact, as Germany continued to hog the ball. But it only served to create a false sense of security, and in the 55th minute, a lethal counterattack pulled the Greeks level. Fotakis played a gorgeous pass into space for Salpingidis and his low, inch-perfect cross was bundled into the goal by Samaras.
"We made life so difficult for ourselves," Lahm said after the match. "We had so many good chances in the first quarter, then we scored and gave it away again. This is something we have to stop in the semifinal."
Germany quickly seized the momentum again, and went back on top six minutes later. Boateng’s cross found Khedira on the run, and his volley easily beat Sifakis.
The match turned into a runaway. Klose scored from an Ozil free kick in the 68th minute, and Reus added another six minutes later when he fired home a rebound after Sifakis had stuffed Klose’s initial effort.
Salpingidis converted a late penalty, after Boateng was whistled for a handball, but that only served to make the scoreline a bit more flattering to the Greeks. This was a dominant German performance, with its dynamic attacking play underscoring the team's championship credentials.
In the meantime, there will be plenty of praise for Low, as his change in players worked. He could have been second guessed if the result didn't go his way.
"Reus, Miro and Schürrle have done very well," Low said after the match. "Today was the day of change. I wanted to breathe new life into the campaign.”
Man of the Match: Mesut Ozil
The German midfielder didn’t have much of an impact during the group stage, but that changed Friday night in Gdansk. He was involved in all four German goals, and his movement caused constant problems for the Greek defense. Without question, Low will take heart that his playmaker is getting closer to peak form.
Final Verdict for Germany: It was a case of mission accomplished for the Germans, who now have reached the semifinals of a major tournament for the fourth time in a row. But there is still the sense that Die Mannschaft can tighten certain elements of its game. Without question, the finishing will need to improve in the semifinals, as chances are bound to become scarce. Defensively, the team’s concentration could be better as well. Then there are the personnel decisions to be made, as Reus in particular made his case for a starting spot. But all of this will suit Low just fine, as these issues will serve to keep his side on its toes ahead of the semifinals.
Final Verdict for Greece: As is their custom, the Greeks made the Germans sweat for a bit, but ultimately could not compete with such a high-quality opponent. Santos deserves high marks for the halftime tactical switches, but the simple fact is that this side wasn’t as capable defensively as the side that won Euro 2004, and this was brutally exposed by Germany. That said, the Greeks exit the tournament with their heads held high.
Talking Point: Having your best players operating at their best is considered a must for teams with championship aspirations, so Low will no doubt be concerned with the play of Schweinsteiger. On a night when Germany dominated the possession statistics, Schweinsteiger was sloppy with his passing, and his turnovers created some opportunities on the counter for the Greeks. The German midfielder did take a knock early and that might have impacted his play, but overall he’ll need to ramp up his game in the semis.