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Friday, June 18, 2010
A game of inches

Uli Hesse

And just like that, Wednesday evening is shaping up to be thrilling indeed. Following Germany's defeat at the hands of Serbia, at least three teams in Group D will have the chance to go through if they can get a result. And who knows? Perhaps the Socceroos can spring a surprise tomorrow and even turn this into a four-horse race. • Gallery
• Antic: Win was for Serbian people So, who's to blame for this rather unexpected turn of events? According to a visibly frustrated Bastian Schweinsteiger, interviewed on German television some ten minutes after the final whistle had blown, the main and maybe the only culprit was the referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco, who had booked Miroslav Klose twice in the space of 23 minutes, both times for rather harmless-looking misdemeanours. "Words fail me," Schweinsteiger said after a few attempts at describing the Spaniard's decisions. Asked about the mood in the dressing room, he said: "The players are angry." He himself seemed sad rather than angered. "It can't be that someone is sent off in every game," he said, shaking his head. "That's just not right." National coach Joachim Low was a lot more subdued in his criticism of the referee - in the television studio, that is. During the game, he was clearly annoyed and exasperated by yet another card-happy World Cup referee. All of which, however, begs two questions. First, was Klose's dismissal really as scandalous as many (German) observers felt? And second, was this really the moment that decided the game? I'm inclined to answer both questions in the negative. Of course both of the yellow cards Klose got looked silly from a distance. However, the past week has proven that the one thing that will get you booked for sure is not a two-footed lunge, a handball or a few choice words directed at the referee - the one thing that guarantees a yellow card is the so-called professional foul. In Germany, we refer to it as a "tactical foul", and Klose himself admitted that his tripping Neven Subotic fell under this category. Then, six minutes before Klose was sent off, he had a chance at goal when the referee blew his whistle for offside. Yet the striker continued his run and even put the ball away. One of the guys I watched the game with threw his arms into the air and said: "Now he's going to get himself sent off for that!" Well, not yet. But watching at home, we all felt that Klose was now living on borrowed time and had to be very careful, particularly with such a pedantic referee. And so his next foul, in full view of Senor Mallenco, was at best completely unnecessary, perhaps silly, maybe even provocative. And yet I don't think this moment turned the game. Some commentators felt it was no coincidence that Serbia struck only a minute later, saying Germany were in shock or had not been able to reorganise themselves now that they were a man down. But the goal had little to do with Klose's sending-off. Four days ago, after Germany's first game, I said that Low still had to address a few issues, among them a lack of organisation at the back and a problem on our left flank. A combination of these two factors led to the goal. (By the way, it's true that I also said Low should consider playing Cacau in place of Klose. But of course I didn't mean Klose would hurt the team the way he did.) Actually, it was a picture-book goal for anyone who wishes to highlight our weaknesses. That's because it started with Schweinsteiger trying to intercept a dangerous pass - in a position where you'd expect Podolski. However, Podolski is not and has never been defensively sound, so Schweinsteiger often has to shade over to our left flank. He did it again in this situation and only just missed the ball. That then forced Holger Badstuber into a one-on-one with the fleet-footed Milos Krasic, a duel Badstuber was destined to lose sooner or later, because he is not a trained left back and is rather slow. Krasic's cross then went to the far post. That is yet another typical ploy against Germany, because the defender who will have to go up for an aerial duel in such moments is none other than Philipp Lahm, not much taller than a corner flag. And that triggered the next and final chain of events, because Per Mertesacker, who guarded the space directly in front of goal, took a few steps over to the far post, knowing very well that Lahm would probably need his help. Which is how and why Milan Jovanovic was free in front of goal when Mertesacker missed the ball by inches, Lahm lost the aerial duel and Nikola Zigic set up the scorer with his head. You could see that this Serbian move was no coincidence, because they duplicated it 15 minutes from time, when Krasic got past Badstuber again and Zigic easily outjumped Lahm once more, heading against the crossbar. However, despite all this - despite the sending-off and the problems on the left and the problems at the back - we could have and maybe should have come away with a precious draw after all. There was Sami Khedira's shot that hit the underside of the bar and a sustained period of strong pressure after the restart, all with ten men. And, of course, there was Podolski's penalty. When Podolski missed from the spot, that's when the players lost belief and when the team lost the game. During the remainder of the match, all the really good chances fell to Serbia, who could have added a second on the break. But what does it all mean? Does it mean football is a game of inches and it just wasn't our day, as Schweinsteiger missed the deciding pass by inches, Mertesacker missed the deciding cross by inches and Khedira missed the goal by inches? Or does it mean our opponents have learned from Australia's mistakes, as I predicted on Monday, and will now make life really hard for us? The great thing about football is that we won't know for sure before Wednesday evening. As disappointed as the German fans are after the result, you have to admit that this is a thrilling prospect and what the World Cup should be all about.


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