We come to it at last. No, we’re not quite at the end of this protracted celebration of the beer industry across the world, but at the second-last step. The indomitable Gauls against the immovable Goths. The strength of Frankreich against the might of Allemagne.
Spin it any which way you want, this is arguably a clash between two of the best teams in the world right now, although Chile and Argentina might have something to say about that. While the latter contested a dramatic Copa America Centenario final barely 10 days ago, this semi-final could easily have been the decider of a thrilling Euro 2016.
France had been yawning, stretching, pumping their engines a bit whilst oscillating between second and third gear in the early stages of this tournament. Their manager Didier Deschamps, who knows a thing or two about winning as a player, didn’t seem unduly stressed as they Payet-ed their way to a last minute winner against Romania, made relatively short work of Albania and laboured to a draw against the Swiss.
Knockout ease for the French
France played Ireland in the round of 16 in what was billed as the “revenge” match, but was as much of a mismatch as you would expect, with Ireland’s much vaunted spirit, resilience and general chest-out courage faltering to a tepid whimper against Antoine Griezmann and Co.
France go into this match high on confidence, having dispatched Iceland in the quarter-finals with ease. The Islanders, who did such a brilliant job of short-circuiting the entire English national football machinery, found France simply too irresistible, as the creative genius of Griezmann, Paul Pogba and Dimitri Payet picked them apart at will. The final score was 5-2, with a reinvigorated Olivier Giroud scoring twice.
Key personnel and tactics
Goalkeeper Hugo Lloris has quietly been mopping up behind what remains a suspect back four, and has come forth with some incredible saves in the knockout games. The four in front of him have largely remained the same, with the ageing full-backs Bacary Sagna and Patrice Evra keen to add one final star to their illustrious CV.
Laurent Koscielny is probably one of the finest defenders in Europe, but is well capable of a brain-freeze at the inopportune moment. However, his skill, speed and tackling ability will be vital against a Germany missing their key frontman Mario Gomez. Adil Rami should come back into the team directly from suspension, in place of the solid Samuel Umtiti.
In midfield, Deschamps has a surfeit of riches, with midfield dynamo N’Golo Kante coming back from suspension as well. Keeping in mind the gravity of this contest, it is expected that he will stick with 4-2-3-1, transitioning to 4-3-3 in attack. Blaise Matuidi and Kante will form the base, with Pogba given the licence to roam in front of them. Payet will remain in his free-roaming left-wing position, with the left-footed Griezmann on the opposite wing.
Love and hate collide for Giroud
The big man up front, Giroud, has stoically faced criticism from the crowd and media at club and country level, each time choosing to get back on the saddle and try again. He can be a difficult striker for the Arsenal and French faithful to fall in love with, used as they were to the majestic gliding force of Thierry Henry and even the clinical precision of David Trezeguet. Indeed, the exclusion of Alexandre Lacazette and Karim Benzema was met with howls of fury and confusion by most in France.
Three goals and a couple of assists, and a standing ovation at the Stade de France, seem to suggest that the French have finally warmed to him. Giroud will be a vital source of knock-downs and a big threat in set pieces. And he’s scored the last two times he’s faced Germany.
In the Germans, France perhaps face their toughest test yet since the World Cup final of 2006. Win this, and they might as well be crowned champions. Lose, and there will familiar questions asked of the defence, the quality of their midfield wizards, and complaints about the lack of a world-class striker.
World champions short of resources
The Germans, on the other hand, answered most of these questions two years ago as they surgically carved out the heart of South America en route to winning the World Cup in 2014. Joachim Löw, who was derided as widely in the press by their media before that conquest as Deschamps sometimes is now by the French, will be licking his lips (just that, we hope) at the prospect of being crowned World and European champions in quick succession.
They face a bigger challenge than the French, not least because of a hostile crowd that awaits them at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille. Mats Hummels (suspension), Mario Gomez (injury), Sami Khedira (injury) and Bastian Schweinsteiger (injury) will miss out, with replacement having failed to fill anyone with too much confidence.
Key personnel and tactics
Manuel Neuer is a colossus at the back, a keeper as good as a fifth defender, and Germany will need his full repertoire of skills to be on show against France’s pace and strength up front. At the back, Jerome Boateng made an inexplicable error to give away a penalty against Italy, but will be the leader of their defence in the absence of the assured Hummels.
Benedikt Howedes should partner him at the back. Emre Can could play the biggest game of his career if he is selected to replace Schweinsteiger at the base of midfield.
Mesut Ozil has been outstanding without a superstar pomp or show, and he will be the main creative outlet for Germany. His knowledge of his Arsenal counterpart Koscieny’s weaknesses could be vital as well. Toni Kroos has been one of the players of the tournament thus far, and he would want that European title to crown his performances off.
Up front, Julian Draxler and Mario Gotze will seek to prove doubters wrong. World Cup final hero Gotze has suffered a turbulent two years hence, but he remains a footballer with immense ability and one bred for the biggest occasion. Thomas Muller has looked listless, but Löw will be hoping he can finally find the on switch to take Germany into the finals.
What to expect from the final before the final
France will try to play on the front foot from the word go, with Pogba, Griezmann and Payet looking to put the relatively inexperienced German backline to the sword. Kante and Matuidi’s tireless running could prove too much to handle for Can, Kroos and Gotze.
The Germans will be hoping to capitalise on individual errors and keep the French at bay long enough for the nerves to kick in. A solid defensive show is the order of the day, and outlets such as Ozil, Gotze, Draxler and Muller will need to make every chance count.
The final before the final should be one to remember.