RIO DE JANEIRO – A European presence in the World Cup semifinals is assured as Germany and France meet at the Maracana on Friday, looking to shrug off stumbling wins in the second round that exposed frailties in both teams.
Contesting a quarterfinal for the ninth straight World Cup, the Germans will start as slight favorites because of their vast experience in major tournaments but with doubts surrounding a slow, porous defense that was breached repeatedly in the 2-1 extra-time victory over Algeria on Monday.
If goalkeeper Manuel Neuer hadn't produced the kind of sweeper display that German greats Franz Beckenbauer and Lothar Matthaus would have been proud of, Joachim Loew's side could have been on the end of a real shock.
The French also left it late in the last 16, scoring twice in the final 11 minutes to beat Nigeria 2-0 in a gritty performance that failed to match the swashbuckling attacking exhibitions they put on in the group stage.
France was thrust among the tournament favorites after scoring a combined eight goals against Switzerland and Honduras. Yet, Didier Deschamps' inexperienced team played within themselves against Nigeria, perhaps struggling under the weight of lofty expectations.
Deschamps counts France as the underdog.
"Don't forget that in the last two competitions, Germany have reached the semifinals so it counts for something," he said, referring to the 2010 World Cup and the European Championship in 2012.
"They're used to playing at the highest level and have experience of playing at this stage of a competition. All of the German players play in big clubs, a lot of them play for Bayern Munich."
Still, after starting up in Brazil with a 4-0 victory over Portugal, Germany's displays have been far from convincing. Nerves are beginning to show and Loew — under pressure to finally win a title in his fourth major tournament — has been on the defensive.
"Should I now be disappointed that we are in the last eight?" he asked, rhetorically, on Tuesday. "There are such games in every tournament when you need the will power to advance."
Defense undoubtedly is Loew's chief concern, although the probable return of Mats Hummels at center back after illness will make up for the loss of Shkodran Mustafi for the rest of the tournament with a left hamstring injury.
There may also be a change in the center of France's defense, with Mamadou Sakho available again after a hamstring problem that caused him to miss the Nigeria game. However, Laurent Koscielny had a good display as the replacement, helping the French to a third clean sheet in four games in Brazil, and would be unlucky to lose his place.
As part of a revamped squad under Deschamps, the likes of Paul Pogba, Raphael Varane and Antoine Griezmann are playing at their first major tournament and being exposed to football's highest stage for the first time. The coach, though, remains unperturbed.
"There is a form of insouciance with the younger players," Deschamps said, "they're full of life, that's what you expect from a younger player. But it's also a question of quality."
Any time France and Germany meet, memories are revived of their famous clash in the World Cup semifinals in 1982 when West Germany came from 3-1 down to draw 3-3 and win the shootout. In that game, West Germany goalkeeper Toni Schumacher rushed out of his area and broke the jaw of Patrick Battiston with a feet-first tackle that was not punished.
West Germany also beat France in the World Cup in 1986, 2-0 in the semifinals, but France has won four of their six matches since German reunification in 1990.
The quarterfinal in Rio de Janeiro offers another chance for veteran Germany striker Miroslav Klose to break the World Cup scoring record of 15 goals that he currently shares with Brazil great Ronaldo. Klose is likely to start on the bench against behind Thomas Mueller.
As for the French attack, Deschamps must decide whether to start with Griezmann in a three-man attack after his game-changing substitute appearance against Nigeria. Olivier Giroud struggled in that match and could be dropped for Griezmann, allowing Karim Benzema to play as a central striker.