Football after hours: the glories of extra time
Next to the compelling psychodrama of penalties, extra-time seems a little ... unglamorous. Basic. Obvious, even. No difference yet? Play a bit more. That'll sort it.
But while you don't quite get the same sugar-rush gratification as with the kicks from the penalty mark, there's something fascinating about the added half-hour. The legs are heavy, the spirit sagging, the breaths are coming shorter and quicker. As the tension mounts and the quality degenerates, gaps start to appear. Everybody falls over; everybody cramps up; everybody lies on the floor while somebody wiggles their legs and somebody else shouts tactical instructions in their face. One member of the German backroom staff spent much of the time wandering about holding tiny plastic cups of what looked like orange squash, which was faintly adorable.
Basically, you're watching footballers trying to be footballers well past their bedtimes. Sometimes this manifests itself in a cowardly fashion, but so far this tournament we've had three belters: Brazil tightening the vice on Chile then nearly throwing it away; Costa Rica heroically holding back the onrushing Greeks; and finally Germany, whose early goal forced Algeria into all-out attack. Each different in vibe and character, but each thrilling for the neutral.
Beyond the fun, though, there's the question of greater impact. A quirk of the draw pits the three teams who've been through the extra half-hour against three who have not. Logic suggests that it shouldn't be too important, particularly for those sides with squads strong and deep enough to manage the effects. But on the other hand, the physical and psychological intensity has been so pronounced that some kind of hangover feels likely, even inevitable. Advantage Colombia, Netherlands and France? Let's say ... perhaps.
The Adventures of Manuel Neuer
Algeria are out, and the vast majority of neutrals are devastated. As, I'm sure, are Algeria themselves. Despite being up against an opponent tipped for a place in the final, the Fennec Foxes showed no fear, which is exactly how it should be. They attacked at will, particularly delighting in exposing Germany's fragility out wide. Algeria were a joy to watch, and it's going to hurt just a bit, knowing we won't be seeing them again in Brazil.
It doesn't help that Germany aren't exactly offering themselves up as a model of thrilling football. Their patient possession game is sometimes too slow, too indirect, a story we've grown tired of hearing. But yesterday, they offered up one fantastic counterbalance to their overly-cautious approach: Manuel Neuer in his customary role of sweeper-keeper.
Against Algeria, Jogi Löw demanded his defense play far up the pitch, a tactic that could've easily backfired when the Fennec Foxes breached the backline. Instead, Neuer was there to mop things up, regularly leaving his penalty area to challenge for the ball. While German hearts must've been racing every time he left the 18-yard box (approximately 20 touches outside it, for those counting), his approach rarely resulted in danger for his side.
In the first half, Neuer saved Per Mertesacker from a public flogging by cleaning up after the Arsenal man's mistake. With Mertesacker caught out, Neuer came about 25 meters off his line, forcing Islam Slimani away from goal. Slimani was able to get around Neuer, but the damage had been done: his shot was ineffective from the angle he was given.
My personal favorite, however, came in the 71st minute. Again, Slimani made life difficult for the German defense, this time leaving Jérôme Boateng in the dust. Again, Neuer came rushing out, leaving the safety of his box. Unable to use his hands to stop Slimani, he calmly headed the ball away before the forward could pounce.
But if, for some strange reason, watching Neuer just doesn't quite heal your hurting hearts, you can always find solace in this: qualifying for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations has already begun, and the group stages kick off September 5. Algeria take on Ethiopia. Be ready.
Rotation time is over, France
For a full hour against Nigeria, France looked limp and lifeless, reminiscent of their dull 0-0 display against Ecuador in the group stages. This time, though, they didn't have the advantage of the game being meaningless. It was the Round of 16, and les Bleus really couldn't afford to keep the Super Eagles, a side which fell into the knockout stages without really clicking, in the game for as long as they did.
Nigeria produced a strong, measured performance against a France side which had to rely on runs from midfield to create chances. Hugo Lloris' goal was never really under threat bar one strike ruled out for offside, but France weren't dominating against a team they should have beaten easily. Several players were under-performing, but the most obvious area of concern was the forward line -- neither Karim Benzema nor Olivier Giroud were contributing anything whatsoever to the French attack.
Benzema's inability to help from the left wing is perhaps excusable, since he's a centre forward, but Giroud wasn't being played out of position and doesn't have much of an excuse for his woeful display. Didier Deschamps gave the pairing 62 minutes before breaking it up, yanking Giroud for Antoine Griezmann and shifting Benzema to the middle. France proceeded to dominate, ultimately running out as comfortable 2-0 winners.
The World Cup is played on a tight schedule, which explains why Deschamps has taken such pains to rotate his squad. But it's not hard to envision a scenario in which Nigeria take advantage of France's somnambulant play and race out into a lead that would have proved impossible to overcome -- perhaps Emmanuel Emenike doesn't get flagged for offside in the first half, perhaps an unfortunate slip by Patrice Evra puts one of the wingers on, perhaps ... well, the point is that fielding a weakened team against anyone at this stage is a risk.
Perhaps this is just Deschamps' way of making the competition fairer for everyone else. Dismantling Nigeria would, after all, have been quite rude. But now that we're getting into the business end of the tournament, it's time for his side to start making use of the fact that they have fresher legs than everyone else rather than continue to keep strength in reserve. Lose now and it won't matter how well prepared you are for the next match.