With an expansion to 24 teams, Euro 2016 may have been a tournament highlighted by opportunities seized by underdogs, but there is no doubting the heavyweight caliber of the second semifinal in Marseille on Thursday. In one corner will be the host and two-time European champion France, while in the other will stand the current world champion and most successful team in the history of the European Championship, Germany. Given that whichever team comes out on top will be the undeniable favorite in Sunday’s final against either Portugal or Wales, the prize is a sizable one.
For France, the moment has arrived to show it is a team capable of following in the footsteps of the vintages of 1984 and 1998 in winning a major tournament on home soil. While Didier Deschamps’ side has come through to the last four without huge alarm, it has certainly benefited from a favorable draw.
A group of Romania, Albania and Switzerland provided a kind introduction to the tournament before having to see off the Republic of Ireland and then Iceland in the knockout rounds. A clash with Germany represents a huge leap in quality to anything that the host has faced so far.
The good news for France, then, is that, after an unconvincing start to the competition, it goes into the semifinals on the back of what was by some distance its most impressive display of the competition. Ahead of a quarterfinal against the tournament’s fairytale side Iceland, France had yet to score a single goal in the first half of a match. But by halftime at the Stade de France on Sunday, France had four goals to its name and a semifinal place in the bag.
A tactical shift from Deschamps was at the heart of France’s first-half display and eventual 5-2 win. The switch had actually been made at halftime in the previous match when trailing 1-0 to the Republic of Ireland. The moving of Antoine Griezmann in from the left flank, where he had been largely anonymous, to playing just off striker OIivier Giroud through the center led to two goals from the Atletico Madrid forward in a 2-1 win.
Against Iceland, France started the same way and Griezmann added another goal, which moved him out in front in the race for the Euro 2016 Golden Boot, as well as contributing two assists. The dilemma now for Deschamps is whether to go with the same lineup against Germany.
The positive team selection against Iceland, where Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi played as the sole central midfielders, was made simpler by a suspension that ruled out holding midfielder N’Golo Kante. With Kante now back available, Deschamps now has a tough decision to make. Does he trust Matuidi and Pogba alone in midfield against the class of Germany or does Kante slot back into the side in place of Moussa Sissoko with France switching back to a 4-3-3?
Deschamps’ German counterpart, Joachim Löw, knows a thing or two about taking tough selection decisions. For Germany’s quarterfinal on Saturday, Löw opted to switch his team’s system to match the 3-5-2 of an Italy side that had already countered its lack of quality in wins over Belgium and Spain.
With Germany having gotten past Italy for the first time ever in a major tournament, Löw can claim that his tactical plan proved a success. Yet had it not been for a wild penalty shootout in which Italy missed three times before Jonas Hector became the unlikeliest of match-winners then Löw would surely have faced huge questions. Four years after he got his tactics wrong in a semifinal defeat to Italy, Löw’s switch led to a game that was short on thrills and quality, where Germany struggled to make its obvious advantage in skill tell.
And Löw now has further problems ahead of the semifinals. Not only is key center-back Mats Hummels suspended, but midfielder Sami Khedira and the sole striker in the squad Mario Gómez have been ruled out with injuries picked up against Italy. Captain Bastian Schweinsteiger is also a fitness doubt.
After Germany brushed France aside in the quarterfinals of the World Cup two years ago, the opportunity is now there for Deschamps’ side to show that it is ready to assume the mantle of Europe’s top dogs.
Prediction: The experience of the big occasion, honed by the 2014 World Cup win and several near misses in previous major tournaments might have been said to have given Germany a potentially decisive edge for the semifinal. However, Germany’s loss of at least three influential players to injury put this semifinal right on a knife edge. If both Khedira and Schweinsteiger are out, Löw will face a choice between Julian Weigl, supremely talented but without a single competitive minute to his name for Germany and Emre Can, whose experience with the national team has almost exclusively come at right-back. In place of Gómez, meanwhile, Löw is likely to bring back Mario Götze, who started the first two games but looked out of form and uncomfortable in the striker role. The changes could mean France getting a grip on midfield and possessing more ruthlessness up front, enough to claim a narrow win.
Predicted Score: France 2-1 Germany
France win: 7/4
Germany win: 19/10