Mats Hummels
Mats Hummels scored the only goal of the game to take Germany past France in the World Cup quarterfinals. Reuters

An early headed goal from Mats Hummels proved enough for Germany to get the better of France and become the first country ever to reach the semifinals in four consecutive World Cups.

On a stifling day at Rio de Janeiro’s famed Maracana, Hummels’ well-directed header from Toni Kroos’ dangerous in-swinging free-kick gave Germany the lead in just the 13th minute. In the remaining 80, France, facing their first big test after impressing in the competition’s early stages, failed to do enough to find a required response as their campaign came to an end having rebuilt their soiled reputation but being unable to build on eye-catching start wins over Honduras and Switzerland.

It was a game that mostly simmered but rarely boiled into the explosive clash that was hoped for between these two European neighbors, which had not met in a competitive international since back-to-back World Cup semifinals in 1982 and 1986. As then, Germany prevailed and both they and their coach have answered some significant criticism in doing so as they move onto a meeting with either Brazil or Colombia in the last four.

Joachim Löw went back on his plan coming into the tournament and switched Philipp Lahm to right-back, with Sami Khedira coming into the midfield to join Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos. The alterations to the side were furthered by Miroslav Klose making his first start of this World Cup up front. Löw’s gamble paid off and contributed to a significantly improved performance, at least in the early stages, from an extra-time win over Algeria.

France improved from a passive start and had the better of the second half, but failed to take the chances they created when exploiting Germany’s again dangerously high defensive line. Hummels decisive in the opposition box, was equally as important in his own, on several occasions coming to Germany’s rescue.

After much sterile possession against Algeria, a more physical midfield gave Germany more purpose early on, while they still accompanied it with intricate touches and combinations around the box. However, while the slow legs of Per Mertesacker were relegated to the bench, Germany’s high back line still offered up opportunities to exploit.

Mathieu Valbuena was doing more than anyone to try and take advantage, but his early chip back from the byline was volleyed wide from Karim Benzema. Soon France were behind. Kroos, still not quite influencing the game as he can, whipped in a fine free-kick and Hummels was able to outmuscle Raphael Varane to head past Hugo Lloris and in off the crossbar.

Having sat back early on, even after going behind, Franc struggled to find the urgency required. Germany’s midfield was getting the better of the previously impressive Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi and Yohan Cabaye and it wasn’t until late in the opening half that France began to threaten. The pace of Antoine Griezmann, starting in place of Olivier Giroud, got in behind and produced a good first-time square ball for Valbuena, whose first touch was poor, but it still required a strong one-handed save from Manuel Neuer to stop his second from finding the net. Minutes later, Benzema found himself with a free header in the box, but Hummels was able to provide a barrier with his midriff.

France were in control after the break, yet strangely never gave the impression that they would find an equalizer. Neuer comfortably held a header from Varane as the defender attempted to atone for his role in France going behind. Meanwhile, Hummels made an outstanding block to deny Benzema, after he cleverly turned away from Lahm in the box.

The second half saw a performance from Germany that won’t make headlines but that was significantly more assured that what they have offered to date in this World Cup. While keeping things tight at the back, the pace of substitute Andre Schürrle gave them an outlet on the break. And the Chelsea forward really should have added to his goal against Algeria, but saw his low shot blocked by the legs of Lloris.

Benzema briefly threatened to halt the match inexorably heading toward a Germany win, but deep into injury time, Neuer stayed strong to stick out a hand and repel the forward’s rising shot. With that, France’s much-discussed challenge in the end petered out rather meekly.