Thomas Muller
Thomas Müller celebrates one of his three goals for Germany against Portugal. Reuters

For Germany, it was a dream start to their World Cup; for Portugal, a nightmare. Helped by a Thomas Müller hat-trick, Joachim Low’s team provided a 4-0 victory and a demonstration that not only are they the class of the so-called Group of Death, but that they could pose a real threat to ending their tag as the recent nearly-men of major tournaments.

In contrast, almost everything that could have gone wrong for Portugal did so. There was a 12th minute penalty converted by Müller, followed a defensive breakdown from a corner that led to Mats Hummels heading in to double Germany’s lead 20 minutes later. Right before half-time came the coup de grace. Pepe lived up to his reputation and then some by sticking his head into that of Müller’s to earn a red card and leave his already struggling teammates short-handed. Germany, now in full control added a third as Portugal’s defense came undone to allow Müller get another. The second-half was academic, although not for Müller, who pounced from close-range to secure his hat-trick.

Still aged just 24, it was incredibly Müller’s eighth goal at the World Cup finals, following his coming out party four years ago in South Africa. On this occasion he played in a less familiar role as the main striker and spearheaded a supreme performance from Germany going forward. With Philipp Lahm beginning in central midfield, supported by Sami Khedira and Toni Kroos, Germany were able to dominate the midfield against a Portugal team short-handed by their wide men not tracking back. Further forward, Mario Gotze, Mesut Ozil and Müller produced delightful movement and interchanging of positions to leave Portugal’s defense bamboozled. After much conjecture over his decision to just take one natural striker in Miroslav Klose, this was as good a reply as Low could have wished for.

Portugal’s awful afternoon in the stifling conditions of Salvador was heightened by being denied a clear penalty in the second half and injuries that forced off striker Hugo Almeida and left-back Fabio Coentrao. Cristiano Ronaldo did play, but after failing to make the most of an early chance, was an increasingly frustrated non-factor. After such a dispiriting beginning to their World Cup, Portugal face a real challenge to recover mentally and physically for the challenge of the United States on Sunday.

Belying what was to follow, there had been ample of encouragement for Portugal in the opening stages. With Jerome Boateng caught upfield, Ronaldo broke and slipped in Almeida, but the striker was unable to capitalize. Germany’s early hesitancy on the ball on occasion was exposed by an eager Portugal, too. After Lahm was robbed, Ronaldo had a chance from a tight angle down the left, but Manuel Neuer dealt with the resulting shot comfortably.

Very quickly things began to unravel spectacularly for Portugal. The first signs came when goalkeeper Rui Patricio cleared the ball straight to Sami Khedira and was mighty relieved to see the midfielder’s shot travel wide of the far post. It was just a temporary reprieve. Two minutes later, some delightful German interplay saw Götze played into the box and, as he tried to turn past Joao Pereira, he was tugged back and went to ground. Götze certainly embellished it, but the contact was there.

Müller made no mistake from the spot, and there was much worse to come for Portugal. Bruno Alves was struggling more than anyone to deal with the subtlety and ingenuity of Germany’s movement. He was nearly punished when Özil ran in behind him and it took a last-gasp challenge from Pereira on Götze to prevent a certain goal. From the resulting corner Alves was punished. The Fenerbahçe man this time caught under the ball to allow Hummels to power a header home from seven yards out.

Portugal then added the ridiculousness to a performance that was already fast becoming one to forget. Having lost the ball to Müller, Pepe fended off the attacker with a hand to the face and was then incensed at the over-reaction of his opponent. So much so that the notoriously hot-headed Real Madrid defender went over to Müller on the ground and stuck his head into the German’s. A red was the only outcome and Pepe will now miss at least the next game against the U.S.

His dismissal also exacerbated his team’s collapse in this match. There was time enough right before half-time for Pepe’s defensive partner to be caught out once more to gift Germany a third. From Kroos’ ball into the box, Alves cleared straight against Müller, who reacted with predatory instincts and struck a low shot that went in off Patricio, who might have done better.

When André Schürrle replaced Özil just past the hour mark, Germany showed they had plenty of strength in depth in attacking areas. The second-half continued to offer up the huge contrast between a Germany team with a real coherent system to get their best out of their talented group of players and a Portugal outfit under Paulo Bento that was all about hoping that one man could provide the individual brilliance going forward.

A series of long-range free-kicks were Ronaldo’s only notable contributions after the break. Two went harmlessly into the wall, before Neuer repelled one late on. His frustration appeared ready to boil over when Eder denied a penalty for a challenge by Benedikt Höwedes. On this occasion, he had a point.

Instead, it was fittingly Germany who had the final word. With 12 minutes remaining, Schürrle got free down the right, his low cross was only palmed out straight in front of him by Patricio and Müller turned it in to complete a special day for both him and Germany.