Germany won Group B last night, beating Denmark 2-1 in Lviv and securing for themselves an enviable quarter-final against Greece. But they did so with a performance that was so cautious and passive that, on another evening, they might have gone out.
For one dangerous six-minute spell a Denmark goal would have sent Germany home. Only when Lars Bender won the game with 10 minutes left could they relax and prepare for next Friday.
Not that the Germany manager, Joachim Löw, would admit to feeling anxious. "I had a plan," he said afterwards. "Of course I had considered what would have happened if Denmark had in some way suddenly scored a goal but I never had that feeling. I was pretty relaxed because it doesn't get you anywhere when you panic.
"Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira were always in control and I just had the feeling we would score."
The problem, all evening, was that neither side showed the conviction to seize the game. Germany, having already won twice, thought that they had done enough. Denmark were happy to stay competitive and hope that the situation would break their way.
This delivered a low-tempo game for high stakes. The Denmark coach, Morten Olsen, knew that he had to keep his side in the game. A draw would have been enough for them if the Netherlands beat Portugal.
So Olsen readjusted his system. To fill the spaces through which Germany attack, he lined up three spoiling midfielders: Niki Zimling, Jakob Poulsen and William Kvist. Olsen knew that as long as they did not let Germany out of their sight, they might have a chance.
Löw made only one change, with Bender replacing the suspended Jrôme Boateng at right-back. The professionalism of the players should have seen them through, and although Thomas Müller scuffed a good early chance the fluency was slow to come.
When Rafael van der Vaart scored against Portugal in the other match he briefly sent Denmark through. The news may have filtered through to Olsen's players, because they could not hold on to the position for long.
Although it only took 19 minutes for Germany to go ahead, this was not like their opening goals against Portugal or the Netherlands, capping off a long spell of pressure. A long throw went undefended, Mario Gomez crossed and Lukas Podolski was free in the box to hit high and hard beyond Stephan Andersen.
But a well-drilled team always has a chance and it only took six minutes for Denmark to equalise and haul themselves back into the quarter-finals. A long, deep corner kick found Nicklas Bendtner, who headed the ball back towards the leaping Michael Krohn-Dehli, who nodded it in. Again, though, hope did not last for long. Four minutes later in the other game, Cristiano Ronaldo scored for Portugal, and Denmark had to start again.
But Olsen was confident in his strategy. Denmark were not allowing Germany through them, putting up far more resistance than the Netherlands could muster last Wednesday. And while they do not have as many quality players of the Dutch, they had enough to retain a threat. Another long corner to Bendtner led to Simon Kjaer having a shot blocked on the edge of the box.
When the teams went into the break, although Denmark were going out, Germany cannot have been relaxed. They were just two goals away from elimination: 2-1 wins for Portugal and Denmark would have sent Löw's team home.
What they needed to do was attack the second half. But they did the opposite – the players thought they could walk through the game and preserve energy, in the hope that the situation would not break dramatically against them. Although they were, in a sense, proven right, it could well have gone the other way.
Five minutes into the second half Jakob Poulsen fired Bendtner's lay-off against the outside of Manuel Neuer's unguarded post. This did not wake up Germany, whose tempo remained remarkably gentle. There was no relentlessness here, just a dangerous diffidence.
With 20 minutes left another corner broke to Zimling, whose shot flew just over. When Ronaldo finally put Portugal 2-1 up, Germany were just one goal from elimination. It might have come three minutes later. Bendtner, while stabbing a volley at Neuer, was pulled down by Holger Badstuber. The referee gave nothing, but a penalty would not have been unfair.
"I think we should have had a penalty," said Olsen. "It is not permitted to pull your opponent's shirt in the box and that is what this extra referee is there for, but clearly he did not see it."
Finally Germany realised the error of their approach. A fast break down the pitch ended with Mesut Ozil's pass falling to the advancing Bender, who shot past Andersen. Germany won the game and the group, although it was a surprise that it took them so long.
Scorers. Denmark: Krohn-Delhi 25. Germany: Podolski 19, Bender 80
Substitutes: Denmark C Poulsen (Zimling, 78), Mikkelsen (J Poulsen, 82). Germany Schurrle 6 (Podolski, 64), Klose (Gomez, 74), Kroos (Muller, 84).
Man of the match Bendtner. Match rating 4/10.
Possession: Denmark 43%. Germany 57%.
Attempts on target: Denmark 5. Germany 6.
Referee C V Carballo (Sp). Attendance 35,000.
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