By Cristian Nyari | Germany Expert
Germany will face familiar opponents in Portugal on saturday night, having played them in two of their last three major international tournaments.
Portugal’s 3-2 loss in the quarter-finals of Euro 2008 is still very much fresh in their memories and Paulo Bento's side will look to end a disappointing run of form against Germany in Lviv that includes just one win in the last 26 years.
But despite Germany’s favourable record against Portugal, with eight wins in their previous 16 meetings, this should be quite an open game considering both sides' style of play and personnel.
Since Jurgen Klinsmann kick-started the German football revolution in 2004, Die Mannschaft have gained a reputation for playing some of the most dynamic and attacking football in the world, most recently seen at the 2010 World Cup, where they outscored every other team, and during their impressive unbeaten qualifying campaign leading up to the Euros.
Since the World Cup, Low has put a greater degree of emphasis on possession but the modus operandi remains essentially the same: move the ball forward as quickly as possible with the least amount of touches necessary.
Albeit under a different trajectory, Portugal have also adopted a more free-flowing attacking style of play since Bento took over from Carlos Queiroz, steering away from a system based on a solid defensive foundation to one that utilises their pacy wide men like Cristiano Ronaldo, Coentrao and Nani. As Low noted in the build-up to this game, Portugal’s strengths lie in their quick, counterattacking game.
Because both teams rely more heavily on the offensive part of their game, the reactive defensive tactics commonly seen at major international tournaments will not play a prominent part in this match. Instead, the game could develop into a rapid interchange of counterattacks, the likely outcome being both teams trying to catch each other on the break. Theoretically this can mean a great deal of goalscoring chances are produced, with the flip side being less margin of error for each defence.
Emphasis on the wide areas
With two of the game’s best wingers on display, Portugal’s tendency to cater their game to Ronaldo and Nani is not much of a surprise. Indeed, the two were the Seleccao’s top scorers in qualifying and compensate for their lack of a consistent centre forward.
Bento’s midfield is packed with players who can play the kind of decisive passes that Nani and Ronaldo thrive on, namely defence-splitting through-balls playing them in behind a team’s backline. If Moutinho, Portugal’s primary central playmaker, can find the time and space to find such passes, it will be hard for Germany’s full-backs to keep up with Ronaldo and Nani.
Consequently, Jerome Boateng and Philipp Lahm will have to be extra cautious and maybe limited in their ability to get forward if they hope to keep Ronaldo and Nani in check. One of Low’s instructions will likely be for both his full-backs to stay relatively close to their markers so as to not let them turn quickly or get behind them. Low also pointed out this week that Germany have to close down the passing lanes that Ronaldo and Nani use.
Portugal's big hope | Ronaldo must get the better of Boateng
At the other end, Thomas Muller will play a key role in trying to cut off Portugal’s flourishing partnership between Ronaldo and Coentrao. The two combined brilliantly for Portugal at the World Cup two years ago and have only improved since playing together at Real Madrid.
Muller’s role will be twofold: to provide extra defensive cover to Lahm should Germany’s captain get forward, and prevent Coentrao from joining the attack or making overlapping runs. Of Portugal’s two wingers, Ronaldo is the one with the greater license and will often look to cut inside to combine or shoot, while Coentrao is a great foil in that strategy, making Muller’s role all the more important.
Jerome Boateng v Cristiano Ronaldo: A lot of the pre-match coverage focused on Ronaldo’s impact in this game and the most frequently asked question was how would Germany cope with one of the most dangerous players on the planet.
Although Low has toyed with the idea of using Lars Bender at right-back due to his industry and stamina, it is almost certainly going to be Boateng who will be tasked with stopping Ronaldo. What does not bode well for Germany though is the fact that Boateng has played the majority of the season for Bayern in the centre of defence and played at right-back only twice in Germany’s last 16 matches.
Sami Khedira v Joao Moutinho: With Bastian Schweinsteiger spending the majority of the training camp trying to regain full fitness, a lot of the defensive duties in midfield will fall on Khedira’s shoulders. Although Schweinsteiger and Khedira’s roles are interchangeable, Khedira has adopted more of a holding role in Germany’s warm-up matches and will be the man attempting to cut out Moutinho’s probing passes.
But Moutinho is not the only accurate passer for Portugal. Miguel Veloso and Raul Meireles are also highy-skilled box-to-box players who can quite comfortably get forward and play that decisive final ball. Khedira’s anticipation and reading of the game will have to be at their best, but if he succeeds he could effectively halt Portugal's attacks at source.
Miroslav Klose/Mario Gomez v Pepe: It is still uncertain who Low will field up front but whoever it is, he will have to get past Pepe first to score. Although temperamental and erratic at times in his behaviour, Pepe’s athleticism and physical strength make him one of the best defenders in the tournament and key to stopping Germany’s striker(s).
Die Mannschaft have never lost when Klose has scored, so if Pepe can minimise his impact he will significantly enhance his team’s chances of victory. Moreover, he will deprive Ozil of his preferred link-up option and limit Germany’s game. On the other hand, Low may want to counter muscle with muscle and start Gomez, who gave Pepe quite a few problems when Bayern Munich and Real Madrid met in the Champions League semi-final.
Thomas Muller v Fabio Coentrao: Muller is Germany’s secret weapon, never standing still and always predictably unpredictable. It is exactly that precarious role that could prove decisive in this game. Muller’s movement, particularly his horizontal shifting from the right into the centre, and back again, could open up a lot of room for Lahm or his midfield runners.
And Muller is also key in cutting off the effective Ronaldo/Coentrao partnership, and so shutting down Portugal’s dangerous left side.
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