The German side who sparked this World Cup into life with their 4-0 win over Australia, a German side so effortlessly impressive that they brought all the very best paranoid and stereotypical utterances about “Ze Germans” out of the normally *cough* very reserved and neutral British press, were back in action today. But you’d have had to be a very brave man, or a very proud Serb, to have seen this coming. In fact, although Serbia were much improved on their opening performance against Ghana, it’s still difficult to believe it happened.
Initially, though, there was little sign of the drama to come. Germany picked up from where they left off against the Aussies. Their experienced players looked solid and their youngsters exciting, with Stuttgart’s Sami Khedira the standout performer instead of Mesut Osil – kept quieter today by a Serbian eleven who were unrecognisable from the Ghana clash. They were better organised in defence and more methodical and creative in the way they went about their attacks. The much-admired right winger Milos Krasic particularly put a poor first game behind him and spent the game as his team’s prime offensive threat, continually ducking past the German left-back Badstuber.
The real star of the first half, though, was the Spanish referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco. Mr. Undiano refereed the game in much the same way people take their driving test – completely by the book in case anyone is watching. A hail of first half yellow cards followed. By the end of the game notably absent of any malice there had been nine. Crucially, two of them had been shown to the German team’s talismanic figurehead, Miroslav Klose. Klose, who received his marching orders on 35 minutes for clipping the heels of Serbia’s captain Dejan Stankovic, comported himself with as much dignity as one would expect from him, and certainly with more than the situation warranted. It was a shameful, jobsworth, cowardly piece of refereeing. And it proved to be the game’s defining moment.
Within a minute of Klose’s departure, Krasic again broke down the right side. Beating Badstuber to the touchline, he delivered a high cross which 6’8″ Nikola Zigic was able to nod back into the path of Milan Jovanovic from his position on the far post. Despite a tricky bounce, Jovanovic controlled it well, his half-volleyed finish a formality from just a couple of yards.
For all of Serbia’s solid work up to that point, few could really argue that Germany had not been the better team. And afterwards, no-one could. With ten men and a rising sense of injustice – always dangerous with a card-happy referee having the time of his life in the middle – the German team pressed on with vigour whilst the Serbian side completely shut up shop. In added time at the end of the first period, Germany oh-so-nearly managed to equalise things – in terms of goals at least – when Serbian goalkeeper Stojkovic flapped at a right-side cross into the path of Khedira, who saw his shot come back off the bar. Thomas Müller attempted to sink the rebound with an overhead kick, but the three Serbian players on the goalline plus the whistle-maniac referee soon put paid to that.
The second half brought more of the same from both sides. Serbia rigorously refused to capitalise on their numerical advantage, whilst Germany tried everything to get back into the game. An equaliser would have been the very least they deserved, and they made enough chances to see it happen. Unfortunately, every single one of these fell to Lukas Podolski, who was not having a very good game at all. Singly failing to make the most of his left-sided role in the first half, he was worse in the second – his profligacy as a lone striker could yet cost his country dear. Six times he shot in the second half, and on five occasions he failed to hit the target.
More astonishing still were the circumstances in which he did. With 10 minutes played in the second period, Podolski sent a high ball over to try and find Khedira, making yet another run from deep. In what was almost an action replay of their first game, a Serbian defender flailed like a spawning salmon to try and reach it, succeeding only in a flagrant handball and the award of a penalty. This time the culprit was Nemanja Vidic, but the punishment was a lot less severe: Podolski’s penalty proving a feeble affair, hit low just to the left side of the centre of the goal and an easy take for Stojkovic.
With this, the German side seemed to lose belief. Jogi Löw made all the right signs from the bench, throwing on strikers Cacau and Mario Gomez, as well as the flying winger Marko Marin. But they were never as close to threatening the goal again. Indeed, it was Serbia who probably should have wrapped it up. More skilful work from Krasnic and Jovanovic created an opening for the latter to shoot, but his effort just ricocheted back off Neuer’s right-hand post. A few minutes later, man mountain Zigic failed to keep a header down when it was easier to score, the ball just glancing off the top side of the crossbar and out.
It was the first time in 24 years that a German team has lost a match in the group stages of a World Cup finals tournament. The last time they were eliminated at the first hurdle, meanwhile, was 1938. Assuming that this is a possibility on the basis of this performance, however, is not really feasible… yet. However, should Australia get something from their game with Ghana tomorrow, the entire fate of Group D will be up in the air. Whatever happens, it’s likely to come down to at least some form of frantic mathematics. Serbia, on the other hand, find themselves back in the running as many pre-tournament predictions said they would be. The reality, though, could and perhaps should be somewhat different.
Thanks again to Historical Football Kits for the use of their graphics.