First Look: France vs. Germany in Euro 2016 semifinals
After defeating the side that few thought would get to where it did, France turns its attention to the side that's likely its toughest remaining foe on the quest to lifting the Euro 2016 trophy on home soil.
France will play Germany in the competition semifinals after putting an end to Iceland's magical run with a thorough 5-2 victory in Paris on Sunday. The Germans had a far more difficult time in the quarterfinals, needing penalty kicks to exorcise its past demons and defeat Italy 6-5 in the shootout after a 1-1 draw.
France has dominated the recent history between the two sides, going 6-2-1 in their nine meetings dating back to 1990. Germany has won the only match of real significance, though, in the 2014 FIFA World Cup quarterfinals. Mats Hummels's early header off a set piece was the difference in the cagey 1-0 victory, which helped propel Germany on its way to lifting the trophy.
The last time they met, the game was well beyond the secondary story. The deadly terrorist attacks in Paris near and outside of the Stade de France on Nov. 13, 2015, forced the teams to spend the night in the stadium. That act served to bond the teams and players forever, and that won't soon be forgotten despite the on-field stakes being what they are in the semifinals.
Hummels won't be available on Thursday, as he's suspended for yellow card accumulation, so Germany will need another goal-scoring hero if it is to oust the host nation in Marseille.
Here are a few opening thoughts on the highly anticipated Euro semifinal clash:
This is and will be France's toughest test, by far
France has earned its place in the semifinals, and it looked downright dominant vs. Iceland, but its road has been–relative to the other semifinalists–a cakewalk.
A group with Switzerland, Romania and Albania was never going to offer much of a threat, especially with three teams able to go through (though Les Bleus did not have the easiest of times, often leaving it late), and knockout games against Ireland and Iceland are matches you'd expect the host nation to win, especially one as stacked with talent as France.
Facing Germany will require another level from Paul Pogba, Dimitri Payet and Antoine Griezmann & Co. The Germans' pressure can unsettle any opponent, and their tactical flexibility make them a tough foe for which to prepare. As they showed against Slovakia, they can dominate possession, play with flair, and unlock the most parked of buses. As they showed against Italy, they can play a more disciplined and defensive-minded game.
If France is able to get by Germany, either of the potential opponents waiting in the final–Wales or Portugal–won't be anywhere close to as tough of a matchup. In many ways, except for the obvious one, this is when we'll find out if France is worthy of being a champion. All of that said, Germany won't be nearly at full strength ...
Germany's injury conundrum
Joachim Low's side has been a more dynamic and efficient one since Mario Gomez was re-installed up top as a true center forward. With him ruled out for the remainder of the tournament with a muscle tear, Germany could become a much more vulnerable squad. Will Mario Gotze, Germany's 2014 World Cup final hero, get another shot as a false nine? Will the disappointing Thomas Muller take on that role? How will the dynamic Julian Draxler be worked into the mix? Either way, the injury is a big blow to the Germans. Gomez is far from perfect, but what he offers up top helps other dominoes fall into place.
Another of those dominoes that must be replace is in central midfield, where both Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger are injury doubts.
If neither can go on Thursday, Germany could thrust versatile 21-year-old Joshua Kimmich into that role, but he has become so valuable at right back, that one wonders at what cost that move would come. That said, France is strong through its center, with Pogba, Blaise Matuidi, Payet and Griezmann capable of impacting the game to great effect, so it becomes a matter of where Germany thinks it is better off strengthening its squad.
Germany is blessed with incredible depth, but right back and forward are the two areas most vital to allowing the well-oiled machine to operate at maximum capacity, and Low is left with some key decisions to make.
France's personnel calls
Germany's lineup is going to be mostly dictated by who is healthy or eligible for Thursday's match. Low has a vital to job to choose a winning combination, but his options are finite.
France, however, will be at full strength. Nobody's injured. Nobody's suspended. Didier Deschamps has all 23 players at his disposal, with N'Golo Kante and Adil Rami returning from their card-accumulation bans, meaning it's on him to get it right. Based on how often he's needed to make tweaks to his on-field personnel in second halves with results in the balance throughout this competition, at least until Sunday, there remains evidence for Deschamps's skeptics.
With Kante back, does he mess with the Moussa Sissoko-Matuidi-Pogba-Payet-Griezmann quintet that performed so efficiently and brilliantly behind Olivier Giroud?
It's nice to have options, but a ruthless team like Germany doesn't need much to make a manager regret his choices. The last major semifinal in which Germany played against a host nation, it destroyed Brazil 7-1 with a rout for the ages. Deschamps must get it right from the start, not from the 60th minute on, for France to reach the final.