While not always totally convincing, especially in a shaky 15-minute spell before half-time, Joachim Löw’s side did enough to suggest his blend of experience and exuberance is maturing at just the right rate.
And to the delight of the large contingent of German fans who had welcomed their talisman with the biggest roar of the night, Bastian Schweinsteiger added the final touch with the last kick minutes after coming on as a late substitute. (Photo: Schweinsteiger (left) and Mustafi)
“It was not too easy against a strong defence, and their counterattacks were very dangerous, but we found a solution to that in the second half and that’s why I’m quite satisfied with the game and the result,” concluded Löw. As the vanquished Ukraine coach, Mykhailo Formenko, said with a slight shake of the head: “A machine is a machine.”
Germany had exuded their usual air of calm confidence beforehand but there was always the vague suspicion that it masked an uncharacteristic vulnerability in defence.
With Mats Hummels ruled out of the match through injury, Shkodran Mustafi of Valencia slotted into the back four alongside Jérôme Boateng with Cologne’s Jonas Hector, who has filled the huge boots of Philipp Lahm, at left-back and Benedikt Höwedes on the right.
The pattern was set early on. Ukraine, who conceded only five goals during qualifying, would sit deep and try to catch Germany on the break as Löw’s men began their quest to add the European Championship to their World Cup win in 2014.
An early scare when the captain, Manuel Neuer, saved from Seville’s Yevhen Konoplyanka aside, Germany looked predictably menacing, their dazzling trio of attacking midfielders, Julian Draxler, Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller, buzzing productively behind Mario Götze.
When the breakhrough came, it was the man who made the team due only to the absence of Hummels – not considered by Löw to have recovered sufficiently from a calf injury and who instead posed happily for selfies with fans before kick-off – who scored it.
The referee, Martin Atkinson, making his debut in a major tournament, harshly adjudged Ukraine’s center-back Yaroslav Rakitskiy to have brought down Müller on the right.
When the ball was expertly swung over by Toni Kroos, Mustafi – who made only one appearance for Everton during his three years with the Merseyside club – rose to head it past Andriy Pyatov. On the bench Low, natty in a fitted grey T-shirt, wore the look of a man who had planned it all along.
Germany could have doubled their lead 10 minutes later when a purring Kroos played a masterful ball to Sami Khedira. But Pyatov, rushing from his goal, saved smartly. Yet for all Germany’s possession, Ukraine were far from backward in coming forward. Judging from their rhetoric before the match, Fomenko’s side might have been expected to park the bus.
They began by conceding possession but started to pour forward as the half wore on, with Konoplyanka particularly impressive marauding down the left. The closest they came was when Andriy Yarmolenko crossed for Konoplyanka, who scuffed the ball back across goal. It hit Boateng on a thigh, who sent it spinning towards his own goal before he recovered to clear from his own line.
Referring to the clearance, Löw permitted himself a political aside: “It’s good to have Boateng as your neighbour in the defence because he saw a difficult situation. That’s what he does very well.” Last month a politician, Alexander Gauland, Alternative For Germany’s deputy leader, had caused a furore by suggesting that he would not want to live next to the Bayern Munich center-half.
Germany had dulled the Ukrainian threat but were unable to find a second goal. Kroos skimmed the top of the bar, Sami Khedira had a shot well saved from long range and Müller also tested Pyatov from distance but the menace had dissipated.
“We weren’t concentrating enough and we couldn’t have complained if we’d conceded at that time. But in the second half we got stronger and stronger,” said Kroos. “Of course things could have been better but it’s quite a good beginning.”
Germany have never lost an opening game in a major championship and they remained in control here but for that brief spell when Konoplyanka had upped the ante. Germany began with six of the players who started at the Maracanã two years ago, emphasising the extent to which this is a team morphing into a new phase.
While Germany failed to extend their lead, the theoretical risk always remained that they would throw it away as England had in Marseille the previous evening. But, this being the Germans, it never looked a serious possibility.
Instead it was the returning Schweinsteiger who added an air of celebratory gloss to the evening at the last from a superb break.
“I’m also very happy with Schweinsteiger that, after all this work over the past weeks, he could score the second goal. That will help him a lot – and also the team,” said Löw.
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