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The curse of champions nearly caught Germany like it caught Italy and Spain in the past two World Cups, but Germany cauterized the wound before the curse could kill them.
On Saturday, facing Sweden and elimination in their second group-stage game, Germany overcame a 1-0 first-half deficit with a pair of second-half goals, the second of which came in the final minute of stoppage time, to best Sweden by a final score of 2-1.
Germany needed all 95 minutes to get the result it needed. Now it heads into its final group-stage match against South Korea with an easier path to the knockout stages.
On the brink of disaster after an opening-match loss to Mexico, Germany entered its contest against Sweden on Saturday in desperate need of a response. Before kickoff, Mexico beat South Korea to improve its total to six points. Germany wasn't just looking up at Mexico and its six points in the Group F standings, it was also trailing Sweden and its three points. If Sweden won, Germany -- the defending champions -- would fail to advance from its group at the World Cup for the first time ever, which would also mark the third straight World Cup that's seen the reigning champs succumb in the group stage.
In a tactical switch after Mexico took advantage of Germany's lack of a defensive midfield, Germany coach Joachim Low dropped star attacking midfielder Mesut Ozil from the starting lineup for the first time since Ozil made his debut for Germany, ending his streak of 26 straight starts in major tournament play. Like Ozil, Sami Khedira was dropped. Marco Reus and Sebastian Rudy gained entrance into the starting XI. Rudy, however, was forced to depart the game in the first half after taking a cleat to the face, which led to a bloody scene.
From the beginning, Germany imposed its will on the match. The Germans dominated possession and created strong scoring chances from the get-go with mechanical build-up play, but once again, they proved to be susceptible to the counter attack. In the 13th minute, Marcus Berg broke free for a breakaway with Jerome Boateng trailing behind him. As Berg fired a shot, which was stifled by German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, Boateng pushed Berg in the back. Shouts for a penalty kick were ignored and VAR was not called upon.
Sweden got its goal not long after. In the 32nd minute, after a bad giveaway by Germany, Ola Toivonen made a slicing run through the backline and was played in beautifully by Viktor Claesson. Toivonen used a chip to beat a charging Neuer. And like that, Sweden took a 1-0 lead and pushed Germany to the edge of the cliff.
Germany responded with chance after chance after chance, but was continually denied at the goal line by key deflections and saves. Frustration mounted.
If not for a brilliant save at the far post by Neuer on the final play of the first half, Germany would've faced a 2-0 deficit. If not for that save, Marco Reus' goal in the 48th minute wouldn't have knotted up the score. But Neuer made the save and Reus' goal -- coming off a cross, a deflection, and ultimately, his knee -- tied the game at 1-1.
Germany was alive.
A tie would give Germany another game to make up Sweden's point advantage. A win, though, would bring them level with Sweden in the group standings. Blood was in the water, and Germany smelled it. Sweden, meanwhile, was reduced to survival mode as Germany pushed numbers forward.
But the breakthrough didn't come. Sweden staved off attack after attack after attack, and counter-punched with a couple attacks of their own. The drama intensified in the 82nd minute when Boateng, playing with a yellow card, made a reckless challenge and earned -- in every sense of the word -- a second yellow card. Germany was reduced to 10 men for the final 13 minutes.
On the resulting free kick, Sweden nearly took the lead, but Neuer kept Germany alive with a stumbling save. On the other end, in the 88th minute, Sweden goalkeeper Robin Olsen denied a point-blank header by somehow reacting in time to push the ball over the bar. Sweden survived the German attack, again, but only just barely.
Five minutes were added on. Sweden, despite being up a man, was just trying to hold on for dear life. In the 92nd minute, Julian Brandt fired a rocket from the top of the box and beat Olsen, but the post denied him of a game-winning and tournament-changing goal. In the final minute of stoppage time, Germany drew a free kick at the edge of the box.
The angle didn't matter to Toni Kroos. He tapped the ball forward to his teammate, who set the ball in place for him. With pitch-perfect precision, Kroos whipped the ball toward the far post. The ball found the back of the net. The breakthrough came. Germany got the goal it needed.
After surviving one last-gasp attack by Sweden, Germany claimed victory and three crucial points.
What a game, indeed:
As a result, Germany is now tied with Sweden in second place in Group F with three points. Both teams trail Mexico by three points. Meanwhile, South Korea with zero points, is still alive. In the final matches of Group F, Mexico will take on Sweden while Germany will face South Korea, with both coming on Wednesday at 10 a.m. ET. You can watch those matches and follow the entire World Cup on fuboTV (Try for free).
Simplest Group F scenarios Wednesday:— Paul Carr (@PaulCarrTM) June 23, 2018
🇲🇽 MEX advances with win/draw or GER loss/draw
🇸🇪 🇩🇪 SWE/GER advance with 2-goal win OR win & loss/draw by other OR draw & loss by other
🇰🇷 KOR advances with win & SWE loss, & winning 3-way tiebreaker with SWE/GER
It'll all come down to the final day in Group F. Only then can Germany completely vanquish the champion's curse.