With Draxler, Germany look like trophy winners again
REPORTING FROM LILLE
ROUND OF 16
(Jerome Boateng 8, Mario Gomez 43, Julian Draxler 63)
There's something awfully familiar about all this.
As night follows day, the Germans find their form in the knockout stages.
With the consistency of a swinging pendulum, they march as one towards a familiar destination. At this stage, all roads lead to Paris.
Poland, Portugal, Wales and France all huffed and puffed their way to the quarter-finals, but Germany almost blew the house down here in Lille this morning (Singapore time) with a 3-0 stroll.
The Slovakians were inevitably abject, stubbornly refused to change the habits of a tournament's lifetime, no matter how futile.
But their opponents' masterful display, from front to back, evoked warm memories of humid, heady nights in South America two years ago. The boys from Brazil are back.
How this tournament missed them.
Sticking rigidly to the same script, Germany even found the final cog in the knockout stages, the last piece of a puzzle that usually keeps Joachim Loew occupied in the group games.
In the World Cup, he returned Philipp Lahm to defence.
Against Slovakia, he unleashed Julian Draxler.
And how he dazzled.
But then, there was a swagger about Germany long before kickoff. Lille's picturesque town square had earlier been a colourful mishmash of black, red and yellow wigs and puce-faced Germans predicting another trophy for the swag bag.
The arena's complexion was a story of mice and men. Slovakia's smaller fan base was rarely seen or heard.
Germany owned the stadium and, very quickly, the pitch.
Their penetrative play, inspired in large part by Draxler, earned a corner in the eighth minute.
Toni Kroos' inswinger was cleared, but dropped to Jerome Boateng.
He struck the ball sweetly between two dumbstruck defenders, from a full 20 metres, and into the bottom corner. Slovakia's back four had temporarily left the building.
Boateng had kicked the knockout stages into gear and sent an ominous warning to those pretenders with trophy aspirations.
The brutish cold-blooded winning machines only calibrate when it matters.
Germany should've doubled their advantage after 12 minutes, but Matus Kozacik beat out Mesut Oezil's timid, penalty, after Mario Gomez was brought down.
The game quickly developed a pattern familiar to masochists who sat through the turgid stalemate between England and Slovakia.
The only obvious difference was Germany's superior artistry, so easy on the eye no matter how defensive the opponents.
Kroos' unfussy control of Marek Hamsik was a masterclass of subtle dominance, with the German playing an unfazed schoolteacher dealing with the rebel with a Mohawk in class.
But it was almost too easy. Complacency crept into Germany's game.
Mats Hummels confounds opposing tacticians, as the centre-back needs midfield attention when he slips into his playmaking role. He was effectively on the halfway line, with Manuel Neuer not far behind.
In the 41st minute, Germany almost paid the price, when Juraj Kucka steered a header towards the top corner, only for Neuer to flip like a dropped cat.
The skipper's breathtaking stop encapsulated not only his undoubted pedigree, but also Germany's enviable spread of peerless talents.
And Neuer's save woke his team-mates from their brief snooze.
Breaking free on the left two minutes later, Draxler reached the byeline and cut back for a grateful Gomez to scoop the ball high into the net.
The Germans were serenaded at half-time by a bouncing choir of thousands. They know where this journey usually ends.
With Slovakia defeated by the interval, only the margin of defeat needed to be settled.
Draxler nabbed the goal his imperious performance deserved in the 63rd minute, when he was left alone eight yards out to swivel his hips and smash a delightful volley into the roof of the net; a beautiful finish from a fabulous footballer.
When he was substituted, Draxler left to a standing ovation.
The Germans had found their missing link, along with their collection cohesion.
It smells like team spirit. It smells like victory.