x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Choke holds back Germany as Sweden proved

Shock draw latest example that it is never over until the whistle blows.

Sweden's Rasmus Elm, left, scored an injury-time equaliser to complete four goals in 28 minutes in their World Cup qualifying game.
Sweden's Rasmus Elm, left, scored an injury-time equaliser to complete four goals in 28 minutes in their World Cup qualifying game.

Triumphalism was in the air. Germany, playing in front of an ecstatic crowd at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, were leading Sweden 4-0 with an hour gone in their 2014 World Cup qualifier on Tuesday night. It could have been many more.

Adding to the celebratory mood was the presentation before the kick off of a Fair Play Award to Miroslav Klose, whose two first-half goals took his international tally to 67.

Another one would see him draw level with the legendary Gerd Muller. The swaying crowds waited.

Then, on 62 minutes, Sweden captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic pulled a goal back. Surely nothing more than a consolation.

After all, this was Germany, winners of three World Cups and three European Championship, purveyors of ruthless efficiency and masters of the unlikely comeback themselves. And, at home, practically indestructible.

The goal may have been a setback, but no one was prepared for what happened next. Only two minutes later, Mikael Lustig scored another.

Suddenly the momentum shifted towards Sweden, and with the visitors pressing more, Germany began to feel the pressure for the first time in the match.

And with 14 minutes to go Johan Elmander scored Sweden’s third, For the previously rampant Germans, and their boisterous fans, panic set in, and they seemingly had no way of finding the form that had got them four goals to the good.

Germany now had something to lose and the pressure set in as they sat deep – desperate to avoid the embarrassment of being remembered as a team who threw away a four-goal lead.

Of course, the inevitable happened and in the third minute of injury time, Rasmus Elm completed an astonishing comeback. Germany, who had never relinquished a lead of that size before in their history, were stunned.

The German players and management appeared at a loss to explain what had happened afterwards, most looking in a daze.

Perceived wisdom is that it is a combination of complacency by one side and abandonment of caution by the other that produces the perfect recipe for a comeback, and that does appear to be what happened here.

Germany are not the first team in sport to suffer the indignity of thinking they had a game won, only to realise they actually had not. In the 2005 Uefa Champions League final in Istanbul, AC Milan toyed with a clearly inferior Liverpool, Hernan Crespo scoring a sensational third goal right on half  time.

In many ways, that goal was a setback in disguise for Milan.

Enter complacency. Liverpool pulled one back nine minutes after the break and panic seemed to overtake the normally stoic Italians and in the space of six minutes they went from cruising to being level as they shipped in three goals.

Although they stopped the rot from then on, the collapse had been a memorable one, and Liverpool went on to win the trophy on penalties.

More recently, Europe’s fantastic last day recovery to snatch the Ryder Cup from the US owed as much to Americans “taking their foot of the pedal” as it did to the heroics of Martin Kaymer, Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy.

Leading 10-6, the Americans, playing at home and usually formidable in the singles, collectively lost their nerve, it seemed. Triumphalism in the US press, and among a rowdy, jingoistic crowd, played a part.

Some of the Americans later acknowledged they had creeping thoughts that even if they lost their singles match, they expected the modest total of four-and-a-half points out of 12 be comfortably picked up elsewhere.

It was too much confidence, not lack of it, that did for them.

But no individual collapse compares with Jana Novotna’s meltdown against Steffi Graf in the 1993 women’s Wimbledon final. So comprehensive was the Czech  player’s performance, and lead, it would have been no surprise if the organisers had begun to engrave her name on the famous shield.

And then, the unthinkable happened. Leading 6–7, 6–1, 4–1, and 40-30 on her own service, Novotna double faulted. Brilliant before, she could barely function after that, one unforced error following another.

All Graf had to do was keep the ball in play, and Novotna did the rest. Within less than 15 minutes, she was celebrating a remarkable turnaround, while Novotna was left to reflect on how nerves and an inability to handle the occasion had cost her.

On that day, as ever, Graf was armed with that unique combination of German belief, resilience and efficiency.

A combination that, until Tuesday night at least, was associated with their footballers.


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