World Cup titans Spain and Germany live to fight another day

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DOHA, Qatar — This felt, for stretches, like a Champions League group stage game between potential tournament winners. You prod, you push, but, ultimately, you err on the side of caution because you know that you’ll live to fight another day. And the damage of a resounding defeat — even if only psychological, even if only to answer the barrage of criticism and questioning — far outweighs the benefits of three points which, frankly, nobody will remember.

It could have been different, of course, if Japan had not somehow soiled the bed against Costa Rica earlier in the day, contriving to lose 1-0 to an opponent who had shipped seven goals against Spain and who, on paper, looked distinctly overmatched. Had Japan won, the arithmetic for Germany would have been brutally simple: beat Spain or go home after just two games, along with Canada and Qatar (well, in the latter’s case, staying home.)

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Instead, Japan’s result meant that Germany’s fate will be decided, come what may, on the final matchday. The 1-1 draw against Spain, however, means Germany do not control their own destiny. They need to beat Costa Rica and hope that Spain beat Japan. Both likely, maybe even very likely, but then past World Cups have taught us not to take anything for granted. And, frankly, is Japan beating Spain or Germany failing to beat Costa Rica that much less likely than, say, a World Cup being awarded to a nation of 3 million in the middle of winter?

Besides, Germany know all about not taking things for granted. Their group-stage exit at the hands of South Korea four years ago still smarts. And, at least, on that occasion, they held the future in their own hands. Here in Qatar they do not.

Still, there was a vibe of conservatism and lack of urgency from both teams at the Al-Bayt Stadium Sunday night.

Manager Hansi Flick’s changes showed he was playing the long game. He moved Niklas Sule back into the heart of defence (nice idea, being the…

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