Germany seemed to have dodged a big worry on Saturday as defender Jerome Boateng returned to training after overcoming a muscle injury. The Germans face Slovakia on Sunday and aim to keep another clean sheet as they hope to secure a fourth continental crown.
Boateng has been crucial for the German defence which has yet to concede a goal in this tournament. He had renewed his World Cup-winning partnership in the central defence with Mats Hummels, with both players only recently back from injury.
They will need all the defensive prowess they can muster if they are not to replicate the mistakes that led to their 3-1 loss to the Slovaks in their friendly international on a rain-drenched pitch in May.
A new pitch has been laid in Lille after heavy rain and frequent play had damaged it irreparably. Germany, who won the tournament in 1972, 1980 and 1996, are prepared for the game, keeper Manuel Neuer said.
“We have to keep a clean sheet,” Neuer told reporters on Friday. “We know that we can concede goals as well. But so far we have defended well and in knockout games we want to keep a clean sheet.”
Slovakia’s Marek Hamsik and Vladimir Weiss will have their work cut out against the solid German backline, with full backs Jonas Hector and Joshua Kimmich in fine form.
Hamsik has been in equally stellar form, drilling in one goal and setting up another in their 2-1 victory over Russia in the group.
He had scored a similarly spectacular long-range effort against the Germans in their friendly victory last month but it is unlikely the world champions will give him so much space again.
“You just have to look at a Youtube video with his goals,” said Neuer of Hamsik. “It will be important that our holding midfielders stop him early and he does not get a chance to shoot.”
Slovakia’s much bigger task, however, will be to somehow slow down their opponents’ quick passing game that on a good day can rip any defensive plan to shreds.
Despite having yet to find their perfect mix in attack, Germany have more than double the efforts on goal than their opponents in the entire tournament.
With average possession of 65 pe rcent and passing accuracy at a staggering 91 per cent, Germany are expected to maintain their pressure throughout the game as they look for a last eight spot.
“The huge euphoria is maybe not there yet (in Germany) but if we beat Slovakia and then play against a big opponent then we can say we have arrived at the tournament,” Neuer said.