AL KHOR, Qatar — This is how fine the margins can be: Had Nico Schlotterbeck not raced back, his jaw tight with effort, to steal the ball from Álvaro Morata’s feet, Germany’s World Cup would hang by a thread. For the second tournament in a row, a group stage exit would loom. Questions would be asked, culprits sought, knives sharpened.
But Schlotterbeck did race back, straining every sinew to close the gap to Morata, and he did slide in, his timing perfect, and he did steal the ball from his feet, and now it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Germany might find itself — in a couple of weeks’ time — preparing for a World Cup semifinal, the scent of unlikely glory in its nostrils.
The irony, of course, was that Schlotterbeck’s intervention was just one moment among many thousands over the course of more than 100 minutes, a speck in terms of Hansi Flick’s team’s overall performance, and yet everything turned on that single instant. Every assessment of this game, every analysis of the health of German soccer, hinged on it; so, too, did the international careers of several players and, likely, of one coach.
The truth of it is that this had been a hugely encouraging display from Germany, regardless of whether Morata, scorer of Spain’s opener, had added a second in injury time. It would have been even if Flick’s team had not sealed a point thanks to a goal from Niclas Füllkrug, the late-blooming striker added to the squad almost as an afterthought in the weeks before this tournament.
That is not to say it was spectacular — far from it — but it was brim full of all of those other traits that are considered quite useful in these circumstances: grit and fight and industry and nous. Germany richly deserved its point, one that means it goes into its final game knowing that a victory against Costa Rica will, in all likelihood, carry it into the knockout rounds.
After that, the field opens just a little. It might be Morocco in the last 16 and Portugal in the quarterfinals. Germany came within a whisker of yet another embarrassment in the World Cup. The margins, though, are fine. All of a sudden, it can see nothing but promise.