Thursday’s semifinal at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille (3 p.m. Eastern, ESPN) marks Germany’s fifth straight appearance on this stage at a major competition. The confrontation poses a dramatic uptick in difficulty for France, which is coming off wins over tournament darlings Iceland and Ireland. By far the biggest country France has defeated so far is Romania, whose population is less than a third of the host nation’s total.
Germany qualified for that 7-1 evisceration two years ago by way of a 1-0 quarterfinal win over France. That defeat still lingers in the mind of French midfielder Moussa Sissoko, who impressed in Sunday’s victory over Iceland while filling in for a suspended N’Golo Kante.
“Being knocked out in the quarters at the last World Cup still sticks in the throat,” Sissoko said. “This is the time to make amends for that defeat.”
France has not won a trophy since Euro 2000 and is aiming to reach the final of a major tournament for the first time since 2006, when Italy hoisted the World Cup in Berlin. A victory in Marseille could usher in a new golden age of French soccer, which suffered winless humiliations in the two major competitions following its loss to Italy a decade ago.
“We have a new page to write. The players can write it,” France Coach Didier Deschamps said Wednesday. “It’s blank now. We have to fill it tomorrow.”
Thursday’s match carries a more profound emotional weight in light of these two teams’ previous meeting. France beat Germany 2-0 in a friendly last November, but the result was completely overshadowed by the tragic events engulfing Paris that night. Two bombs were detonated outside the Stade de France during the game, part of a series of coordinated terrorist attacks across the city that left 130 dead. Players from both teams remained in the stadium overnight, sleeping on mattresses.
Still, the outcome of Thursday’s semifinal won’t hinge on past events. This is a reinvigorated, experienced French team compared to the experimental side in Brazil, one fiercely determined to make its home fans proud. Plus, if you really want to take history into account, you can’t ignore Les Bleus’ enduring quality in the comfy confines of their own borders.
France will no doubt aim to set the tone early against the Germans with the kind of aggressive start that propelled them to a 4-0 halftime lead against Iceland. That first-half performance on Sunday highlighted an exhilarating French attack that now has an in-house competition going for this tournament’s Golden Boot honor. Atletico Madrid forward Antoine Griezmann leads the race with four goals, while Olivier Giroud and Dimitri Payet each have three goals and two assists to their names.
Germany enters Thursday’s showdown with three significant absences. Center back Matt Hummels will sit out with a yellow card suspension, while striker Mario Gomez has been ruled out of the tournament with a hamstring injury. Midfielder Sami Khedira, meanwhile, will miss the semifinal with a groin problem. The absence of those three weakens Germany’s spine, though Coach Joachim Low confirmed Wednesday that Bastian Schweinsteiger will captain the squad despite a nagging knee injury.
No matter who takes the field Thursday, many around the world are viewing this juicy matchup between neighboring powers as the de facto final. That’s not totally unreasonable given a droll opening semifinal distinguished only by one moment of aerial prowess.