Germany produced its best performance yet at the European Championship to book a place in the quarterfinals with a comprehensive 3-0 defeat of Slovakia on Sunday.
The world champion showed its defensive resilience as well as attacking ambition in a display that augurs well for the tougher challenges ahead.
Up next is either two-time defending champion Spain or Italy, in what will undoubtedly be one of the most-anticipated matches in the quarterfinals.
“Today was a good performance, in defense and in attack,” Germany coach Joachim Loew said. “But with due respect to our opponent, this was not an indicator for how the tournament will go on. We have to improve further to be successful.”
Jerome Boateng put Germany ahead as soon as the eighth minute when his shot from outside the area took a slight deflection into the corner of the Slovakia goal. It was the fastest goal scored by Germany at a European Championship.
“It was about time it went in,” Boateng said of his first international goal in 63 appearances for Germany. The 27-year-old had been a doubt for the game, but he had overcome a calf injury to play.
Mesut Ozil had the chance to make it 2-0 six minutes later after Martin Skrtel conceded a penalty for a shove on Mario Gomez, but goalkeeper Matus Kozacik guessed the right way and palmed away his spot kick.
The miss was the first by a German player at the European Championship since Uli Hoeness shot over the bar as Czechoslovakia defeated West Germany 5-3 in a penalty shootout in the 1976 final. Antonin Panenka famously scored the winning penalty with a chip down the middle.
Germany had further chances to double its lead in the first half Thomas Mueller had a host of opportunities but his peculiar record of never having scored at the European Championship has now been extended to nine matches. Ozil also went close.
Germany’s pressure eventually paid off, when Mario Gomez doubled the score in the 43rd after man-of-the-match Julian Draxler eluded Juraj Kucka to set up the simple finish.
“It’s such a nice moment,” said Gomez, who missed out on Germany’s World Cup win in 2014 due to injury and poor form. “I want to enjoy it and not think of the past. It’s such fun to play in this team.”
Kucka had moments earlier come close to leveling for Slovakia only to be thwarted by a fine reflex save from Manuel Neuer.
Draxler killed off any lingering hopes of a Slovakia comeback with a 63rd-minute volley from close range.
“The coach asked me to do it. He has given me a lot of confidence,” said Draxler, back in place of Mario Goetze, who started each group game. “It’s not important if it was my best-ever game or not. I am just happy I could help the team.”
With the game settled, Loew introduced some players, including Lukas Podolski for his first appearance in the tournament, while resting Boateng, Draxler and Sami Khedira ahead of the quarterfinal match in Bordeaux on Saturday.
“Now the games that we’re looking forward to are coming. They’re why we came to the European Championship. Of course we want the title. And for that you have to beat such teams,” Gomez said.
Germany is the only team remaining at Euro 2016 that has yet to concede a goal. Loew’s side hasn’t conceded a goal since it lost 3-1 to Slovakia in a pre-tournament friendly in Augsburg on May 29.
“We feel sorry,” Kozacik said. “Germany dominated from the beginning. They probably prepared better after we defeated them in the warm-up game.”
Slovakia midfielder Marek Hamsik, who was involved in his side’s few forays forward, looked back on a campaign that yielded a 2-1 win over Russia and a scoreless draw with England.
“It’s a pity the way we lost,” Hamsik said. “But looking back at the whole championships, I am happy what we achieved.”
Loew is looking forward to the tougher challenges ahead, with France a possible semifinal opponent.
“I think we have to become even stronger if we want to play a decisive role in this tournament,” Loew said. “Of course, we will improve against better opponents.”