Germany's youth show experience beyond their years
By Karolos Grohmann
EVIAN, France (Reuters) - Germany's younger generation can rightfully feel they are the ones to be trusted when the world champions line up for a Euro 2016 semi-final next week after they stood up to be counted in the country's first tournament victory over Italy on Saturday.
Coach Joachim Loew has remained loyal to the core of his World Cup-winning squad for much of the tournament but it was his emerging players who showed nerves of steel to secure a famous quarter-final victory in Bordeaux.
In a nerve-wrecking 6-5 win on penalties, Germany missed more spot kicks in a matter of minutes than they had in their entire shootout history as some of Loew's most trusted servants surprisingly failed to find the target.
Mesut Ozil, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thomas Mueller, who have played a combined 274 matches for Germany, all fluffed their lines but still lived to fight another day thanks to their team mates.
For Ozil, who opened the scoring in the match that ended 1-1, it was his second missed penalty of the tournament, while Mueller has yet to find the net in two European Championships despite boasting a proud record of 10 World Cup finals goals.
Schweinsteiger, hailed as a hero of the 2014 World Cup win, was last to miss, firing over the bar with a woeful attempt that could be considered a symbolic changing of the guard.
The 31-year-old injury-plagued skipper has struggled for form at Manchester United and looked well past his prime for most of the match, as if ready to pass on the baton to a younger leader.
The experienced threesome's failures had little impact on the outcome, however, as young guns Jonas Hector, Joshua Kimmich and Julian Draxler were able to keep their cool to send Germany on to a sixth consecutive semi-final at a major tournament.
Fullback Hector, who scored the decisive penalty in his first tournament, will no doubt keep his starting spot, as will 21-year-old Kimmich, whose selfless work down the wing kept the Italians on their toes.
The 22-year-old Draxler, who scored once and set up another in the 3-0 victory over Slovakia in the Round of 16, was initially sacrificed for an additional defender at the start of the game.
But his introduction in the 72nd minute instantly invigorated Germany and he could have netted a late winner with an audacious bicycle kick.
With France and Iceland, who face each other in the last quarter-final on Sunday, both possessing arguably weaker backlines than the Italians, Loew is widely expected to turn to his youngsters once more in Marseille on Thursday.
Central defender Mats Hummels is suspended for the game while Sami Khedira could be ruled out with an adductor muscle injury he picked up early on Saturday.
With several exciting prospects waiting in the wings of the tournament's youngest remaining squad, such as explosive winger Leroy Sane and midfielder Julian Weigl, both 20, Loew has a selection headache any coach would be delighted to suffer.
(Editing by John O'Brien)