Germany’s shambling forward did not look the part but he certainly played it as the big talent on the night
This match had been billed by most observers as the team of all the talents against the team of The Talent. They came to Salvador, the neutrals at least, to see Ronaldo: not just football’s most recognisably burnished face but the sport’s most brilliantly engineered quick-stepping athlete, an acme of speed, power and almost cartoonish amour propre. By half-time, however, the thrust of Portugal’s and Germany’s opening Group G fixture had instead been completely stolen by a player who at times barely looks like a footballer at all.
It was an afternoon dominated by Germany’s shambling, angular, shaggy-haired forward Thomas Müller, who scored a hat-trick in a 4-0 win and produced a supremely intelligent display as a mobile central striker. What a delightfully unusual footballer Müller is, a player who continually pops up in menacing pockets of space, socks askew, arms waggling, resembling at times a pitch-invading dentist out for a jog who has somehow strayed in among all those sleekly groomed professional athletes.
Appearances can be profitably deceptive. Müller now has eight goals in seven World Cup matches and is perhaps the most likely in this sublimely talented but still expectant German squad to provide a hard-nosed cutting edge at this tournament. He gave more than just goals, too. Asked once to list his best attributes, Müller famously described himself as a Raumdeuter, a self-coined term that means something like “space interpreter”. Here, in a moment that killed the game after 37 minutes, it was the space between Pepe’s ears that he was concerned with, inducing via an over-the-top theatrical fall a mild but still idiotic butt of the head by the Portuguese that rightly saw him sent off.
As for Ronaldo, aged 29, semi-fit and in a very average team, it seems it is not meant to happen at World Cups. On Sunday Portugal’s lone star had declared himself, if not totally fit, then at least by the average elite footballer’s standards “100 percent”. And to be fair he lit up the opening eight minutes here, his first touch a back-heel by the touchline that brought huge roars of pleasure around this steeply banked state-of-the-art arena, a giant domed Polo mint over the top of which the piled-up tenement housing of Salvador peeps in. His second was a surging run down his favoured inside-left channel that left Jérôme Boateng pounding in his wake like a man running up a down escalator.
And that was pretty much it. Enter Müller, although it was Mario Götze, a roly-poly little menace of a dribbler who made the incision, wriggling his way expertly into the penalty area before being pulled down by João Pereira. Müller stuttered, paused – tribute to Neymar and the Brazilian “paradinha” penalty perhaps – and zinged the ball into the corner to vast German roars .
Playing as a staid old nine rather than anything edgier in the opening half, Müller repeatedly menaced the last defender in the classic style, calling for the ball over the top, linking the play and generally galloping around like a skinny-legged Alan Shearer. Behind him a revolving midfield four fulfilled Germany’s brief as a team of the tens, with Mesut Özil, Mario Götze, Toni Kroos and at times Sami Khedira taking it in turns to advance and retreat. With 30 minutes gone it was a burst by Özil down the inside-right channel that led to the corner from which Germanyscored their second, a thrilling header by Mats Hummels that went pretty much through Rui Patricio direct from Kroos’s corner.
Pepe had already gone missing once at the corner and now it was time to disappear for a final time. What an asinine footballer he can be at times, a genuinely fine centre-half who cannot resist the messy, spoiling parts of his game. Challenging for a long pass, Müller reacted theatrically when Pepe’s fingers brushed his face, at which point Pepe vacated the moral high ground by bending down and pressing his forehead on to Müller’s crown. It deserved a red not for malice but for stupidity. There was no advantage to be gained. Pepe simply lost his temper – and with it a game that was already half gone anyway.
The third goal duly arrived on half-time. It was an utterly Müller-ish piece of work too. Anticipating a Kroos pass in from the left, the Raumdeuter also seemed to catch a premonition of Bruno Alves’s volleyed clearance, raising a foot to smother it at source and, when the ball fell kindly, finishing powerfully. In the second half Müller completed his hat-trick from close range while Ronaldo trotted about and looked sad – although at the end he did thwack Manuel Neuer’s palms with one of those snaked, front-on free-kicks.
Müller had already left the pitch by then. World Cup hat-tricks are rare indeed and he received a standing ovation from much of the stadium. He is a key figure in this team of contenders, the most pragmatic all-round forward of this talented crop. The fear had been that Germany might lack both incision and what Lothar Matthäus called “the nasty players”. Here, with a one-man show of goals and cards, they found both in Müller.