For a split-second, it was Bloemfontein revisited: England defenders scampering back in vein, a German marksman taking aim and the sickening feeling of impending doom.
You remember how it was in South Africa, 11 years ago, as England tried to stay alive in the World Cup. Germany – slick, ruthless Germany – picked them off in the way a hungry, young boxer takes care of inferior opponents on their way to the top: one-two, bang-bang: you’re out.
Thomas Muller did the damage in that round of 16 game. In minutes 67 and 70, he trampled all over England’s ambitions turning a 2-1 lead into a 4-1 trouncing. Muller has been consistently outstanding since then, a player for the ages with 28 major honours to show for his glorious career.
Thomas Muller missed a glorious chance to equalise for Germany against England on Tuesday
All that flashed through your mind in that split-second, as Wembley momentarily fell silent. Raheem Sterling had lost possession, Kai Havertz had nudged it forward and there was Muller, scuttling away from Harry Maguire. He’s dead-eyed in these situations, a ruthless assassin with a sure touch.
On he went, unmoved by Jordan Pickford dashing out to narrow the angles. You thought of Bloemfontein and you also thought of another haunting memory, of 1996 when Stefan Kuntz quickly equalised Alan Shearer’s opening goal in that infamous semi-final.
That’s what Germany do, isn’t it? Just when you think a big occasion is going to go England’s way, they put a pin in expectation. They have been wrecking dreams, in the main, since 1966 and as Muller moved on, his right foot drawing back, there was a need to brace yourself for agony.
He wrapped his foot around the ball, the contact was clean and it was hoisted past Pickford but then came the outcome that was so very un-German. Muller’s shot drifted wide of the upright and clattered into the advertising hoardings.
There was a need for a double-take. Muller missed? Really?
You knew that was the outcome, though, as he curled up into a foetal position. Behind him, Havertz dropped to his knees and punched the floor, as he rose his face was contorted in a primal scream. All around Wembley, the moment was celebrated in a manner that can best be described as frenzied.
The Bayern Munich star was 1 on 1 with Jordan Pickford but dragged his effort wide of the goal
‘It’s the knockout stage and every mistake can be fatal and decisive,’ Joachim Low, Germany’s head coach, gloomily explained. ‘We would have turned the match around after the chance of Muller but we were not clinical enough or effective.’
This moment needs describing in such detail because it felt seminal. History tells you that when it matters, Germany delivers. But not now on the noisiest, most raucous occasion since England returned to the national stadium in 2007.
Germany had never lost here since the £757million redevelopment of this arena and the way they began in a breathless opening 10 minutes, suggested they would enhance their record (two wins and a draw, only one goal conceded) and give Low a few more days in charge before he departs.
In that period, they looked everything you would expect of an ensemble with 125 medals. Leon Goretzka began like a high-speed train careering out of a station, looking at one stage like he would run all over Kalvin Phillips. Toni Kroos, a Rolls-Royce, clipped pinpoint balls forward with grace.
At the back, Mats Hummels – much-maligned – made his first contribution by squashing Harry Kane and flattening him. Antonio Rudiger did the same. Germany, with Joshua Kimmich bursting forward at every opportunity, were at ease with the atmosphere and dealing with expectation.
Yet in the 32nd minute, something told you that this contest was not going to follow the old narrative. Havertz nudged a pass through to Timo Werner but, as Wembley gasped, the Chelsea striker could only fire his shot into the legs of the outstanding Pickford.
Germany head coach Joachim Low was left to rue Muller’s miss after Euro 2020 defeat
Like we said, it was very un-German. So, too, was the incident in the 41st minute when Manuel Neuer swiped at a clearance and succeeded in only finding Kyle Walker. Neuer flapped his hands in exasperation, cross words were exchanged by those in black.
Think of the title fight when the old champion opens with an early onslaught but cannot put the upstart away; the feeling that England were beginning to edge it on points arrived at half-time: they had out passed Germany (229 to 212) and had more possession (53 per cent to 47).
In the second half, they continued to do everything right. Germany, by contrast, became more ragged, more pedestrian and vulnerable. Low, persistently fidgeting and pacing on the touchline, had no answer. He and we knew that an era was ending.
‘All I can say is in these last 15 years there were a lot of positive things,’ said Low, who departs having won the World Cup, the Confederations Cup and reached a European Championship final. ‘This team, there will be changes but maybe in 2024, these players will be at their peak.’
Maybe so. England’s squad, however, is heading to its peak quicker. For once, the heartache and early exit belongs to Germany.
This post first appeared on Dailymail.co.uk