Germany began to click into top gear as they thrashed Slovakia 3-0 in Lille to book a quarter-final with one of their ghosts of Euros past, Spain or Italy.
After being held to a frustrating single-goal victory in their final pool game by a staunch Northern Ireland defence, Germany tore into Group B’s third-placed team to assert their standing among the favourites for the trophy.
Joachim Low gambled on Jerome Boateng’s fitness and the Bayern Munich man rewarded him with a first international goal to put Germany into an early lead.
Mesut Ozil had a penalty saved shortly afterwards, but Low’s other team selection of note, replacing Mario Gotze with Julian Draxler, also paid dividends when the Wolfsburg man set up Mario Gomez for the second just before half-time.
Draxler was a constant menace on the left flank and got a deserved goal for himself in the second half, allowing Germany to cruise to victory – and keep a fourth clean sheet from as many Euro 2016 games.
It is now either 2008 final opponents Spain, or semi-final vanquishers four years ago Italy, who await this German generation, as they look for continental dominance just two years after conquering the world.
Germany quickly looked to be at their fluid best on the re-laid Stade Pierre-Mauroy pitch, but the opening goal was unorthodox when it arrived in the eighth minute – Boateng racing onto a half-cleared corner to volley home from just outside the box.
Low’s side ought to have been two goals to the good after Martin Skrtel recklessly shoved Gomez in the penalty area five minutes later, but Matus Kozacik bailed out his captain, flinging himself to his left to repel Ozil’s 12-yard effort.
Ozil then drove another chance wide with his right foot, as the Arsenal man remained central to Germany’s best attacking play, before Thomas Muller and Draxler were unable to capitalise on probing approach play.
As familiar frustrations began to rear their head for the world champions, Manuel Neuer had to make a wonderful reaction save from a Juraj Kucka header that looked destined for the top-left corner, but that stunned Germany back into life and they scored again before the interval.
Draxler left Kucka chasing shadows on the left before darting to the byline and squaring the ball for Gomez, who nipped in front of Jan Durica to score his second goal of the tournament.
5 – Mario Gomez is now Germany’s joint-top goalscorer at the European Championship (5 goals), with Jürgen Klinsmann. Super.
— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) June 26, 2016
Slovakia captain Marek Hamsik – on the scoresheet in a 3-1 pre-tournament friendly win over the Germans – moved further forward in the second half and briefly looked to lead a charge, but Draxler’s elasticated 63rd-minute volley after Mats Hummels had headed a corner up into the air ended the game as a contest.
Low could begin to look to the next round, with Benedikt Howedes replacing Boateng – who came into the game nursing a calf injury and one booking away from suspension – and Bastian Schweinsteiger getting another brief run-out in place of the similarly at peril Sami Khedira.
Fellow substitute Lukas Podolski looked desperate to leave his mark on a first outing of the competition, but he could not match the feats of Draxler, who could yet make the difference for Low and his team as the competition heats up.
Key Opta stats:
– Germany have kept four clean sheets at Euro 2016 – more than they have recorded in any other edition of the European Championships.
– Julian Draxler is the first German player to score and assist in a single Euros match, since Philipp Lahm in 2008 (v Turkey).
– Jerome Boateng scored his first-ever goal for Germany, on what was his 63rd cap.
– Mesut Ozil became the first Germany player to miss a penalty at a major tournament since Lukas Podolski in the 2010 World Cup (v Serbia).
– Ozil has also missed his last three penalties in competitive action (for club and country).
– Only Miroslav Klose (37) has appeared more times for Germany at major competitions than Bastian Schweinsteiger (36).
– Slovakia faced 22 shots on target at Euro 2016 – the most of any team in the tournament at the time of their exit.