SOCHI, Russia — The desperate world champions from Germany were seconds from losing control of their World Cup fate when Toni Kroos whispered to Marco Reus just outside Sweden’s penalty area.
With the score tied in the fifth minute of stoppage time, Kroos seemed to remind Reus of a tricky set play from training that will live in World Cup lore.
Down to 10 men after Jerome Boateng was given a second yellow card, Germany rallied for a 2-1 victory over Sweden on Saturday to suddenly revive its title defence thanks to a strike from Kroos that caught the Swedes by surprise and won’t soon be forgotten in Germany.
“The fact Toni Kroos put it away is just incredible,” Reus said. “He’s shown that talent on previous occasions but really in this case it was practically the very last opportunity to win this match.”
Kroos lined up for a free kick as if he was going for goal but just tapped the ball to Reus, who held it with his toe as the defenders paused. Kroos swung his right foot, curling the ball past a spinning Sebastian Larsson and over the outstretched hand of diving goalkeeper Robin Olsen.
The Swedes watched the ball go in, mouths open in disbelief.
The Germans ran to Kroos and erupted in emotional relief.
“Happy of course. It was a tough game again today for us,” Kroos said. “We suffered. … If you don’t score an early goal and we have the chances then it’s going to be difficult until the end. It was, but now of course we’re happy because I think we also deserved the victory.”
Coming off an opening loss to Mexico, Germany fell behind again when Kroos’ early mistake led to Ola Toivonen’s goal in the 32nd minute. Reus equalized in the 48th. A point for a draw would have been enough to stay alive for the knockout stage, but the Germans would have needed help on the final day.
Now Germany has some control of what happens. Mexico leads Group F with six points, and Germany and Sweden both have three. Mexico faces Sweden and Germany takes on winless South Korea in the final group matches.
“Of course this was a thriller, full of emotions and a rollercoaster ride right up until the final whistle,” Germany coach Joachim Loew said.
Crazy as it seems, all four teams still have a chance to advance on the final day.
“There’s nothing strange to get ready for that match,” Sweden coach Janne Andersson said. “We still have an excellent opportunity to qualify.”
For 90-plus minutes, Germany looked as if it would enter the final match facing the same possible fate as Spain and Italy and potentially become the third straight defending champion to fail to reach the knockout stage. They played the final 10 minutes without Boateng.
Toivonen gave Sweden the lead, but Germany controlled every aspect by playing aggressive and attacking soccer. Germany forced Sweden to play defensively for almost the entire second half and eventually the attack paid off.
“Something that I did appreciate today was that we didn’t lose our nerve, we didn’t panic after going down after conceding a goal,” Loew said. “We kept a level head.”
Reus scored to pull Germany even, finishing Timo Werner’s cross that was tapped by halftime substitute Mario Gomez and caused the ball to pop up perfectly for Reus to finish with his leg.
Olsen made a major save by stopping Gomez’s header in the 88th minute and Julian Brandt hit the post in the 90th, but he had no chance at Kroos’ strike.
“This is probably heaviest conclusion that I’ve experienced in my career,” Andersson said.
AFTER THE WHISTLE
Sweden’s bench took issue with the way some Germany staff members celebrated after the final whistle. There was a confrontation between members of both teams on the sideline at midfield and the two groups had to be separated. Loew said he didn’t see “any gestures or aggressive gestures” directed at the Swedes.
Andersson said he was annoyed by what he saw from the German celebration.
“People behaved in ways that you don’t do,” Andersson said. “You cheer together, maybe, and you leave your opponents to feel sad, and that is the end of it.”
Germany coach Joachim Loew showed he wasn’t willing to stay with the status quo, making four changes to his starting lineup. One was due to necessity after central defender Mats Hummels injured his neck in training on Thursday.
The surprise was Loew dropping Mesut Ozil from the starting lineup in favour of Reus.
It was the first time Ozil was dropped from the lineup in a major international championship in his senior career. He started every game at the 2010 World Cup and was one of the stars of Germany’s winning squad in Brazil four years ago.
“It was important to give Ozil a break today,” Loew said.
Germany midfielder Sebastian Rudy broke his nose when he was caught by the foot of a Swedish player in the first half, Loew said. Rudy had to be replaced by Ilkay Gundogan.
The victory puts the Germans back on track to advance to the knockout stage if it can get a win against South Korea and have a better goal differential than the Swedes or Mexico depending on the outcome of their final match.
Even if it does advance, Germany may be looking at being the No. 2 team from the group and potentially a matchup with Brazil in the round of 16.