Comeback kings Germany take Belgium to their world, beat them to lift World Cup

Niklas Wellen’s tournament began with him becoming a father. It ended with him becoming a world champion. And during this whirlwind journey, the MVP of the World Cup as well as the World Cup final anchored Germany’s late, late show en route to them being crowned champions.

On a nippy Sunday night in Bhubaneswar, under the bright lights of Kalinga, Wellen led the frontline, defended his team’s half valiantly, drew fouls, won back possession, scored a goal and rounded off the ’keeper twice in the penalty shootout as Germany won 5-4 via tie-breakers to dethroned Belgium.

It was a final for the ages. Unlike the previous two major finals, which were cagey affairs as finals typically are, this one was bonkers. Belgium took an early 2-0 lead but Germany, as they have done throughout the knockout stages, staged a remarkable comeback to not just level the scores but also go ahead 3-2 in the final quarter. Belgium then gave Germany a taste of their own medicine by scoring an equaliser with just a minute left to go to force shootouts.

Once again, the teams were inseparable after the first five attempts for each. This time, it was Belgium who erased a two-goal deficit and leveled the scores at 3-3, just like at the end of regulation time, as the final went into sudden death. And when the 20-year-old Jean-Paul Danneberg denied Tanguy Cosyns, the see-sawing match that felt like it had gone on forever was at last settled. The Germans sprinted onto the field and jumped on top of their young goalkeeper, playing only his eighth international match, as the players locked themselves in a tight embrace, and yelled like madmen who couldn’t believe they had just struck gold.

From Delhi to Bhubaneswar: Germany’s Class of 2013

Ten years ago, Wellen had scored a hat-trick in the final of the Junior World Cup, which Germany had won on Indian soil. On Sunday night, seven players from the Class of 2013 – playing under the same coach, Andre Henning –marked Germany’s return among hockey’s elite. After underachieving for years, this is the European giants’ first major title since the London Olympics gold – they did win an Olympic bronze in 2016, but for Henning, it doesn’t count for much.

A lawyer by qualification, Henning is hailed in Germany as a fusion of Bayern Munich coach Julian Nagelsmann and Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp – an early starter as a coach as well as the manner in which his teams play. And over the last three weeks, the comparisons with Nagelsmann and Klopp would have only increased even though Henning isn’t comfortable with it.

Gone are the days when Germany were efficient but unadventurous. Henning’s Germany has evolved into a heavy-metal, counterattacking unit but has retained – rather, reclaimed – one defining trait: late comebacks.

Thrice in three matches at the World Cup, Germany pulled off heists that no one else apart from them would have anticipated. Against England in the quarterfinals, they scored twice in the last two minutes to force shootouts, which they won. Then, they wiped off another two-goal deficit in the semifinals before scoring the winner with just six seconds left to upset world number 1 Australia.

But when Belgium – the world and Olympic champions heading into the final – took a 2-0 lead within the first 11 minutes, it felt like this would be one comeback too many for Germany. For, if they have a reputation of fighting back no matter what the score line and who the opponents are, Belgium are seen as the masters of protecting their lead.

This was an enthralling final where both teams showed the courage to take risks. Both teams doggedly guarded their zones and never allowed each other much space by crowding the central areas. Belgium used a combination of quick short passes and deadly aerial balls deep into the German half to open up gaps. But it was Antoine Kina’s defence-splitting passes through a crowded centre that set-up their two goals.

Once they were up 2-0, Belgium tried to defend their space. It wasn’t parking the bus as much as taking fewer risks although they continued to choke their opponents for space. Germany captain Mats Grambusch half-joked about how it ‘isn’t nice to experience’ Belgium’s high-press, which they deployed aggressively to shut down all German attacking avenues for a majority of the first half.

But as the match wore on, Germany began to shift the ball through the flanks but more than the ball-movement, it was their off-the-ball running that dragged Belgian players out of their position. Even if they ventured away from their zone just for a split-second, it was enough for Germany to exploit that space and create opportunities.

That’s how Wellen once again wielded his influence on the game. In the quarterfinal, he pulled strings from behind the scenes as Germany pulled off a miracle. In the semis, he scored with the final touch to hand Germany another improbable win. And on Sunday, Wellen’s goal that opened the scoring for Germany broke Belgium’s resilience.

Eventually, it scripted another late German comeback. The man who became a father at the start of the campaign was the undisputed MVP of a remarkable World Cup.

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