Toni Kroos gets redemption to give Germany belief, fill opponents with fear

SOCHI, Russia -- The Germans had given up. Supporters, male and female, young and old, were sat high in the stands at the Fisht Stadium with their smudged red, black and yellow face paint, waiting for the final whistle to confirm that Joachim Low's world champions were on the brink of World Cup elimination.

Some had tears in their eyes. This doesn't happen to Germany; group-stage elimination at the World Cup has been something that happens only to other nations -- like England -- since they last suffered that ignominy in 1938.

But here they were, drawing with Sweden, knowing that such a result would throw up the prospect of the Swedes and Mexico playing out a mutually beneficial draw in Ekaterinburg on Wednesday to qualify for the round of 16 at the expense of Germany, regardless of their result against South Korea in Kazan.

Low, the coach who signed a long-term contract only a month before the World Cup, wore the pained expression of a father whose daughter was marrying the wrong guy. The Swedes, whose noisy travelling fans had earlier chanted "Deutschland, Auf Wiedersehen" to the tune of "Go West," were now anxiously watching the clock as five minutes of stoppage time elapsed.

And then up stepped Toni Kroos, the Real Madrid midfielder, whose stray pass in the first half had been the crucial mistake that had led to Ola Toivonen's opening goal for Sweden. A free kick on the edge of the penalty area, from a tight angle. It was no gimme, but this was Kroos' shot at redemption.

Nobody really expected him to put the ball into the net. When Cristiano Ronaldo placed the ball for his free kick against Spain eight days ago -- also in this stadium in Sochi -- everyone knew he was going to score, but when Kroos stepped up, it was more a case of one last chance to save Germany's skin.

And he took it, in emphatic fashion, curling the ball beyond the grasp of Sweden goalkeeper Robin Olsen. The German bench erupted, with substitutes and coaching staff racing to the corner flag in front of the section of Germany supporters before jumping on Kroos in celebration.

It felt like a World Cup-winning moment -- Germans know all about those -- and this may yet prove to be the turning point that sets Germany on their way to a fifth world title. But it was also one of those moments that remind you why the very best teams are always able to pull something from the fire when most lesser sides have already thrown in the towel.

Kroos will have been in countless Madrid teams, and Bayern Munich before that, who have saved games or won them with the last kick of the ball.

Manchester United famously won the Champions League in 1999 with two goals in stoppage time, ironically against the Germans of Bayern, and their ability to win games in the closing seconds became legendary. It struck fear into their opponents, and the same will apply to those teams who now must face Germany in Russia.

After this, they will know the world champions will fight until the end, and that can have a debilitating effect on a team.

They will also know that Kroos is a player who will not cave in after a setback, using it as a motivation to make amends rather than wallow in self-pity. He admitted after the game that he had to put his first-half mistake behind him and bounce back for his team.

"Of course the first goal is down to me," he said. "No question. But you've then got to have the balls to play like that in the second half."

And he did. Kroos orchestrated Germany's comeback from midfield, prompting praise from Low, in his usual, understated style.

"I was pleased for him because he was involved in the mistake which led to Sweden's goal," Low said. "But this free kick, he scored, and I was very happy for him that he was able to turn the tide around with the vital goal from one of the last kicks of the game.

"But he always has 100 percent conviction in his set-piece ability."

Germany dominated in the second half, pushing Sweden back, even after the late dismissal of centre-back Jerome Boateng for two yellow cards.

But despite claiming their dramatic late win, Group F is so well poised that Germany can still qualify with a draw against South Korea, yet also miss out with a win due to a wide range of scenarios.

On this occasion, though, Germany did what they had to do, even if they had to do it the hard way.

"This was a thriller," Low said. "Emotions started bubbling up and the last few minutes were full of drama, but those matches exist in football and knockout games are often decided in these moments.

"At half-time, I told them to keep calm, not start panicking or trying long balls into the penalty area. I wanted them to be incisive, but calm. We had 45 minutes to turn it around and that's what I told the team."

Don't be fooled, though. That may have been Low's plan, but it ultimately boiled down to one man -- Kroos -- doing something remarkable when everybody else had lost hope.