Thomas Mueller scores hat-trick for Germany
IN the long, trophy-free journey from Euro '96 to Brazil 2014, Germany have gone from grudgingly respected serial winners to much-admired nearly men.
It would be premature to declare they are ready to jump back on top of the podium but the evidence of their dismantling of Group G rivals Portugal was certainly compelling.
Joachim Löw's men took Portugal apart with some wonderfully fluid attacking football in Salvador and showed that in Thomas Müller, they have a forward with an instinct for making his mark on the biggest stage of all.
Müller had finished the 2010 finals in South Africa as five-goal leading scorer and he has now added three more to that tally - the first hat-trick of this tournament - which, together with a Mats Hummels' header, inflicted a record World Cup defeat on Portugal.
As his satisfied coach, Löw, said of the Bayern Munich man afterwards: "He has an instinct for creating dangerous situations for opponents and he scores in situations where you don't expect it. On the pitch he is difficult for opponents to read, and he is certainly very unpredictable."
Müller is not your classical centre-forward but he led the line impressively well yesterday, dropping off into pockets of space as the wide forwards on either side of him in the Germans' three-man attack - Mesut Özil and Mario Götze - came inside, and runners broke from deep.
Portugal, too often outnumbered down the flanks, just could not live with it. Like Spain against the Netherlands in this same arena four days earlier, they were simply blown away.
The pre-match build-up may have all been about Cristano Ronaldo and his race to be fit - and the roar that shook the Arena Fonte Nova as he stepped out to warm up was something to witness - but this was to be a day of misery for him.
The Fifa World Player of the Year was an isolated figure for significant periods and was denied even a late consolation goal when Manuel Neuer kept out a trademark free-kick.
Ronaldo looked frustrated long before the end and he was not alone on an afternoon when everything went wrong for his team, who had Pepe sent off and two players - Hugo Almeida and Fabio Coentrao - depart through injury.
The latter is now expected to miss Sunday's game against the US.
If this was Müller's day, the only pity was that he should have marred his performance with his play-acting in the incident that led to Pepe's dismissal in the 38th minute.
The Brazilian-born defender had one of his rushes of blood to the head after Müller threw himself theatrically to the ground after minimal contact from the defender's trailing arm.
Referee Milorad Mazic waved play on but Pepe foolishly went to remonstrate with Müller and pushed his forehead into the German's head to invite a red card.
Paulo Bento, the Portugal coach, was not convinced it was a sending-off and said it was one of two first-half decisions by the match officials that hurt his team, the other being the penalty after 12 minutes with which Müller opened the scoring.
"We all saw there were some things on the part of the referee that ended up penalising us," Bento complained.
The spot-kick came when Maxi Pereira was penalised for a tug on Götze's arm as the German tried to wriggle away in the box and Müller converted low to Rui Patricio's right.
It will surprise nobody to discover it was the 19th successful penalty of Germany's last 20 at World Cups.
Thomas Mueller celebrates on his way to a hat-trick Thomas Mueller celebrates on his way to a hat-trick
On this evidence, Germany's pace and movement are formidable and a feature of their game was how they released the forward runners quickly, Özil and Götze carrying out Löw's instructions to exploit the space left by Ronaldo and Nani on either flank.
"We were very dominant in the middle and playing fast through-balls to the strikers," said the coach.
The origins of the second goal lay in one such action as the excellent Toni Kroos from the middle of the pitch sent Özil away on the right and he squared for Götze, whose shot deflected wide off Pereira. Kroos delivered the ensuing corner with perfect accuracy and Hummels showed the hunger to get between the static Portugal centre-backs and power a header past Patricio.
Bento rued his team's slack defending there and again when Müller made it 3-0 just before half-time.
Bruno Alves got the first touch as a Kroos ball dropped between the pair but Müller was razor-sharp as the ball bounced down, slamming a shot that hit Patrico and flew high into the net.
Bento actually called the Germans "extremely efficient" and by comparison with his own team they were certainly that. Portugal did have first-half openings but took none of them.
There was an early one for Ronaldo when Raul Meireles caught Philipp Lahm dozing and supplied his captain, but Ronaldo's angled drive from the left was well beaten away by the alert Neuer at the near post.
At 1-0 Nani whistled a shot over the crossbar while Coentrao should have done better than attempt a misplaced cutback to Ronaldo when played in by Joao Moutinho.
The solitary blessing for Portugal on a hot Salvador lunchtime was that Germany took their foot off the pedal in the second half.
Özil might have had a goal but shot at Patricio when through and Müller nodded the rebound over. Götze was also wasteful when clear on goal, although Germany were fortunate to escape a penalty for Howedes' foul on Eder as he pursued the rebound from a saved strike by Nani - a refereeing call that drew fierce whistles of derision from the Brazilian crowd.
In the end, a fourth Germany goal came with 12 minutes remaining when Patricio flapped at substitute André Schürrle's cross and Müller tapped in his hat-trick strike. Indeed, the only piece of bad news for Löw's men was a thigh injury sustained by Hummels, who had to be replaced by Shkodran Mustafi, once an Everton reserve player who made just one appearance at Goodison in the Europa League. He finds himself in rather more exalted company these days.