SOCHI (AFP) - Germany coach Joachim Low said his team were rewarded for not losing their nerve at the most critical moment as a 95th-minute free kick from Toni Kroos secured a 2-1 win over Sweden on Saturday (June 23) that brought the World Cup holders back from the brink.
The 10-man reigning champions were in deep trouble when Kroos stepped up to steer in his dramatic winner in the final minute of added time at Sochi's Fisht Stadium.
Before that, a Kroos error had led to Ola Toivonen giving Sweden a 32nd-minute lead and even a Marco Reus equaliser early in the second half appeared to be only a temporary stay of execution for Low's men.
But the rescue act from Kroos is a huge lift to a side that saw Jerome Boateng sent off late on. They now have qualification for the last 16 back in their own hands ahead of their final Group F game against South Korea on Wednesday.
"We never lost hope. I think there was a bit of luck there with the goal scored in stoppage time, but it was a result of our belief in ourselves," said Low. "Despite the adversity, the team kept their cool and turned it around."
There is still no guarantee that they will avoid the fate of the last two World Cup holders, with Spain four years ago and Italy in 2010 both being knocked out in the group stage.
Not since 1938 have Germany been eliminated in the first round. However, this result will provide an almighty boost to them and is a hammer blow to Sweden, who will face Mexico in their last match with all still to play for.
Mexico's 2-1 win over South Korea earlier on Saturday had ensured Germany would be out in the event of a defeat, with a draw little better.
The late goal was especially sweet for Kroos, who was among the players to come in for stiff criticism in the wake of recent performances.
"We were criticised a lot, justifiably so in part, and a lot of people in Germany would have been pleased if we had gone out today," he said.
Low made changes following the 1-0 loss at the hands of Mexico, with Reus among the players coming in. But Germany soon found themselves up against it.
Sweden should have had an early penalty when Marcus Berg was released on goal and, at the point of shooting, was fouled by Boateng.
Berg's effort was saved by Manuel Neuer. Boateng played the man and not the ball, but there was no penalty given and no recourse to the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) by Polish official Szymon Marciniak.
"If we have the system, it's very unfortunate that he doesn't feel he can go and have a look. If that's his decision, we have to live with it," said Sweden coach Janne Andersson.
It was still a warning for the Germans, who were then dealt a body blow - literally - when Rudy was left with a bloodied nose after receiving a stray boot in the face.
Ilkay Gundogan replaced him, coming in alongside Kroos, who was at fault as Sweden went in front. His pass was pounced upon by the Swedes, who sprung forward, Viktor Claesson picking out Toivonen to control on his chest and lift the ball over Neuer.
However, it took just three minutes of the second half for the equaliser to arrive.
Timo Werner's low ball from the left was behind Mario Gomez, who got a touch but not enough to put off Reus from bundling it in.
An onslaught followed, with Gomez twice coming close and fellow substitute Julian Brandt smacking a post late on. Boateng had already walked by then, seeing a second yellow in the 82nd minute for a foul on Berg.
Hope looked to be gone, but then Kroos exchanged passes with Reus at a free kick on the left edge of the box and sent a sweet strike into the far corner, sparking wild celebrations.
"The fact Toni put it away like that is incredible - he has shown that talent on previous occasions. I pay my respect to him for doing what he did," said Reus.