Dropped by Germany during the group stage, Julian Draxler delivered a reminder of his quality against Slovakia to leave EURO2016.com's Steffen Potter doffing his cap.
Article top media content
Not too long ago, Julian Draxler looked to be another in a long line of German midfield wunderkinds. The youngest-ever Bundesliga player at Schalke and a FIFA World Cup winner with Germany, Draxler's career seemed to be moving in one direction only. And then it faltered.
Brought in by Wolfsburg last summer to replace Kevin De Bruyne, the pacy winger could not prevent his new club's drop to eighth in the league, with his own form suffering. Some even questioned his place in Germany's squad for UEFA EURO 2016. But when Marco Reus was ruled out of the finals with injury, Draxler suddenly became a candidate for a starting berth on the left.
- Match report and analysis: Germany 3-0 Slovakia
- Joachim Löw: 'We must improve to have a say in this tournament'
- All the build-up, match action and reaction as it happened
And start he did in the two first games. Some liked what he offered, some less so. While he did not play badly, he struggled to contribute, dwelling on the ball and often choosing the safer option with his passing. So it was no great shock when he made way for Mario Gomez in the third Group C outing against Northern Ireland, with Mario Götze taking over as left-winger.
After Germany created countless openings in that match, few expected any changes for Sunday's round of 16 clash with Slovakia. Joachim Löw had other ideas and Draxler's inclusion at the expense of Götze was a genuine surprise, even if the Bayern midfielder had been far from dazzling.
Equally surprising was the performance of a player who – some may need reminding – is still only 22. He did not shy away from a riskier approach this time and twisted his way through the Slovakia defence on several occasions. He dribbled on the left, he dribbled on the right, and a glorious stepover paved the way for Gomez to score Germany's second goal.
"In his talk with me, the coach told me to look for one-on-ones, to make use of my pace," Draxler revealed after the 3-0 victory in Lille. "He's given me a lot of confidence and made it clear to me that I'm a good player. It's hard for me to say if this was my best or second-best game in a Germany shirt."
The man who had become Die Mannschaft's youngest-ever captain in May 2014 then capped the win with a beautiful goal after the break, volleying in acrobatically from close range. It was his first competitive Germany strike.
Was it a perfect showing? Some say he has to track back more and was at least partially to blame for not preventing the cross that led to Slovakia's best opportunity, a Juraj Kucka header shortly before the interval.
His coach, however, liked what he saw. "Draxler played well. He was brave enough to look for those on-on-ones," commented Löw. "He worked well and showed good movement, which is why I was very pleased with him." Given his and the team's display, it is unlikely to be his last chance to shine.