independent

Monday 21 April 2014

'Ireland will maybe even score a goal'

King's men barely an after-thought for confident Germans as star midfielders Ozil and Khedira patronise 'passionate' visitors

Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil attempt to have a private chat at yesterday’s press conference in Cologne

Mesut Ozil peers through the spangled light of an enormous, domed Mercedes showroom with what seems polite reserve for the comedy unfolding.

On the eve of his 50th international, there is much flippancy about. The German media fixates on two stories here. One, his recent move to Arsenal from Real Madrid. Two, the rumour that he recently sang a song to his new clubmates. Ozil engages in gentle, murmured exchanges with Sami Khedira between purposefully formal responses to microphone. You sense boredom pull at his mouth as he speaks.

Above and all around him, expensive cars shimmer from open balconies like decorations on a layered wedding cake. The outer casing of German football has always transmitted an indelible inner certainty, but this has an over-egged feel now. Cologne is, palpably, programmed for a football Mardi Gras.

The game will be the small-print.

Ozil, Khedira and assistant manager Hansi Flick sit at the dais, toying with a local media that has flatly disregarded the pre-conference request not to ask questions about Arsenal or Madrid. In German football history, Cologne has hosted the national team 23 times and witnessed just a solitary defeat (to Spain in 1935). So, disappointment is not an idea occupying the collective imagination now.

Easier to concentrate on other stories, then.

Khedira deftly side-steps an enquiry about his employers being guilty of the "stupidest sale" in allowing Ozil go to the Emirates. "Well, we're sitting next to each other now, so it's okay!" he smiles, before letting slip the mindset of a nation.

The Ireland team standing between Germany and a place in Brazil doesn't cast much of a shadow here.

"I think we can be self-assured enough that it will be down to us," suggests the Madrid midfielder. "We want to score many, but they (Ireland) will have many tricks and needles to upset us and maybe even score a goal. It will be a test for us to give it all to come away as winners."

Funny how history can bend so differently for different men.

The last time Ireland played a senior international in Germany signalled the competitive debuts of two young managers. It was the autumn of '06 and a 1-0 home win would be the first of what now registers as 66 victories from 98 games through Jogi Loew's imperious reign. Steve Staunton, meanwhile, slipped out of football via Darlington.

Noel King's name was not referenced even once by the Germans yesterday, though there were miniature 'Trapattoni' calzone pizzas on offer as media snacks.

The Italian's name still evokes reverence here, albeit he was in the Irish dug-out for last year's 6-1 slaughter in Dublin. That game sits as an aberration in the German view of Trap.

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Flick was his assistant at Red Bull Salzburg and Lothar Matthaus, one of Germany's greatest footballers, would have been regarded as a one-sided player until Trapattoni became his coach at Bayern Munich. "When I was 28, Trapattoni taught me to play with my left," he once said.

Yesterday, Matthaus' personal life was splashed all over the front and inside pages of Bild, some lurid detail about yet another high-profile break-up. Asked to translate the scoop, two German football writers were uniformly dismissive. "Bah, just another crazy Matthaus story," was the verdict.

They like their heroes undemonstrative here and Matthaus has never quite honoured that profile. Perhaps, with this in mind, there was something resolutely calculated and unemotional about Ozil and Khedira.

Ozil's only bow to ostentation was a pair of stud ear-rings. When he spoke, he did so with the faintly exaggerated formality of a surgeon preparing for theatre. "As for tomorrow's match, we want to give everything to qualify here in Germany and I think we're very well prepared," he said.

"We know the Irish team are born fighters, who give everything to the final minute. We just have to play our game. I'm quite convinced we will clinch three points if we play to our full potential, but the Irish team will put their foot on the accelerator for 90 minutes. They will want to beat Germany."

Flick was non-committal on the likely German formation, with both first-choice strikers, Miroslav Klose and Mario Gomez, sidelined through injury. It is thought possible that Loew might go without a conventional centre-forward, though Max Kruse and Thomas Muller are considered options to play just in front of Ozil.

"Two or three positions are still open," said Flick, who described that 6-1 game in Dublin as "an extremely unlucky match for Ireland."

Khedira recalled it with a slightly different tone. "I have tremendously positive memories," he said. "We easily won the game, but that really was us playing highly concentrated. Ireland is no bad opponent at all. They are a robust side who fight for 90 minutes and, of course they want to make amends for that 6-1 rout suffered at our hands. But I think we will play with equal passion and try and impress the German public with our football."

He expressed welcome for the return of Bastien Schweinsteiger as a central midfield partner, insisting that the German system is "designed to show that we are interchangeable." Germany, he suggested, now had "two players minimum in every position and that's a fantastic thing for the national coach."

Cologne, everyone agreed, would offer the perfect stage now for formal confirmation of Germany's passage to the World Cup finals.

"I discussed this with (Lukas) Podolski," revealed Ozil. "He grew up here and loves every inch of the city. It's a football-mad place and we're looking forward to the atmosphere."

Khedira concurred, revealing: "Even just playing in Bundesliga 2, they play to sell-out crowds. I know the stadium from my time with Stuttgart and it was always fun to play here, mostly because we always won. But it is a football city with enthusiastic fans and we want to give them something to remember."

The intention then is to move in swiftly and brutally tonight for the kill against an Irish team that, frankly, might as well be invisible here. To a German audience, they exist only in the realm of cliche.

"Ireland play a very passionate game with a lot of heart and enthusiasm," sighed Flick with faux solemnity. "And, at the end of the day, they have nothing to lose. It can now be taken for granted they will not be going to the World Cup but, being sportsmen and athletes, they won't be giving away presents."

Cologne does not expect to need any.

Irish Independent

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