Sunday 4 December 2016

Germany aim to prove they are the real deal

World champions two steps from double but they have failed to convince since Brazil joy

Published 07/07/2016 | 02:30

Germany’s Bastian Schweinsteiger, Jonas Hector and Mario Goetze training ahead of tonight’s semi-final (AP Photo/Michael Probst)
Germany’s Bastian Schweinsteiger, Jonas Hector and Mario Goetze training ahead of tonight’s semi-final (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

Twenty years have passed since a German side gripped by an injury crisis and lacking a real superstar defeated the hosts in the semi-final en route to winning the Euros.

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History could repeat itself in France if Joachim Loew's men can get the job done in Marseille this evening but, in reality, it would be a much more significant achievement.

The Germans are seeking to become the third team to compete the World Cup/Euros back-to-back double after France (1998 & 2000) and the all-conquering Spain (2008, 2010 & 2012).

However, their potential graduation to vaunted company has not really been a discussion point in this tournament.

There is no sense that the football world feels this is a great side on their way to writing their names into the history books, even though they will be hot favourites to do so if they inflict further misery on France.

It would represent a different kind of domination if they are capable of doing it with a seriously depleted hand.

Last month, a reunion was staged for the crop that broke English hearts in 1996. The story of the competition is often told with the accompanying image of Paul Gascoigne's agonising miss and Gareth Southgate's penalty.

In Germany, the group that went on from that spot-kick joy to defeat Czech Republic is remembered for how they coped through adversity when they didn't necessarily have an outstanding bunch.

Suffered

Lothar Matthaus and Stefan Effenberg were exiled by coach Berti Vogts and Jurgen Klinsmann, Mario Basler, Jurgen Kohler and Fredi Bobic were all absent for the England semi, a match where Steffen Freund suffered a cruciate ligament injury.

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Their problems were so bad that UEFA gave them a dispensation to call up a midfielder, Jens Todt, who was sitting in a restaurant with his wife when he got a call from Vogts four days before the final with only eight outfield players able to train.

Klinsmann, who hobbled back for the decider, subsequently acknowledged that the eventual winners were unlikely champions. "We were not the best team, but we had the best will," he said. He got on board with Vogts' mantra that the 'team is the star.'

The new generation will have to draw on similar strength of character here. Mats Hummel is suspended while the only natural striker, Mario Gomez, is out for the rest of the competition. Sami Khedira is an injury loss from midfield, but it appears that Bastian Schweinsteiger is fit to take his place.

In an ideal world, Loew would also have Marco Reus and Ilkay Gundogan available in his panel.

They are stretched in key departments, adding to the image of the vulnerability that grew in an unconvincing qualifying campaign that followed their Brazilian joy. A defeat in Warsaw and then one point from six against Ireland highlighted the impact of retirements and a brittleness in the mental department.

In Dublin, Irish players were surprised by how easily agitated the Germans became during a match when the green shirts attempted the simplest form of the dark arts by blocking a run or dragging a shirt when the officials weren't looking. Thomas Muller was particularly irate. It gave encouragement to the underdogs.

"We used to be hunter now and now we are the prey," admitted Loew. At the turn of the year, Khedira was downbeat on the French prospects. "If we are to be honest, we must look at our current form and say that we've no chance," he asserted.

That negative mood was heightened by a humbling pre-tournament friendly loss to Slovakia yet, after easing themselves through the group phase, there was a feeling that Die Mannschaft were back on track when they drubbed that opponent in the round of 16. The hard-fought penalties triumph over Italy came at a cost which will test the squad depth.

The production line that underpinned the 2014 success continues to churn out talent, particularly versatile performers. Joshua Kimmich, a natural midfielder who has starred at right-back, is a prime example. The 21-year-old was used in central defence by Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich last term.

Exciting 20-year-old Julian Weigl - who this season set a record for the most touches in a Bundesliga game with Borussia Dortmund - is a rival for Emre Can if Schweinsteiger pulls up lame. Despite their problems, they possess strong options. With Mesut Ozil, Muller and Julian Draxler capable of interchanging, it's the rounded skill-set that gives Loew another shot at glory.

It is worth remembering that their form in Brazil was unconvincing until they reached the final four and tore the natives apart on that stunning night in Belo Horizonte. At the quarter-final stage, they had eased past a timid French outfit that were unable to land a punch and covered much less ground in the Rio sun.

Matching

A full-strength Les Bleus side should be capable of matching German energy levels in search of a first win over their neighbours since 1958. They have paid due respect to their bogey team in the preliminaries.

"They are the best side in the competition," said Didier Deschamps. His captain Hugo Lloris added: "They've had an inconsistent period but yet they're competing again."

Loew was bullish last night. "We will be the strongest opposition that France have faced," he stressed. "Maybe they haven't faced a strong team yet."

His team's underwhelming response to top dog status has encouraged the pretenders. The din of the Stade Velodrome is the perfect stage for them to show who is boss.

Irish Independent

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