independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Loew plays down talk of friction in camp

Joachim Loew comes to us like a man, you suspect, who would resort to yoga if trapped in a burning building.

You can't really tell if he's angry because you can't really tell if he's here. It's just his way to disconnect from any little melodramas tugging at his sleeve for attention. The German media have been delayed, he is told. 'Jogi' purses his lips.

He has just stepped through the swing doors of the Aviva's media auditorium, dressed like a Swiss banker out for a lunchtime stroll. Sharp navy suit with pale blue shirt and a black, woolen scarf wrapped tight around his neck. So what to do?

Hands in pockets, Jogi walks out the far door and, sipping water from a paper cup, waits the half-hour it takes Wolfgang and Boris and Gunter and all the other nice media folk to drag their bags off an airport carousel and cross the city without sirens clearing the way.

He is in Dublin with the second best football team on the planet for a World Cup qualifier against the side 26 places below, at least in the official FIFA rankings. From up there, he can barely see us.

But Germans are polite and respectful on these matters and there are no little flashes of hubris. In their entire history, they have never been beaten in an away World Cup qualifier, so it's not as if they're here on some kind of urgent war footing. All they do is beat you. It's never personal.

There's a touch of Eurovision as his press officer opens with gushing praise for our "wonderful city" and "perfect facilities". The game, though, requires a slightly harder sell. Jogi is asked what he learnt from Spain's destruction of Ireland in Gdansk during the Euros.

He kindly ignores the little detail of Fernando Torres' fourth-minute goal.

"What I saw was Spain only becoming dominant as the game went on," he says in grave German, his words recycled for local benefit by an interpreter. "For large parts, it didn't look that clear at all. Even at 2-0, the Irish team fought on with tremendous pride and, regardless of the score, gave all for their country and their supporters.

Electric

"I am expecting the same support now. It will be more than enthusiastic, it will be electric. I expect the crowd to be like an extra man and the team to go full steam ahead and do a good deal of tackling. But I expect my team to offer resistance too."

Having Ireland so depleted for this game feels like nature's little joke. A bit like handing the school bully a cudgel. For the first time since the Easter Rising practically, Ireland go into competitive action with no Given, Dunne, Keane or Duff on the team-sheet.

Germany may be without household names of their own, like Lahm and Hummels and Bender and Gomez, but the talent pool Jogi fishes from descends to the floor of the world.

The Germans have been training in Frankfurt and those sessions have confirmed the recovery of Lukas Podolski and Mario Gotze from minor knocks. The Arsenal striker is expected to play down the left flank tonight, but Loew will hold the 20-year-old Gotze in reserve.

That he can do so with a player described as "ingenious" by Franz Beckenbauer tells you something about the German midfield options.

Their talisman, Bastian Schweinsteiger, is back and -- seemingly -- at peace with his coach after recently complaining that the glue holding the German squad together isn't as strong as that bonding the players at his club, Bayern Munich. Loew was diplomatic about the man who, in Lahm's absence through suspension, will captain his team tonight.

"He explained to me what his feelings were during the Euros," says Jogi. "He was very disappointed having lost the Bundesliga to Dortmund and then the Champions League final (to Chelsea). He gave me a piece of his mind and it was a very fruitful discussion.

"I certainly told him I didn't have the same feeling. Everybody confirmed the spirit was fantastic. But when you consider the team was together for seven or eight weeks, that creates incredible psychological pressure. You have 23 individuals, all with their own problems, experiencing highs and lows.

"With a Bundesliga team, you don't have that problem because a pre-season trip might be a week or 10 days. There might have been friction to a degree, I admit. But the basic spirit was fantastic."

After a free-rolling run to the semi-finals in Poland, Germany endured the horror of being dumped out of contention by the ungovernable spirit of Mario Balotelli. They have since won their opening two Group C qualifiers, against Austria and the Faroe Islands, but questions brew at home about some of Loew's favourites, not least 34-year-old striker Miroslav Klose, who wins his 125th cap this evening. Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness recently suggested that Klose only scored "against minnows". Loew said that he could not understand Hoeness' comment and described Klose's record (64 international goals) as "phenomenal".

He adds that he is expecting men like Klose, Per Mertesacker, Sami Khedira and Schweinsteiger to be his leaders on the field this evening. Germany, he says, have been working on "defensive discipline, order, composure and tactical discipline" after recently looking unconvincing at the back.

Does he think tonight's game could be condensed into a simple equation of class against effort?

"Well I think we mustn't fall into that trap, because I believe the Irish team will never accept they are beaten at any point," he sighs. "For the full 90 minutes, Ireland will go for goal and maybe for victory.

"We have to find our own style, express ourselves as a compact unit and try to counter the Irish game, which is very very fast. Even under Trapattoni, they still play long balls fast up to the front, so we still have to play at our own rhythm."

With that, Jogi is on his feet and wrapping the scarf tight around his neck again. Dapper and distant and hurrying to some higher mountain.

Meanwhile, Swedish defender Adam Johansson has demanded greater defensive solidity from his side as Ireland's Group C rivals visit pool minnows the Faroe Islands tonight.

The Swedes have yet to concede a goal in the campaign, having beaten Kazakhstan 2-0 in their opener, but Johansson blamed poor defending for the group exit at Euro 2012. "We know we have to be more solid in defence," he said. "We leave too much space. Against the Faroes, we'll need to score quickly to avoid any difficulties."

In tonight's other game in the pool, Kazakhstan host Austria.

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