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world champs trying to reverse Loew ebb

MANUEL Neuer got a bit of help from a higher power yesterday, and millions of Germans are now wondering if he will need some assistance of a similar kind when the national team take on Ireland here in Gelsenkirchen tomorrow.

Yesterday afternoon Neuer and his team-mates from the outfit they call the Mannschaft arrived back on German soil after their 2-0 defeat to Poland in Warsaw.

His ego and his clean-sheets record bruised by that morale-sapping loss to the Poles, Neuer could have been forgiven for taking the typical footballer's route and making straight for his hotel room, those large headphones in place to drown out any noise of criticism or questioning.

Instead, within two hours of his arrival in Dusseldorf airport, Neuer had made it to a sleepy suburb of his hometown on a sleepy Sunday afternoon. Charity was the order of the day as the 28-year-old has his own foundation (called, rather predictably, the Manuel Neuer Kids Foundation). A new outlet for the charity was being opened up near the streets where he grew up, a place for after-school activities and pre-school breakfasts for youngsters.


There was a touch of the holy about it as two clergymen - one Catholic, one Protestant - accompanied Neuer to bless the building and the keeper spent quite a bit of time in conversation with the two men of cloth.

Whether he was looking for absolution or comfort on the back of Saturday's loss in Warsaw we can't say.

But there is something worrying the German camp and the enthusiasm which saw them greet Ireland for our last visits, in 2006 (the Germans beat us 1-0 in Stuttgart) and last year (the 3-0 defeat of Noel King's side in Koln) where the Irish were mere cannon fodder for the home side is no longer there.

"We have to beat Ireland," says coach Joachim Loew. "We need to have a good reaction on Tuesday."

Loew, one of the longest-serving national team bosses in Europe, has looked the epitome of cool in his time as coach of the German national side. While other managers lose their hair, go grey, grow beards, suffer from a strong dose of the sweats (remember Jose Antonio Camacho? He could have starred in a Right Guard ad) or seem to be under pressure, Loew has been model-like in his appearance, never a hair out of place. Same with his assistant Oliver Bierhoff.

But with their arrival back into Germany yesterday, for the first time in a long while, the Germans are under pressure.

Ireland are not feared and Ireland are barely mentioned in the pre-match talk. Locals here are more interested in the current plight of their Bundesliga club Schalke, and the loss of form of the once-bright Julian Draxler, than in matter of Irish importance.

Germany did not wake up this morning wondering what the injury-enforced absence of Richard Keogh means. They were not kept up at night worrying over the matter of David Meyler playing at right-back again.Loew and his staff are trying to play down the significance of the Poland defeat, reminding people that they are still world champions.

"Life hasn't gotten any harder, despite the huge disappointment of this defeat," Loew said, also batting away complaints about a post-Brazil poor run of form that saw Germany lose to Argentina in a friendly.

"The first defeat (Argentina) doesn't go down as a competitive game. What's not surprising is that every team wants to give that extra few percent against the world champions," he says.

"There have also been more radical changes to the squad since the World Cup than I had hoped for. Not only have three players retired, but four or five players are missing who have always played and have helped shape the team, players like Mesut Özil, Sami Khedira and, of course, Bastian Schweinsteiger.

"Over the next two years, our young players have to have experiences that they will learn from."

Managers will plunder any depths possible to find excuses. Steve Staunton once tried to explain a poor display in an Ireland game by moaning about the fact that Alan Lee was injured and not available (the same Alan Lee who was rarely picked).

So Loew is pointing out their injury list and recent retirements as an explanation for the Warsaw disaster, as any coach would.

But the loss to Poland has raised questions about the Germans, about the hunger of their World Cup winners to go again and the strength in depth which was supposedly good enough to carry them through the retirement of Lahm etc.

But the new breed have flopped against a committed but hardly stellar Poland side.

A similar surrender at home to Ireland tomorrow would pose even more questions.

Maybe Neuer might need a drop of holy water after all.

in Gelsenkirchen