Sport Soccer

Saturday 18 November 2017

Lahm returns as Germans prepare for Ibrahimovic

Jamie Holland

Germany will be taking nothing for granted when they bid to maintain their perfect start to World Cup qualifying against main rivals Sweden in Berlin tomorrow, even though their opponents' names are unfamiliar.

The Germans, who crushed Ireland 6-1 in Dublin, have nine points after winning their first three Group C qualifiers.

Sweden also have a perfect record and are second with six points from two games, but Marco Reus was left scratching his head when asked by reporters to name any of the Scandinavian country's defenders.

"Ah, is Olaf Mellberg there, has he retired?" Reus said in a reference to Sweden's former captain, who ended his international career after Euro 2012. "Honestly, I do not know. I have not dealt with that yet."

Germany could be forgiven for focusing less on their opponents than on their own game, having won 13 consecutive qualifiers for Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup.

Captain Philipp Lahm, back from suspension, said they were well prepared to face their biggest group rivals and in-form striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

The former Barcelona, Juventus, and AC Milan forward has enjoyed a fantastic start at new club Paris St Germain and currently tops the Ligue 1 scoring charts with nine goals.

"It will be a tough job against an opponent who is organised, tactically clever and has an outstanding striker in Ibrahimovic. It is our toughest rival in our group," Lahm said.

"We have to be able to withstand that pressure, break forward very quickly.

"He is the complete striker, the complete package. If we allow few chances at the back then we will win."

Sweden looked far less convincing in their 2-1 win away to the Faroe Islands on Friday and needed a 75th minute Ibrahimovic goal to spare their blushes as they came from behind against the bottom-placed team.

"It will be a wonderful challenge," said Sweden's coach Erik Hamren. "We have to be physically strong, both in one-on-ones and in running."

Hit by injuries and reeling from a surprise 1-0 loss to Japan, with their strikers struggling to score and a patched-up defence looking far from secure, France have enough to worry about without even thinking about their World Cup qualifier encounter with champions Spain tomorrow.

Both teams have won their opening two qualifiers and share the lead in Group I. But while Spain cruised into top gear with a 4-0 away win in Belarus -- extending their winning run in qualifiers to 24 -- France's confidence was dented by a late goal at home against Japan in a friendly.

"In the best of all worlds, I don't think we'll have that many chances against Spain," France coach Deschamps said. "We will have to defend well and, when we do get chances, we'll have to be far more efficient than we were against Japan."

Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque must decide which attack suits him best -- Chelsea's Fernando Torres as a central striker or Barcelona's Cesc Fabregas as a floating forward.

"We are on a good run," Fabregas said. "But we know that we are playing against a direct rival. "

Central defenders Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol are out injured, but Deschamps must contain Spain's world-class midfield of Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez with his midfield decimated by injuries to Abou Diaby, Rio Mavuba and Lassana Diarra.

Italy are unbeaten in Group B and take on Denmark in Milan, while something has to give in Group D, where Romania face the Netherlands in Bucharest, with both countries on nine points.

supremacy

Belgium and Croatia are also vying for supremacy at the top of Group A. Belgium take on Scotland and Croatia host Wales, who beat Scotland 2-1.

Scotland winger James Forrest has joined his Celtic team-mate Scott Brown by pulling out of the squad due to a groin injury.

Brown, who has been replaced by Don Cowie, came off at half-time against Wales and has been struggling with a hip problem since. Cardiff City's Cowie has won 10 caps and could now feature against the Belgians.

Meanwhile, Aaron Hughes expects Cristiano Ronaldo to be at his world-beating best when Northern Ireland take on Portugal.

The Real Madrid superstar is set to win his 100th cap in the World Cup qualifier at Porto's Dragao Stadium, and few would bet against him marking the occasion in style.

"I have played a handful of times against him, but maybe he has gone to another level since his days in the Premier League and maybe he can go further," said Hughes.

"I don't think he has peaked, believe it or not. He is still going and appears to be getting better.

"Lionel Messi and Ronaldo are the two who stand out as the best two in the world."

Irish Independent

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