Germany still caught in those post-Euro blues
The feel-good factor has faded for Germany and even a win in Dublin won’t restore it, writes RAPHAEL HONIGSTEIN
GERMANY LAST dropped points in a tournament qualifier over three years ago (1-1 v Finland, October 2009). They’re ranked second in the world behind Spain, have enough depth in the squad to compensate for a wave of injuries and welcome back key midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger (Bayern Munich), who’ll wear the armband for the suspended Philipp Lahm at the Aviva Stadium.
However, Schweinsteiger’s optimistic “sense of anticipation” before the trip to Dublin isn’t shared by many. The immediate past, the Euro 2012 semi-final defeat by Italy in Warsaw, still hurts so much the task at hand is struggling to take centre stage.
The Republic of Ireland will meet a Nationalmannschaft stuck in an introspective, brooding mood. A debate about the exact reasons behind Joachim Löw’s most incisive result has raged non-stop for almost four months, and as a consequence, the feel-good factor that has been a mark of the side since the World Cup in South Africa has all but disappeared.
“There is friction [in the camp],” admitted general manager Oliver Bierhoff at yesterday’s terse press conference in Frankfurt.
Bierhoff was at pains to insist the discord in the ranks was simply a natural by-product of increased competition and as such not negative per se.
“We have a strong Bayern bloc, a strong Dortmund bloc, two confident players from Real Madrid (Sami Khedira, Mesut Özil) and the two Londoners (Per Mertesacker, Lukas Podolski),” said the 44-year-old.
“We’ve rarely had a situation where so many players felt they should start. We are happy and grateful this is the case. Of course, there will be some who’ll be unhappy about not getting in but the team spirit has been totally sound and I’m sure it will continue to be so.”
Not everyone would agree. Schweinsteiger, for starters, pointedly remarked that “the whole bench didn’t jump up [to celebrate a goal] at the Euros”, in an interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung 10 days ago. Bierhoff and Löw since spoke to him but he was unapologetic yesterday.
“That’s how I saw it, and that’s my opinion,” he said. A lack of harmony had also been evident in the aftermath of a nervy 2-1 away win against Austria a month ago. Dortmund centre back Mats Hummels publicly criticised Lahm’s positioning in the run-up to the hosts’ goal and a few days before, Khedira had disagreed with the Bayern full back about the team’s targets for the World Cup.
“We want to win it,” Lahm had said, but the Madrid midfielder, in contrast, said “talking about the World Cup final was all wrong”.
On the pitch, it’ll be fascinating to see whether Schweinsteiger and Khedira can regain their understanding in front of a weakened back four. Schweinsteiger played through the pain barrier last season and arrived physically as well as mentally shattered in Poland after his traumatic penalty miss in the Champions League final against Chelsea.
Khedira, his understudy in South Africa, became the more dominant part of the duo during the tournament. When Schweinsteiger was rested for the first three internationals of the new season, Khedira continued to shape Germany’s game with confident box-to-box runs. But the defence lacked protection as a result.
Now the Bayern man is back, Löw is faced with his very own version of the Lampard-Gerrard conundrum: can both curb their attacking instincts – as well as their egos – to bring cohesion back to the German centre?
Löw’s team were certainly far too open in the 3-1 defeat by Argentina in August and in Austria. Even the Faroes were allowed a few decent chances before Germany secured a comfortable 3-0 win. Schweinsteiger obviously feels a return to more togetherness is needed for Germany to reach Spain’s level and finally win a title. “We need to flip the switch,” he demanded.
The perils of increased competition aside, Löw’s standing has also suffered. His mistakes of sticking with the patently unfit Schweinsteiger and over-accommodating the Italians with a narrow midfield that stifled Germany’s game were major contributing factors to the Euro exit.
Stuttgarter Zeitung noticed the coach had lost his aura of “infallibility”, while Tagesspiegel diagnosed a strange “mix of over-confidence and cowardice”.
The 52-year-old has refused to admit any personal shortcomings – “we will continue on our path,” he said in an angry state of the football nation type address in August – but there’s no doubt the honeymoon period he has enjoyed since taking over from Jürgen Klinsmann in 2006 has come to an abrupt end.
Bild’s attack on him was especially harsh: under the headline “the wreckoning”, Germany’s biggest broadsheet slammed him for creating an environment of too much cosiness in the camp, for abolishing a strict hierarchy in the team and for tolerating that players from an immigrant background like Khedira and Özil were not singing the national anthem.
Bayern president Uli Hoeness has unhelpfully picked up on some of these populist complaints, too.
“There has to be more pressure on the players from Löw,” demanded the 60-year-old in an interview with Der Spiegel. “There has to be an end to the flat hierarchies,” he added, before bemoaning the fact Löw and his staff seemed more concerned about flying out the right kind of “table tennis table” to the team hotel than footballing matters.
“I don’t care anymore about other people talking about these things,” Löw replied coolly in Frankfurt. “As long as the players focus on the job at hand with the same intensity as they have done before, we will continue to do things in the same manner.”
Bierhoff was more measured in his response. “Uli Hoeness means well but we shouldn’t judge each other’s work in public,” said the former AC Milan striker.
He was less understanding of Hoeness’s attack on Miroslav Klose. The Lazio striker is only four strikes short of Gerd Müller’s national record of 68 goals but the Bayern boss thinks his achievements need to be put into perspective. “Müller scored against England, France and Italy,” said Hoeness, “whereas Klose scored at least 80 per cent of his goals against Liechtenstein [and other minnows]”.
“I’m disappointed about these comments,” replied Bierhoff. “Klose has been of great service to this team. We should all pull together instead of fostering unnecessary disquiet.”
Löw must hope the 34-year-old will find Hoeness’s barbed remarks motivational as there’s no other recognised striker in the squad. Bayern’s Mario Gomez has missed the entire season with an ankle injury.
The Bundestrainer has plenty of options in attacking midfield, with Thomas Müller, Toni Kroos (both Bayern), Mario Götze, Marco Reus (both Dortmund), Özil and Podolski vying for three places. But there’s concern about the lack of a suitable replacement for Lahm.
Lars Bender (Leverkusen), who played so well as a makeshift right back against Greece, is injured, so the less mobile Jérôme Boateng (Bayern) will probably come in, while Dortmund’s Marcel Schmelzer will get another chance to prove his international credentials on the left. Mertesacker is expected to replace the injured Hummels (bruised foot) in the heart of the defence.
Recalling the hard-fought 1-0 win in Stuttgart from 2006 and 0-0 draw in Dublin from 2007, Bierhoff warned about “a hot atmosphere” and “an important” test for his side against the Irish. Löw, too, knows that more than three points are at stake.