Group D: Germany

Rarely far from the medal positions, Germany have been getting closer to glory, says Ulrich Hesse – and might be fun to watch

Germany manager Joachim Low has repeatedly stated that he aims to win the title in South Africa, and his players are equally outspoken: “We came third in 2006 on home soil, then we were runners-up at the 2008 European Championships,” declared injured captain Michael Ballack. “Now we want to reach the pinnacle.”

Indeed, when you take a look at the side’s recent history, it seems the Germans have good reasons to be optimistic. Low’s team not only has more individual quality, experience and depth than the side Jurgen Klinsmann took within a whisker of the 2006 final, they have also proven they can rise to the occasion – Germany’s qualifying campaign was near-perfect and highlighted by two impressive wins in the crunch matches with strong opponents many experts fancied, Guus Hiddink’s Russia.

However, it’s equally true that the public euphoria fuelled by the team of four years ago has cooled considerably. Klinsmann’s assistant turned successor did manage to sustain the team’s enthusiasm, verve and offensive instincts for some time, but as early as late-2007 most observers felt that despite all talks of a footballing revolution, the Germany team looked quite familiar again – grinding out results through determination and team-spirit rather than class and skill.

Which is why the second-place finish at Euro 2008 was not seen as a triumph in Germany but as a slightly worrying throwback to the 1980s, when one good game was usually enough for the team to make the final of a big tournament. Add to this the fact that the Germans still haven’t managed to produce a player of true world class – nobody who’s up there with Messi, Ronaldo, Rooney, Kaká, Torres, Robben or Ribéry – and you can understand why many pundits are more cautious than Low.

“Germany are not among the big favourites,” says former Real Madrid star Gunter Netzer. “It would be a success to simply do well at the World Cup. The title would be an extraordinary achievement.” This sentiment is echoed by Diego Maradona. “Germany are not among the favourites,” he said in March, after Argentina had beaten Germany narrowly but quite comfortably.

But of course none of this means anything, because we are, after all, talking about the one team that always defy predictions and consistently overachieve. “When it comes to Germany,” Franz Beckenbauer said with a smile when he was asked about the World Cup favourites, “you just never know. Everything is possible.”

StrengthsGermany are particularly strong in midfield, where Low has so many attacking options that even a fit Ballack would have had to curb his offensive instincts and play as a holding midfielder, perhaps alongside a creative player such as Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Despite a loss of form since the end of the winter break, German-born Turk Mesut Ozil is a playmaker in the classic mould, and most of the wide-man options – youngsters like Thomas Muller or Marko Marin and even a trained striker like Lukas Podolski – are goalscoring threats as well. Many of these names may not ring a bell, but few teams in South Africa will have such an attack-minded midfield.

That's not to mention that Germany have turned their lack of outstanding individual talent into a major strength: three of the past four tournaments have been marked by a great atmosphere within the squad – which then resulted in almost palpable team spirit, commitment and confidence on the pitch. Looked at in this way, Ballack's absence might even be a boon: after all, his hectoring once provoked Lukas Podolski into slapping him on the pitch.

WeaknessesPromoted in Ballack's absence to be Germany's youngest-ever World Cup captain, full-back Philipp Lahm is currently the team's best player – which makes it slightly surprising that the team looks vulnerable at the back. Yet Low still hasn’t found his man for the other wing (Lahm can play on either side) and he is also unsure of the best partner for Bremen’s towering centre-back Per Mertesacker.

Under these circumstances, it is a bit unfortunate that behind this shaky back four will be a young keeper who’s never been to a tournament: Schalke’s Manuel Neuer. “You can’t win the title with relatively inexperienced keepers,” Jens Lehmann argues, saying the 24-year-old doesn't "play regularly in the Champions League, at the highest level.” However, Neuer has more talent and quality than many of the defenders in the squad: his position is the lesser worry.

Interesting factDespite their consistently good showings, Germany haven't beaten any of the (other) traditional football powers – Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Holland, Italy and Spain – in open play for 20 years. Wins against Argentina in 2006 and England in 1996 were on penalties.

The Coach: Joachim Low Well-liked and respected, if not loved, by both the public and the German FA (DFB). Yet his future is very much unclear, no matter how his side fares in South Africa. In February, contract talks between Low and the DFB broke down and were deferred until after the end of the World Cup. The bone of contention appears to be the role of Low’s sidekick Oliver Bierhoff, the non-coaching 'general manager' who has few friends within the DFB.

Probable Team (4-2-3-1): Neuer; Boateng, Friedrich, Mertesacker, Lahm; Khedira, Schweinsteiger; Muller, Ozil, Podolski; Klose

World Cup Talentspotter: More details on the playersQ&A: FFT interviews a player from every nation   

FixturesAustralia, June 13, 7.30pm, DurbanSerbia, June 18, 12.30pm, Nelson Mandela BayGhana, June 23, 7.30pm, Johannesburg

Qualified Top of UEFA Group 4Liechtenstein (A) 6-0
Finland (A) 3-3Russia (H) 2-1Wales (H) 1-0Liechtenstein (H) 4-0Wales (A) 2-0Azerbaijan (A) 2-0Azerbaijan (H) 4-0
Russia (A) 1-0
Finland (H) 1-1

World Cup record1934 Semi-final1938 1st Round1954 Winners1958 Semi-final1962 Quarter-final1966 Runners-up1970 Semi-Final1974 Winners1978 Quarter-final1982 Runners-up1986 Runners-up1990 Winners1994 Quarter-final1998 Quarter-final2002 Runners-up2006 Third Place

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