Most of the men who lifted the World Cup in Brazil two summers ago are still there, either as regulars or on the fringes – and yet Germany are not the same team any more.
It may have been only a small number of players that Joachim Löw had to replace after the glory of 2014, but they were essential components of his trophy-winning team. Philipp Lahm and Miroslav Klose have retired from international duty, leaving gaping holes at right-back and upfront which Löw has been unable to satisfyingly fill during the past two years, while Bastian Schweinsteiger is no longer the dominant force he once was.
As a result, Germany have lost their balance and have struggled to regain it. A particular problem has been switching from attack to defence, as exemplified by England’s 3-2 friendly win in late March.It was Germany’s sixth – yes, sixth – defeat since the World Cup, proving that what was once a well-oiled machine is now just the sum of its creaking parts.
And yet ... past results may not be a reliable indicator of future performance. Very few German fingers hover over the panic button – almost everyone, from the players and the coaching staff to the fans and the pundits, has been here too many times before.
Euro 2016 will be the sixth major tournament in a row that Germany approach with more questions than answers, haunted by injury problems or fitness doubts, and after a series of underwhelming displays in their warm-up matches. But so far, the team has always come through in the end, reaching at least the semi-finals at each of the last five tournaments.
Why should it be any different for Die Mannschaft now? Despite the unexpected setbacks and painful defeats, Germans are optimistic that at the main event, their team will be ready when it counts. As usual.
Lesson from qualifying
Winning the World Cup is easier than being World Cup winners. Germany were beaten twice in qualifying, by Poland for the first time ever and then, as no Irish supporter will forget in a hurry, when Shane Long hit the target in Dublin. The only other time in history they lost two qualification games was before Euro 84, when the ensuing tournament was a disaster and coach Jupp Derwall had to step down. It’s unlikely that will be repeated; however, the message of the past two years is clear. Germany are still good, but not good enough to get by with anything less than total focus.
No team at Euro 2016 – not even Spain – can beat you in as many ways as the Germans. They have the vision of Mesut Özil, the pace of Marco Reus and the knack of being in the right place at the right time that makes Thomas Muller such an inexplicable genius. They even have an old-fashioned targetman now Mario Gomez has rejuvenated his career at Besiktas.
The overabundance of attacking midfield options contrasts with a lack of defensive quality. Germany have a world-class goalkeeper (Manuel Neuer), two brilliant centre-backs (Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng) and one very good defensive midfielder (Sami Khedira), but Löw must pray that all four will be fit and firing when he needs them.
Most likely to…
Lose a player to a stage adaptation of The Three Musketeers, in Mats Hummels.
Least likely to…
See Mario Gotze announce during the tournament that he will be moving to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
What they hope will happen
Only two men have won both the World Cup and the European Championship: Helmut Schon and Vicente del Bosque. On July 10, Joachim Löw joins the club.
What will happen
Germany usually succumb to Italy or Spain, depending on who they meet first, but this year they’re likely to meet a strong host nation in the semi-finals and fall just short.
Five years ago, he was a rarely-used right-back for Manchester City. Now with Bayern, he has developed into an outstanding central defender, a leader and a pinpoint passer. When he was sidelined with a groin injury, England came back from two goals down to win in Berlin.
Many people expected Löw to step down after the World Cup but instead he extended his contract until 2018, seemingly to savour the experience of going into a tournament without something to prove.
Q&A – LUKAS PODOLSKI
How did it feel to win the World Cup and how much will that experience help this year?
The feeling was amazing and something special. We know how to work at a tournament now – how to prepare, how to play. When you are world champions, you go into the European Championship aiming to win it. That is our target.
Who are your rivals to win the tournament this year?
France are contenders, of course – they are a good team and are playing at home. Then there’s Spain, and England were strong when we played them recently. They pressed high, they were aggressive and they also played good football. We must focus on our own game, though. If we face France or England we’ll have to concentrate to beat them, but we have work to do in the group stage first.
Is there a lot of pressure from the German public to repeat your success in Brazil?
People always want more, but it’s difficult. Everyone wants to beat the world champions; everyone will defend well against us and everyone will fight. Our target will be to break down teams like Ukraine and Northern Ireland. They don’t want to play like France or Spain – they want to defend.
What do you know about Northern Ireland?
Football has changed in the UK – it’s not always about long balls, kicking and fighting; it’s also about good defence. We played against Scotland and England and they played good football. Also, when we played the Republic of Ireland, we lost.
How has the Germany team changed since the World Cup?
Some key players retired, but the team has not changed too much and the coach hasn’t changed. In the last 10 years he has set up the new Germany.
You have 127 caps now. How proud are you of that?
When you reach 100 caps for a country like Germany you can be very proud and I am. I’m happy to reach 127. When you start out as a five-year-old boy on the streets and you end up with 127 caps, it feels amazing.
FIXTURES AND RESULTS
June 13, Ukraine. Lille, 3am
June 17, Poland. Saint-Denis, 3am
June 21 N. Ireland. Paris, Midnight
HOW THEY QUALIFIED
Group D winners
vs Scotland (H) 2-1
vs Poland (A) 0-2
vs Rep. Ireland (H) 1-1
vs Gibraltar (H) 4-0
vs Georgia (A) 2-0
vs Gibraltar (A) 7-0
vs Poland (H) 3-1
vs Scotland (A) 3-2
vs Rep. Ireland (A) 0-1
vs Georgia (H) 2-1
EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP RECORD
1984 Group stage
2000 Group stage
2004 Group stage
Words Uli Hesse; Interview Chris Flanagan
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