Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

James Lawton: Germany are Euro 2012's team to beat

SOPOT, POLAND - JUNE 06: In this photo provided by the German Government Press Office (BPA), German Chancellor Angela Merkel talks to German National Team players Philipp Lahm (L), Miroslav Klose (C) and Bastian Schweinsteiger during a shared dinner at the Euro 2012 Team Hotel on June 6, 2012 in Sopot, Poland. (Photo by Guido Bergmann/Bundesregierung-Pool via Getty Images)

Just as some football was breaking out in the European Championship the Germans again put – and in the circumstances they will just have to forgive the expression – a rather heavy foot in it.

It was not clad in a jackboot, admittedly, but that did not delay the speed with which assistant coach Hansi Flick apologised for suggesting that steel helmets might be a useful addition to his team's defensive armoury against Portugal when facing the free-kicks of Cristiano Ronaldo in the beautiful old town of Lviv today.



He said that he was no admirer of military terminology in football and he wished he hadn't said it, especially perhaps in the wake of team director Oliver Bierhoff's controversial aside that the team might reflect on their visit to Auschwitz in the manner of a "fireside" chat.



However, and as we were saying, football is now stepping out from a beneath some extremely heavy historic clouds and if the Germans had been particularly gaffe-strewn before yesterday's tournament kick-off it is reasonable to presume from now on their stride is likely to be increasingly sure-footed.



They may not be a football nation who always say the right things but the suspicion here is that they are about to remind us – and perhaps even Spain – that their actions on the field – and in all the detail that precedes them – speak thunderously louder than a few a misconceived words.



Indeed, it says much for the latest growth of their football image that the venom of Ronaldo's free-kicks suggests to the game's cognoscenti a rare threat to the progress of Joachim Löw's arresting young team.



They were a revelation in South Africa two years ago, of course, ransacking the hopes of Fabio Capello's England and Diego Maradona's Argentina, and it was the only the relentless rhythm of the Spanish La Roja that stopped their progress. Now, and a little scarily, Löw talk is about an infinitely stronger and more mature team – and even though at an average age of 24 it is the tournament's youngest, a collection of young charges who arrived here with a 100 per cent qualifying record.



Löw is both word perfect and passionate while analysing the progress of a team shaped around the likes of 23-year-old Mesut Özil, 22-year-old Thomas Müller and a Bastian Schweinsteiger who made his first impact on the big stage as a 21-year-old in the 2006 World Cup.



He said: "Of course winning Euro 2012 is a legitimate objective for a team of so much self-confidence, football quality and a desire to make a mark. Without that belief you will not get far. I think we have comprehensively proved in recent years that we are one of the best teams in the world. We're much more consistent than we were two or three years ago, more automatic in our combination play."



When Löw hits this vein of confidence, when he steps beyond the measured optimism common to even the strongest contenders, it is hard not to let the mind – and the senses – spin back to Bloemfontein on that Sunday afternoon when England were required to hide behind the travesty of Frank Lampard's disallowed goal in their search for a little rescued pride.



Who really knows what might have happened if England had drawn level after being eviscerated by the speed and the composure of that young German team? No one really, but some suspicions are better founded than others. The one that dominated a forlorn journey back across the veld was that Germany were simply too good, too poised, too united to have permitted England more than a brief retrieval of some passing momentum.



Most dispiriting of all was while England still searched for a way of playing best suited to their needs, the Germans, winners of three World Cups and three European titles, had once again re-made themselves.



And now Löw talks of a fierce confidence – and brotherhood – two years after that English debacle and at a time when once again the England team is so riven by division and pressure new manager Roy Hodgson cannot trust himself to some straight-forward talk on why he brought one player here and left another at home.



Here is Löw holding up another mirror to the English distress: "The young players are fundamental to what we do. They bring freshness, enthusiasm, great skills and audacity. They are desperate for success and simply love coming together to play high-tempo attacking football. They are so full of energy I sometimes need to put the brake on them."



It is not, of course, a preoccupation of Hodgson – as it wasn't for so many of his predecessors. When Löw talks of unity, you think of an England team which was so broken in South Africa that it was ordeal to get through a day's work and Capello, in the most wretched moment of an outstandingly successful career, was forced to admit that when he looked out on an abject performance against Algeria in Cape Town he didn't recognise his own team.



Löw almost certainly would not have recognised the reaction of one of England's most trumpeted young players, Micah Richards, who turned down service to the national team because the wrong person phoned with a request for him to go on stand-by. The German head coach was last contemplating a harsh reaction to the behaviour of Jérôme Boateng before the squad left Germany. Boateng seemed more interested in an extended farewell to a glamorous entourage than bonding with his playing comrades.



The consequences may be seen against Portugal today – with Boateng out and midfielder Lars Bender pitched into the challenge of attempting, apparently with some considerable help, to containing the threat of Ronaldo.



Ronaldo's Real Madrid team-mate Sami Khedira and Schweinsteiger are likely to be among Bender's assistants. Said Khedira: "We have to get to Ronaldo early and take away any space he has basically. We need to spoil his enjoyment. He is Portuguese and the Portuguese do not function that well when they do not enjoy themselves. I have never seen anyone else who has Ronaldo's talent and confidence. I think you can never shut out a player like Ronaldo."



Per Mertesacker, who is in some need of redemption after a poor performance in a shocking 5-3 friendly defeat to Switzerland last month, believes it may come down to a matter of serious mind games. "I am experienced in understanding what the team needs," he said, "and it's true we have angered Ronaldo a few times in the past and we must do it again. Mainly, we just cannot give him too many one-on-one situations."



There is no doubt that if Germany are concerned it is at the back of their defence – and that no one is more capable of exploiting that weakness than than Ronaldo.



However, there is something that even the reigning champions Spain have come to recognise in Germany. It is the strength of their will and former German midfielder Hansi Müller is quick to recognise the force of Low's command.



"While Spain remain the team to beat," he said, "I'm convinced we have making up ground rapidly. We all know Jogi Löw is an intelligent coach but what stands out for me is the strength of his conviction, his guts.



"Many coaches are wary of giving young players a chance, they don't think long term. Löw is the opposite. He values the ability of the youngsters and their hunger and he has been rewarded with an outstanding team."



It is an impressive tribute on the day Germany seek to re-state their genius for re-creating the strength of their football on the most important occasions. It is true that their words sometimes fly off in the weirdest directions. But always they come back to the essence of their football. It is not jackboots and steel helmets. It is a set of brilliant priorities, starting and ending with the power of youth.

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