"The World Cup only really starts with the quarter-finals," Dr Theo Zwanziger mused just a few days into the FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007. Judging by the new mood of resolve and determination in the Germany camp, the German Football Association (DFB) president certainly had a point.
The kind of positive tension you might well associate with aspiring world champions is increasingly visible on the players' faces, and no wonder: on Saturday at 5pm in Wuhan, the team coached by Silvia Neid approach their most serious yet hurdle in the shape of dark horses Korea DPR. Defeat would see Birgit Prinz and Co packing their bags for home.
"The Koreans are extremely awkward opponents, probably even tougher than the USA, because they're not simply good footballers, they're exceptionally good at breaking up the play too. And the most difficult part of it all is that we know nothing about them," Germany playmaker Renate Lingor admitted to FIFA.com. Striker Petra Wimbersky, handed a first start of the tournament in the 2-0 victory over Japan, agreed with her more experienced team-mate, but added a rider of her own. "In any case, there's nothing for it but to take all our opponents as they come," she said.
Room for improvement
On the eve of Germany's first win-or-bust fixture, the emotional pendulum appears to be oscillating between unshakeable confidence and slight nervousness. "We still have room for improvement," said striker Birgit Prinz, but her Frankfurt club colleague Kerstin Garefrekes was a shade more emphatic: "We have to improve!" The reigning world champions are aware they have played well without hitting the heights so far, but they are also acutely conscious of the fact that their form to date may well not be enough to overcome the North Koreans.
"Basically, it's always tough against the Asian teams,
but the Koreans are different again," coach Neid said. Germany
have yet to face Korea DPR in the FIFA Women's World Cup, but
the sides met at last year's FIFA U-20 Women's World
Championship in Russia, where the Asians triumphed 2-0. Comparing
Korea DPR with Japan, Neid regards Saturday's opponents as not
merely technically and tactically Germany's equals, but
Sobering though that thought may be, Ariane Hingst was never likely to abandon her belief in attack as the best form of defence. "Retaining our title means beating every team we play. You can't choose your opponents. There's only one thing we can do, convert more of our chances," the centre-back said.
Neid and her squad can take comfort from the background statistics to the match. Germany are undefeated in nine straight games at the FIFA Women's World Cup, just two short of USA's record. The Europeans have faced Asian teams five times on the world stage, winning each one without conceding a single goal.
Nadine Angerer maintained that run with a clean sheet against Japan and has yet to pick the ball out of the back of her net here in China. "In the dressing room, Nadine's complaining she hasn't had enough to do," Hingst joked, but on a serious note, the 28-year-old Angerer is itching for a chance to show off her talents and prove she is worth her place as the German number one. "I'm pretty certain I'll finally be a lot busier in the quarter-final, because the Koreans are very pacy and confident on the ball," she said.
No-one in the Germany camp seriously believes their defensive line will be under-employed in Wuhan on Saturday. Observers will be watching Neid's team selection with interest: Sandra Minnert is ready to return from injury, but that would cost youthful 22-year-old central defender Annike Krahn her place in the starting line-up. Krahn proved a more than capable deputy for Minnert against England and Japan. Elsewhere, Simone Laudehr is likely to resume the midfield holding role after missing the last match with suspension.
"The Koreans were the great unknowns going into this tournament. We'll have to play extremely well against them to earn ourselves a place in the semis," said right-back Kerstin Stegemann, summing up the mood in the camp. The holders remain confident if conscious that they may well have to dig deep to survive the test ahead.