Germany defender Per Mertesacker is no slouch at over 6ft 4in tall, but even he looks vertically challenged compared with towering 6ft 6in Serbia striker Nikola Zigic. The pair literally go head-to-head in Port Elizabeth this Friday when their teams meet in the top-billing Group D clash, with the smaller of the two big men having already worked out a game plan.
"He occupies a very special place in the Serbia team. You have to be careful not to bundle him over from behind, and not wind him up with too many fouls. Zigic is technically a good player and very smart tactically," Mertesacker explained to FIFA. "At the end of the day, it’ll be about who wins most of the challenges in the air, and especially who picks up the ball when it comes loose afterwards. We won’t be taking our eyes off him, and we’re determined to win our challenges against him."
Despite his relative youth at just 25, the Werder Bremen centre-back rates as one of the senior figures in the revamped Germany squad. Joachim Low's men produced the performance of the first round of FIFA World Cup™ group fixtures to demolish Australia 4-0, but true to his character, Mertesacker is keeping his feet firmly on the ground. "We're a young team, and we have yet to prove we can deliver on a consistent basis. That's the reason we can't be regarded as a great team yet, but we're working on it."
Tower of strength
At the 2006 FIFA World Cup on home soil, Merte emerged as one of the best defensive tacklers of the tournament. The finals effectively marked his breakthrough on the international stage – not bad for a player who seriously considered giving up the game as a youth after being told he had little chance of making it as a pro. Now, four experience-packed years on from the summer of 2006, the Hanover-born stopper understands what it takes to succeed at a tournament.
"You need to maintain a positive mood in the dressing room, you need to work seriously and hard in training, and you mustn't forget to have fun," Mertesacker told FIFA. "I think this is a good team, and in many areas, we just have to translate our potential into action. Time will tell whether we're capable of that at this tournament, and whether it'll bring us success. People are saying we're among the favourites now, but that means nothing. In my eyes, it's a very good reason to stay calm and take each game as it comes. You have to block out everything which isn't essential."
The Germany team is young and exciting, but also inexperienced and potentially impulsive, meaning there could well be a vital role for an impassive, unflustered figure such as Mertesacker. With Zigic's lofty presence meaning he should be firmly into the spotlight on Friday, what price yet another commanding performance from the Bremen man?