Large swathes of Germany have been basking in unexpected sunshine this week, even though the north European nation had been preparing itself for the mists and chill of autumn. The capricious weather certainly seemed to reflect the national footballing mood, as golden oldies Michael Ballack and Torsten Frings have reported fit bang on time for a pair of crucial 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifiers, spelling the end of a period of experimentation when youth was given a chance.
The UEFA EURO 2008 runners-up and Russia, the two biggest names in European qualifying Group 4, grapple in Dortmund on Saturday in a clash likely to have a significant bearing on the final outcome in the section. Following an unconvincing 3-3 draw away to Finland, in which a Miroslav Klose hat-trick spared the blushes of a makeshift line-up rocked by injuries, Germany boss Joachim Low is both relieved and delighted to welcome back his battle-hardened warriors for the potentially pivotal showdown.
The tangible relief in the Germany camp at the return of the two top-notch midfielders also serves to highlight Low’s main medium-term dilemma. With just over 600 days to go until the Opening Match in 2010, the national head coach is short of options, as he confessed to reporters gathered at German FA (DFB) headquarters: "I need more leaders!"
Indispensable Ballack and Frings
German football is, on the face of it, in robust good health. The nation currently lying third in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking continues to benefit from a tidal wave of passion for the game at home, and will rightly fancy its chances of a serious tilt at the trophy in South Africa. But questions are increasingly being asked about the depth of resources available to the DFB. Where are the hungry understudies yapping at the heels of the Ballack/Frings/Klose generation? And who has it in him to spark a genuine battle for places in the team, inspiring the established stars to dig deep and find the extra percent needed to improve on third place at the 2006 FIFA World Cup and the runners-up spot at Euro 2008?
Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski, erstwhile teen heartthrobs at Bayern Munich, have long been expected to mature into leading personalities for the national team. However, life has been no bed of roses at club level for some time now, and the trio can hardly be expected to find form from nowhere just by swapping the red jerseys of Bayern for the white of Germany. The same applies to defender Christoph Metzelder, all but sidelined at Real Madrid under coach Bernd Schuster, and pointedly omitted from Low’s current squad.
The defence, once the jewel in the German crown, is unquestionably Low’s biggest problem zone at present. Newly-formed centre-back pairing Serdar Tasci of VfB Stuttgart and Schalke stopper Heiko Westermann conceded three goals to the Finns, and although Tasci’s VfB team-mate Thomas Hitzlsperger and Bayer Leverkusen’s Simon Rolfes have both gone public with their hopes of taking over from Ballack and Frings, neither of the younger men has looked the real deal in defensive midfield. "I don’t think there’s anyone in Germany better than me in my position," Frings recently declared, throwing down a verbal gauntlet to his would-be challengers.
Invincible in Dortmund?
The only area in which Low is spoiled for choice is up front. Mario Gomez (Stuttgart), Kevin Kuranyi (Schalke) and Patrick Helmes (Leverkusen) are scoring freely in the Bundesliga, but when push came to shove – as at last summer’s EURO 2008 - only Klose and Podolski delivered convincingly. Perhaps the one position where youth is confidently expected to displace experience is in goal. Most observers feel the prodigiously talented Rene Adler of Leverkusen will have taken the number one jersey off caretaker Robert Enke of Hannover by the time the tournament in South Africa gets underway.
For the time being, the older generation will carry the torch into battle against the Russians with a familiar tactical plan: captain Ballack leading, his deputy Frings scrapping, and the Dortmund crowd urging their heroes on in Germany’s favourite stadium. "We only took a point in Finland, so the job now is to beat Russia and Wales," declared Chelsea star Ballack, under fire at home for an allegedly dictatorial approach to the captaincy. The former Bayern man responded defiantly, saying he had no intention of changing his style. The same could be said of the Germany set-up as a whole, at least for now.
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