The satisfied expressions on the faces of the Germany team were unmistakeable on Friday after a 3-0 victory over Republic of Ireland in Cologne booked their ticket to the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ with a game to spare. They qualified in some style too, with their swift attacking philosophy providing a reminder of why, after two third-placed finishes at the last two World Cups, Joachim Low's charges are once again among the favourites for the title.
Yet while it has been smooth sailing most of the way, with eight victories from their nine Group C matches in European zone qualifying so far, one tie in particular stands out more than others. Despite the wealth of attacking options available, a 4-4 draw with Sweden on 16 October 2012 showed there is still plenty of work to do in the German camp. After letting a 4-0 lead slip against the Swedes in Berlin, the subsequent criticism in the media was intense, with the defence particularly in the firing line. "We need more stability at the back, we haven't had that recently," Low said a few weeks ago, with one eye on Brazil 2014. "But that's not just down to the defenders, the more advanced players need to press early and be aggressive in our defensive game."
Consequently it was the side's more attack-minded members who led the way in Germany's qualifying campaign. FIFA.com takes a look back at the country's road to Rio and highlights five key players who could make the difference in Brazil, where Germany are out to win their long-awaited first major tournament since UEFA EURO 1996 by lifting what would be their fourth World Cup title. Among the quintet are two players, who, like Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira prior to South Africa 2010, are eager to showcase their talents on the global stage for the first time.
A captain who leads by example and seems to get better and better. At 29, the right-back's attacking appetite remains undiminished and after passing the 100-cap milestone earlier this year, Lahm is at the peak of his powers. As well as winning the Bundesliga, German Cup and UEFA Champions League treble with Bayern Munich, Lahm was crucial to Germany's qualification, especially as injury forced team-mate Bastian Schweinsteiger to the sidelines on several occasions. "The team has worked very well over the last year," Lahm told FIFA.com after the game against Ireland. "There were some good games and some not so good ones, but that's normal." Anyone who witnessed the defender's ease in possession and tireless running will have been left in no doubt about his world-class credentials. Bayern coach Pep Guardiola recently labelled him as "the cleverest player" he had ever coached, a statement underlined by Lahm's excellent form in the defensive midfield role he has recently been playing at club level. A World Cup triumph would crown an already remarkable career.
Ozil's reputation as a supremely gifted playmaker went global after he made his mark at the 2010 World Cup, as well as his subsequent move to Real Madrid. The left-footer, who turns 25 on Tuesday, has developed into one of the side's leaders during this qualifying campaign, with his on-field presence and effectiveness convincing even the most die-hard critics of his quality. Alongside goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, Ozil, who joined Arsenal in the summer, is the only player to have played every minute of Germany's qualifying campaign, netting seven times along the way, including the decisive goal from the penalty spot to hand Germany a 2-1 victory in Austria.
The 26-year-old Real Madrid midfielder has long been one of the mainstays of the German side. While boasting the combative, hard-running qualities required to excel in his position just in front of the back four, Khedira also offers far more. His anticipation is superb, instinctively knowing when and where to intercept, but his leadership skills and willingness to take charge when things are not going so well set him apart. It is no coincidence that Khedira was absent when Germany allowed Sweden to claw their way back from a 4-0 deficit. On Friday, Khedira's opener against Ireland set Germany on their way to booking their place at next year's finals.
While German football fans have known all about Reus for a long time now, Brazil 2014 qualifying was when the rest of the world sat up and took notice of his ability. The 24-year-old hit the target five times in six qualifying matches, securing an attacking midfield berth alongside Ozil despite the fierce competition for places. His ease on the ball - even when beating his marker at full speed - his cunning through balls and keen eye for goal could make the Borussia Dortmund star one of the players to watch in Brazil.
The winner of the adidas Golden Ball as the tournament's best player at the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2007 six years ago, Kroos' international pedigree is undeniable. The 23-year-old Bayern Munich player is a model of consistency, performing impressively in both attacking and defensive midfield roles during qualifying. He netted three times over the course of the campaign, including in the crucial 3-0 victory over Austria in Munich, and provided two assists in the triumph over Ireland on Friday. Kroos' impeccable technique, awareness and maturity beyond his years have given Low another top-class option should Schweinsteiger or Ozil be unavailable. The good news for Germany is that there still appears to be plenty more to come from him too.