Popp: We need to play as a team again
"There's a new impetus now with the change of coach"
Victories needed against Czech Republic and Slovenia
Germany want to be in a strong position to face Iceland in September
That things have not been running smoothly of late for Germany's women's national team is no secret. The two-time FIFA Women's World Cup™ winners struggled at the SheBelieves Cup in March and finished last at the four-nation tournament. Head coach Steffi Jones was dismissed as a result and Horst Hrubesch took over on an interim basis. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that there will be intense scrutiny on the team's eagerly-awaited next outing in France 2019 qualifying.
"Of course there's pressure, no question about that," Alexandra Popp told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview ahead of Germany's upcoming matches against Czech Republic on 7 April and Slovenia three days later. "There's no doubting that we're on the spot as a team and need to show a reaction. The way things have gone in the last few months hasn't been ideal. There's a new impetus now with the change of coach. We need to try to find our way again and get back on track. Regardless of the situation we're in, we have to win both matches."
Popp and Co are still top of qualifying Group E, but Iceland, who recorded a shock victory in Germany in October and still have a game in hand, are hot on their heels. Czech Republic are also within touching distance, just two points behind the leaders. "We have to win both of these games," said the all-time top scorer at FIFA youth tournaments, aware of what is at stake.
"If we don't win them then we'll have a big problem as we won't have matters in our own hands anymore. Obviously Iceland still need to play too. Despite all that, we need to put ourselves in a good position for the match against Iceland in September so that qualifying remains in our own hands and that we can reach the World Cup at the end. Anything else would be a disaster for us and would make things unbelievably difficult. That's why there's a lot of pressure on us going into these games, but we're well aware of it."
Hrubesch, who led Germany to a silver medal at the Men's Olympic Football Tournament in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, has been tasked with getting the record European champions back on track. Popp admits that the team's training sessions have "been very intense".
"You really get the impression that the team wants to change things," she continued. "Obviously we can't be overambitious either, as that can backfire. We need to try and find our way back to playing our game. We need to keep things simple and not try any flicks or tricks or anything. We need to implement the things highlighted in our analysis of the opposition out on the pitch. As a team we can't go into the matches overly motivated; we need to have a certain calm. Otherwise it could turn into another strange game like the one against Czech Republic, where we won 1-0 thanks to an own goal. That's not what we're looking for. We want to try and play our own game."
Reality Czech Germany have a perfect record of four wins from as many meetings with the Czechs, and have also won all three assignments against Slovenia so far. However, the 2016 Olympic gold medallist knows that such statistics can quickly change.
The time has come for Germany to show what they are made of and send out a statement of intent. Popp, considered one of the best in the game with incredible aerial ability and strength in challenges, will need to lead by example. A veteran of 86 international caps, she is one of the most experienced players in the squad alongside Lena Goessling and Dzsenifer Marozsan.
"Obviously players like us are really important. We can instil calm in the team and lead it in certain situations, but we can also kick one or two people up the backside when needed. In the end we play as a team. We can't decide a match on our own - we need all 11 players out on the pitch and the ones on the bench too. We need to play as a team again, with everyone there for everyone else. I'm very confident that'll work."