Brazil 2014 begins today

With less that three months to go before Germany’s World Cup campaign kicks off in Brazil against Portugal, the build-up begins today with an interesting and potentially testing fixture against fellow qualifiers Chile.

A tough test for the Mannschaft

Having qualified in third place in the South American (CONMEBOL) qualifying group behind Argentina and Colombia, the Chileans have been quietly impressive in their own buildup to the finals with only one defeat in twelve matches – a 2-1 friendly defeat against World Cup hosts Brazil in Toronto. They would end their qualifying campaign impressively and close off 2013 with an excellent 2-0 win at Wembley against England, and kick off their own 2014 campaign with a 4-0 win over fellow finalists Costa Rica.

Germany may have a tough opening group in Brazil 2014, but the Chileans have arguably got the toughest of the lot, being thrown into the mix with Australia – no mugs by any means – and both of the 2010 finalists, reigning champions Spain and runners-up the Netherlands.

Coached by Argentinian Jorge Sampaoli, the team known as La Roja (“The Red One”) should provide an excellent opening test for Joachim Löw’s side; the current Chilean side can hardly be described as star-studded, but collectively they have proved to be a talented unit that will surely provide a challenge to the Nationalmannschaft’s only real weak spot – it’s defence. The South Americans will provide plenty of strength and pace, with their key men being Juventus midfielder Arturo Vidal – once of Bayer 04 Leverkusen – and Barcelona winger Alexis Sánchez. Other names to look out for include Valencia CF’s Eduardo Vargas and Wigan Athletic’s Jean Beausejour.

Defensive woe for Jogi Löw

As for the Germans, the combination of injuries and loss of form has taken its toll on the team, but Jogi Löw still has a massive basket of talent at his disposal. The problems remain at the back, and all of the friendlies played between now and the first serious match in Brazil will be used to find a defensive unit capable of complementing the highly-rated midfield. With skipper Philipp Lahm being earmarked for a starting spot in midfield, fine-tuning the defence will be the biggest task facing the Nationaltrainer in the next three months.

Right at the back between the goalposts, Manuel Neuer remains an immovable fixture – and arguably the team’s most valuable player. The FC Bayern Torhüter has not had much to do as part of a dominant Bayern team, but when asked has always been up to the task. After picking and choosing from a number of talented but erratic younger ‘keepers over the last two-year cycle, Löw looks to have finally seen common sense in elevating Dortmund’s Roman Weidenfeller as Neuer’s backup ahead of the inconsistent René Adler. With Neuer and Weidenfeller, things are looking pretty solid.

The same cannot be said for the defence, which has for years been the Mannschaft’s soft underbelly. Clean sheets have been difficult to come by – the ‘keeper can only do so much – and Löw being able to find the right combination at back will surely be the difference between making the latter stages of the tournament and winning the thing outright. The ever-improving Jérôme Boateng and the revitalised Per Mertesacker look to be the best partnership in the middle of the defence, but even then there are issues. Boateng is still capable of rash moments, and Mertesacker is never going to be the most mobile of centre-backs. With Mats Hummels struggling to beat his injury problems and hit the same heights of 2012, the coach had had to look elsewhere in SC Freiburg’s Matthias Ginter and perhaps the most interesting new face, Sampdoria’s Shkodran Mustafi.

When one reads the history books Germany has produced a number of impressive left- and right-backs, but right now the coach would probably trade in a couple of midfielders as his eye-teeth for an Andy Brehme or Stefan Reuter. With Lahm looking to cement his position in midfield both positions are up for grabs. In looking at the right-back slot, the Nationaltrainer may have Dortmund coach Jürgen Klopp to thank: in looking to solve the massive injury problems at the Westfalenstadion, the versatile Kevin Großkreutz has teken to the position like a duck to water – in spite of spending most of his previous time out on the left as a defensive midfielder. While not a natural right-back, Großkreutz is not shy of hard work and his selection may prove to be a winning one.

Out on the left Marcel Schmelzer and Marcell Jansen are arguably the best of a very ordinary bunch, but for his potential defensive weakness brings a touch of creativity going forward. Other options have long been exhausted, and with the possible of exception of Eintracht Frankfurt’s Bastian Oczipka there are very few new avenues available.

The coach has had his task of selecting the right defensive midfield partnership made easy with the injuries to Bastian Schweinsteiger, Sami Khedira and İlkay Gündoğan, and with Lahm now in the mix the challenge will be on to pick a partnership that offers that crucial combination of strength and skill. With Schweinsteiger just back from a long layoff and Lars Bender a more conservative choice, the best partnership right now looks like one of Lahm and FC Bayern team mate Toni Kroos – on form, one of the most productive players in the squad. I am tipping Lahm to start with Kroos tonight with Schweinsteiger perhaps getting a few minutes off the bench, but we are far away from knowing which twosome will start in Brazil.

Options up front

The talent problem also exists in midfield, but here there are standout players that just have to start. In the middle, Mesut Özil may have had a crisis of confidence at Arsenal, but he remains key to Löw’s plans for the World Cup. With no doubts about his starting position, one will hopefully see the mercurial magician back to his best in the Nationaltrikot. Another essential player out injured is Thomas Müller, meaning that there will be an opportunity for Mario Götze to start out on the right. Waiting in the wings is Bayer Leverkusen’s Sidney Sam, who offers additional pace down the flank.

The left of the midfield poses more of a challenge for the coach, with a number of players chasing the starting slot. With number one choice Marco Reus out injured, there is a clear opportunity for those currently sitting behind him in the pecking order to make a claim. Having spent much of the season on the bench, Chelsea’s André Schürrle has burst into form just in time with a brilliant hat-trick against Fulham, while a reinvigorated and fit-again Lukas Podolski – one of the coach’s favourites – will also look to reestablish himself in the starting eleven. Then there is the joker in the pack in FC Augsburg’s new boy André Hahn – on paper, an excellent prospect with his mix of strength and speed.

Up front, it is a matter of problems and permutations. Does the coach stick with a traditional striker, or expand his thinking? With Miroslav Klose approaching the end of his international career and Mario Gómez still struggling for fitness, the choice may come down to playing an untested young forward or changing the tactical approach completely. In contrast to the midfield, the number of top-quality German strikers can be counted on one hand: after Klose and Gómez, you have to look at untested players with little or no international experience. Borussia Mönchenglabach’s Max Kruse has worryingly gone off the boil, and Löw may have little chance to look at new man Pierre-Michel Lasogga – who has had to pull out of the squad with a thigh injury – before making that final decision.

The answer may be to change tack completely and start with Götze up top. With his ability to roam the pitch and stretch opposition defences, the use of the talented FC Bayern youngster as a “false nine” may prove to be the perfect approach. I have always been something of a traditionalist, but seeing Götze perform this role as part of Pep Guardiola’s flexible approach at Bayern has changed my mind a little; the only problem really is the fact that Götze doesn’t quite have that killer instinct of a typical number nine. Of course, a flexible four man midfield with everyone taking turns to be the front man would be truly revolutionary if it works; for one, it would completely bamboozle the opposition.

We certainly won’t get any concrete answers tonight in Stuttgart, but hopefully we will have a slightly better idea of what path the coach is likely to take.

My predicted starting lineup for tonight:

Neuer – Großkreutz, Boateng, Mertesacker, Schmelzer – Lahm (c), Kroos – Götze, Özil, Podolski – Klose

As you can see, I am going down the slightly traditional route with Klose starting up front and Götze on the bench. However, I can very easily see a switch of tactics in the second half.

Oh, we will also be seeing the new Auswärtstrikot.

Brazil 2014 begins today

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