Nothing less than a convincing victory was expected last night against Kazakhstan, and in terms of the eventual outcome Germany delivered. Three more points in the bag, four more goals on the tally. But it could have been so much better.
Jogi Löw stuck to the starting eleven that had taken the field last month against Italy in Dortmund, with a small change of personnel on the bench. The Nationaltrainer had promised a convincing result, and his team could not have got off to a better start when they won a free-kick on the left with three minutes on the clock. It was swung in by Bastian Schweinsteiger, and met with clinical aplomb by Miroslav Klose at the far post as the Kazakhstan defence went to sleep. It was Klose’s sixtieth goal in the Schwarz und Weiß, and he looked well set to bag a few more before the evening was out. Surely the floogates would open now.
The Kazakhs were playing a tight defence – their mission clearly to prevent the Germans from scoring goals – but the nimble attacking midfield orchestrated by Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller were always quick to break things up and keep up the pressure on the visitors’ defence. With fourteen minutes gone skipper Phillipp Lahm could have made it 2-0 after a fine jinking run into the box, but the return ball from Müller was slightly behind him and he scooped it over the bar. Three minutes later Müller found Lukas Podolski on the left, but the Köln man’s left-footed strike was well parried by Kazkh ‘keeper Loriya. Löw’s side were looking sharp, breaking swiftly at almost every opportunity, either through Özil or Müller through the middle or Poldi and the pacy HSV wingback Dennis Aogo down the left.
For all the fast and neat moves, it took another set-piece to bring about the second goal. After Lahm had been felled on the right just outside the box in the twenty-fifth minute, Özil floated a delicious left-footed free-kick into the box where it was met by Müller at the near post. The defenders were no doubt focussing on Klose who had been lingering at the far post, but the defensive line in blue remained static as the Bayern man deftly flicked the ball into the net with his head to score his first goal in national colours since the World Cup. 2-0. Three minutes later Schweinsteiger broke down the left and produced a neat cut-back into the six-yard box, where Klose was denied not once but twice by the desperate Loriya.
Two minutes before half-time came the third. It was neat, clean and simple: Aogo won a corner on the left, which was taken by Schweinsteiger. Schweini’s Eckball was only half-cleared by a Kazakh defender, with Özil picking up the ball just outside the area. The midfield maestro checked back before caressing the ball back into the box, finding Müller in space. Müller still had work to do, but make it look easy as he chested the ball down and stroked it into the back of the net with his right foot. It was poor defending by Kazakhstan as the defence came charging out, but it was a fine finish all the same. 3-0, and the Mannschaft went in at half-time coasting to what seemed like an emphatic victory.
Kazakhstan came out for the second half in a more positive mood, but the Germans seemed oddly subdued. While their tactic of defending high up the field had produced dividends in the first half, what looked like a decision to sit back a little bit helped take the pressure off the Kazakhs which allowed them into the game a lot more. One could sense the first signs of impatience from the home crowd as the hour mark passed.
With twenty-five minutes to go Löw brought on Mario Gómez for Podolski, which meant that he would be playing alongside Bayern team-mate Klose – a rare sight indeed. While the change should have provided the Germans with more impetus, it appeared to have the opposite effect as moves started to break down in midfield. Schweinsteiger in particular was having a bad spell, giving the ball away and looking a shadow of his usual self. Gómez meanwhile was struggling to get into the game, stretching out a foot to put a Lahm cross over the bar when he would have been better off leaving it for the unmarked Klose who was in a far better position.
The Gómez/Klose issue is something that will continue to baffle me: while Miro cannot get off the bench at Bayern, he is continuing to find the target regularly in the Nationaltrikot; meanwhile Gómez, who has been scoring goals for fun this season at club level, is still looking as bad as he was at Euro 2008. Is it a matter of confidence? Are the tactics applied by Louis van Gaal at Bayern and Jogi Löw that different?
While Kazakhstan didn’t even have a sniff of a chance in the first forty-five minutes, they were now finding a lot more space. Although Manuel Neuer in the German goal was never really threatened, substitute Zhambyl Kukeyev found the outside of the upright after a fine run down the left. Schweinsteiger meanwhile was getting more whistles from the crowd for yet another misdirected pass.
With twelve minutes to go Schweini was finally relieved for the evening to be replaced by Bayern team-mate Toni Kroos, while two-goal hero Müller gave way to Dortmund teenager Mario Götze. The youngster was immediately in the action as he almost put Klose in, but still the elusive fourth goal wouldn’t come as a blue-shirted defender was on hand to smear the ball away with the Klose poised to strike. An even better chance was fluffed minutes later as another gently floated Özil cross, this time from the left after a neat one-two with Aogo, was put over the bar by his unmarked Real Madrid colleague Sami Khedira.
Five minutes later Khedira redeemed himself, displaying great skill to pick up a loose ball in the Kazakh box before unselfishly flicking it over Loriya and across the face of the Kazakhstan goal for Klose to walk in his second of the evening. There was still enough time for Götze to test Loriya with a left-foot shot, but the final whistle blew with the final score at 4-0.
In the final analysis, the job had been done – 4-0 was convincing enough, and the three points had been secured. With Belgium’s victory in Austria the evening before, it left Germany sitting pretty at the top of their qualifying group with fifteen points from five games, eight clear of the Belgians and Austrians with seven points from five and four games respectively. The truth however is that there could have been more, and what was a particularly sloppy twenty-minute period between the sixtieth and eightieth minutes could have been avoided. It made little difference against Kazakhstan, but against better sides such sloppiness could be costly – as was proved the previous month against Italy when the opposition took advantage of a similar passage of play to equalise in a game that should have been over long before.
Jogi Löw was quick to defend Bastian Schweinstieger after the game – the Bayern midfielder had caught the attention of the crowd during the Mannschaft’s poor twenty-minute spell, and will be looking to up his overall work-rate in Tuesday’s friendly against Australia where is he likely to be given the captain’s armband with Philipp Lahm being rested for the encounter in Mönchengladbach. Löw has also allowed the Madrid men Özil and Khedira to return to Spain, reducing his squad to nineteen. This was in all likelihood always going to be the plan, with youngsters Marcel Schmelzer, Mats Hummels and André Schürrle poised to make the starting eleven.
A final note on Miroslav Klose. Quite simply, what else can you say about the man? Two more goals, taking him to sixty-one in 107 games. He has scored twelve time in his last nine games and has found the target at least once in his last six. It’s Der Bomberesque. Had others done a little better, he could easily have scored three or four. The thoughts are that Jogi will start with Mario Gómez on Tuesday against the Socceroos, but I personally would start with Miro. The moment he puts on that white shirt, there is just no better man for the job.
v Kazakhstan, Fritz-Walter-Stadion, Kaiserslautern, 26.03.2011
Klose 3., 88., Müller 25., 43. / –
Team: Neuer – Lahm (c), Mertesacker, Badstuber, Aogo – Khedira, Schweinsteiger (78. Kroos) – Müller (78. Götze), Özil, Podolski (65. Gómez) – Klose
Referee: Aleksandar Stavrev (FYR Macedonia)
Assistants: Ljubomir Krstevski, Marjan Kirovski (FYR Macedonia)
Fourth Official: Dimitar Meckarovski (FYR Macedonia)
Yellow Cards: – / Irismetov
Red Cards: – / –
Attempts on Target: 14 / 3
Attempts off Target: 5 / 4
Corners: 7 / 1
Fouls Committed: 6 / 10