Germany's uphill World Cup defence in Russia

The German national team may have a devil of a time defending its World Cup title in Russia. It goes into the tournament with an aura, but the task ahead remains massive unless France crashes out unexpectedly.

Based on information coming out of the training camp, the mood is bright at the current base in Eppan, Italy. Many stars are doing well. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer is set to be on the pitch in a friendly against Austria on Saturday. Jérôme Boateng is working hard to recover from a previous injury. Toni Kroos will arrive late, but he will do so after an excellent season and a Champions League win.

I asked Deutsche Welle reporter Jonathan Harding about the mood in the camp, and he had the following to say:

The Nationalelf goalkeeping coach Andreas Köpke may have given Germany’s fans the best lines when commenting on Manuel Neuer’s situation.

“As it stands, Manuel will play on Saturday, said Köpke in a press conference this week. Nothing is standing in his way. These are the games he needs. It’ll be a real test, and he’ll have a lot to do, then we need to decide whether he’ll come to the World Cup or not. It’s a tricky situation, but I have a really, really good feeling.”

Selection headaches

However, does Joachim Löw have the right preliminary squad to make a final selection? He tends to pick players based on history, trust and form while many coaches go for form only.

Can Joachim Löw do magic this time?

At goalkeeper, Marc-André ter Stegen could stand tall between the sticks were Neuer not to go to Russia. On the other hand, Bernd Leno and Kevin Trapp have impressed far less than Sven Ulreich and Loris Karius during the season, Champions League howlers notwithstanding.

In central defence, Mats Hummels’ run of form has been poor in the late season at FC Bayern. Boateng’s fitness remains a question mark. Only Niklas Süle goes in with the certainty that he can say nein to the world’s most fearsome attackers.

The central midfield has more depth than the defence, but we cannot be as confident regarding the striker position.

Timo Werner is now a reliable scorer for Germany, with seven goals in 12 matches, but his teammates do not reassure. The last time Mario Gomez scored against for Germany against top international opponents, friendlies and competition combined, was at Euro 2012. Nils Petersen has proven himself as a reliable finisher at SC Freiburg, but he has no credentials with Die Mannschaft.

Gomez himself gave an “interesting” opinion on the feisty Sandro Wagner’s absence in the preliminary squad when he said that he would have taken him to Russia. At Petersen’s expense, or at his own?

On the wings, the 2018 Julian Draxler is likely to be stronger and a more natural fit than the 2014 Mesut Özil. On the right, Thomas Müller’s confidence in big matches has waned in 2017-18.

Momentum counts

World Cup and Euro dynamics remain challenging to forecast, and Germany has a history of starting tournaments slowly to get better as it progresses.

However, the last decade has demonstrated that counting on a core of players from no more than two clubs can be a decisive factor in international football.

The trend started in 2006 when Italy won the World Cup. Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso from AC Milan pulled strings in the midfield. Their colleagues Alessandro Nesta, Alberto Gilardino and Filippo Inzaghi were also in the squad. Only Gilardino did not start when Milan defeated Liverpool in the Champions League final in 2007.

Spain reversed this dynamic and took it to a new level. At Euro 2008, Andrés Iniesta, Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernandez from FC Barcelona were among the leaders of a burgeoning footballing superpower. They enjoyed support from Real Madrid stars. In 2008-09, FC Barcelona exploded for a majestic treble with the addition of Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets and Pedro. The same core helped Spain to win World Cup 2010, Barcelona to clinch the Champions League in 2011 and Spain to earn the Euro 2012 title.

As if it meant to copy the “business model” with a twist, Germany piggybacked on two clubs’ successes to win World Cup 2014.

In 2013, FC Bayern torched Europe on their way to a treble, squaring off against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League final. The two teams delighted football fans throughout the season and produced one of the most disputed CL finals in history. Then, they sent no less than 10 players, many of them starters, to the German national team for a glorious tournament on Brazilian soil.

Powered by FCB and BVB

Germany does not enjoy such “club backing” before heading to Russia this year. The Bundesliga has been less competitive in 2017-18 than before. FC Bayern’s contribution to the Nationalelf is less impressive than it was four years ago. BVB’s is limited to the injury-prone Marco Reus.

The national team would, therefore, have to set the trend by itself by generating a bout of form.

Final thoughts

My approach is pessimistic ahead of the tournament as France is considered the favourite. The Germans may have more depth than ever, but few of their players and associated clubs provide momentum. Joachim Löw will have to produce magic on his own to win.

Germany’s uphill World Cup defence in Russia
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