GERMANY LOOKING GOOD TO DEFEND WORLD CUP TITLE
Coach Loew attempts to play down the hype surrounding his team after their astounding qualifying campaign for the finals in Russia next year, writes Ciaran Fahey in Berlin
With a European record of 43 goals scored, Germany are on their way to defend their World Cup title next year in Russia. The Germans completed their qualifying campaign with a 5-1 win over Azerbaijan on Sunday, but coach Joachim Loew expects bigger challenges ahead.
“It’s a mistake to take this qualification campaign as a yardstick. Sure, it was good, it was a clear achievement,” Loew said of beating Spain’s qualifying record for South Africa in 2010 by goal difference.
“But another other level awaits at the World Cup. That’s why we need to keep the ball on the ground, there’s still a lot to do. I want to achieve something really remarkable in a few months. It will be difficult enough to be world champions two times in a row.”
Spain went on to win the title in 2010 after setting the previous record in qualifying, but Brazil were the last World Cup champions to retain the title in 1962 and Loew is eager to highlight the difficulty of the task at hand.
“Only we as world champions have something to lose. Everyone else can only win,” Loew said.
Still, anything less than a second straight World Cup title would be a disappointment for Germany.
Here are some of the areas Loew will need to address before next year’s tournament:
Arguably Loew’s biggest headache is the sheer number of talented players he has at his disposal. Altogether, he used 37 different players in the 10 qualifying games. Only 23 can be selected for Russia.
The Bundesliga website identified four separate teams that Loew can send out while remaining competitive.
Injuries permitting, Loew would like to keep faith in the backbone of the team that won the 2014 title, with Manuel Neuer (currently out injured) in goal behind Bayern Munich teammates Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng, with Mesut Oezil, Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira in midfield.
Timo Werner is likely to keep his place up front despite Hoffenheim striker Sandro Wagner making the most of his chance to impress with five goals in five qualifiers.
Much will depend on the availability and form of Marco Reus, Mario Goetze and Ilkay Gundogan — all have faced or are facing long injury lay-offs.
“The door is open of course,” Loew said after Sunday’s game.
“Every individual player’s performances will be observed. Sometimes you have one or another coming through that you weren’t expecting.”
Maximilian Philipp, who didn’t participate in qualifying, is another who could yet play his way into the coach’s plans if he maintains his strong start to the season for Borussia Dortmund.
Such is Germany’s dominance at times that complacency can be a problem, especially against smaller opponents. After taking an early lead against Azerbaijan, the Germans conceded an equaliser in a lacklustre first-half performance.
“We put ourselves under pressure because we didn’t have the options going forward quickly when we were playing from the back,” Loew said. “That’s what we wanted. It wasn’t optimal in the first half.”
One effect of so many changes in qualifying is that teamwork can suffer among unfamiliar teammates, as evidenced in the first-half display against Azerbaijan.
“You could see that we had never played in that formation before,” Loew said.
“We didn’t play the game at tempo, we made minor technical mistakes. You also have to acknowledge that some young players are going through various stages of development. Not everything works out.”
The Germany coach will hope to iron out any issues in the now customary pre-tournament training camp in South Tyrol, northern Italy.
Loew wasn’t being arrogant when he said that qualifying opponents Azerbaijan, Northern Ireland, the Czech Republic and Norway were not at the same level as the teams that will be challenging for the World Cup title.
“The real work only starts when the qualifying is over,” said Loew, who has steered Germany to the semi-finals or better in every major tournament since he took over the position after the 2006 World Cup.
To help fine-tune for Russia, Germany have next month’s friendlies lined up against England at Wembley Stadium, then most likely France in Cologne, before they host Spain and Brazil for friendlies in Duesseldorf and Berlin next March.
“We have a good basis,” Loew said.
Germany defender Mats Hummels, centre, in action against Northern Ireland in a World Cup qualifier.
Germany coach Joachim Loew, left, celebrates with striker Timo Werner after a win.