Mein Gott. Never, ever in my life have I had to be more gracious than I have been this year. For those of you that follow my Bayern Munich musings on Soccernet, you know this to be true. To come in second, second, second – and then third place now? It's a nightmare. Strangely, though, I'm not nearly as affected as I was after losing the Champions League final to Chelsea. In the final in May, we (meaning Bayern Munich) were the better team. By far. We had essentially won that match three different times. This semi-final? Not so much. Italy surely deserved to win.
And dare I say that Jogi was out-tinkered? Perhaps not telling your team who is starting until three hours before match time wasn't ideal, mole in the German camp or not...
All the panache and tactical superiority he'd displayed in the previous four matches came to naught. Toni Kroos was not a bad decision, mind you, it's just that the midfield failed to execute the game plan. Toni drifted ever towards the centre, where he plays for Bayern now, and created a big ol' mess in central midfield. There were three attacking midfielders in the centre of the pitch: Kroos, Khedira and Ozil, with Ozil being forced somewhat outside and creating a huge gap on the right. Meanwhile, Bastian Schweinsteiger had a crap 90 minutes with passes ending up generally at the wrong set of feet. (Sigh.)
Not to say that Deutschland still didn't have their chances to win. Despite all the disorganisation, they did. Fifteen shots – eight on target – went to waste in this one. Hummels, Kroos, Ozil, Khedira, Lahm, Reus and Gomez all had good looks at the goal, and not one could finish. Meanwhile, Prandelli's men managed ten total shots – five on target – and finished twice.
After disappointing previous outings, Mario Balotelli repaid his trainer's faith in him in spades by scoring a brace of very pretty goals against a calamitous Mannschaft defence. The first, on 20 minutes, had Boateng out of position, allowing Cassano to get past him and Hummels. After beating Mats, Antonio provided a nifty cross over in front of the goal, which Mario headed in after beating Holger Badstuber. And the second saw him sprint in front of our back line, collecting Montolivo's long pass before hammering it past a stationary Neuer. Say what you want about his immaturity, on-and-off-field antics, his hair – anything, really – but when Balotelli is on form, he is absolutely brilliant.
So, where does that leave die deutsche Fussballnationalmannschaft? In 2002 - 2nd, in 2006 - 3rd, in 2008 - 2nd, in 2010 - 3rd, and now in 2012 - 3rd once again. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. While this team possesses all the talent in the world, eventually they will have to overcome that last hurdle – whatever it is – and actually win something. After storming through qualification and the "Group of Death", I thought that perhaps this was our time. I am wholly disappointed that it is not.
So, it's time for me to say, "Well played, Italy. Well played". Congratulations to Cesare Prandelli and the fine job he has done with the Azzurri. Now, pretty please will you go on to lift the trophy? I can't stand to see Spain lift another one, and there's no shame in losing to the tournament winners, now, is there?
OK, so I wanted Engerland to beat Italy in their quarter-final match, but not for the reason you would think. I am not afraid of facing Italy – it’s not going to be a walk in the park, mind you - but I have many, many English friends, and I just like to twist the knife a little bit. My Twitter quote said something like, "I hope England wins... so we can batter 'em on Thursday." Sigh! 'Twas not to be. But, at least I don't have to endure some muppet singing "Two World Wars" at me on Thursday now.
With the Azzurri's endurance of 120 minutes-plus-penalties over the Three Lions, an old/new foe rears its head. And Deutschland have a shot at making up for that agonizing 2006 World Cup semi-final loss. I use the slash between old and new for a reason: While yes, this is the Italy that have beaten us in all competitive matches, this is also not the Italy you're used to seeing. Gone is the (yawn! watching paint dry...) Catenaccio style, and in its place coach Cesar Prandelli has ushered in a - dare we say - new Italy that - dare we say - attacks. Notably, 20 shots on target against an England squad whose best tournament players were all defensive.
But really, the question here is what is Taktik-Fuchs (as Jogi Low has been called here in Germany) gonna do about it? WWJD? I've been lamenting about trying to delve in to his mind, and picking a Startelf that I might actually get right. But, hell... here goes anyway.
Germany: Neuer - Boateng, Hummels, Badstuber, Lahm - Khedira, Schweinsteiger - Mueller, Ozil, Podolski - Klose.
Well, at least the back four plus Neuer are a given: I'm almost guaranteed to have that part right. Moving up to the holding midfield is where the problems begin. There's been a lot of chatter of Toni Kroos starting ahead of Bastian Schweinsteiger, but I don't think it happens here. Even though Bastian says he's not fully fit, and even though I named him one of the weakest players in the match against Greece (I stated sloppy passing as the reason, even though he completed 92%), he is the Tiger. He doesn't wear the captain's armband, but he is the emotional leader of this team (as he is for Bayern Munich). And with his ankle problems (evident?), and Sami Khedira's prominence in to a more offensive role, he will be called upon to rein in the cheeky Pirlo in front of our back line. Bundestrainer Low says you can't man-mark Pirlo, but the England match proved that you also can not afford to leave him too much room to roam.
Reverting back to group stage, I feel Low will choose to use his trusted wings in Lukas Podolski and Thomas Mueller. Schuerrle had his chance to impress against Greece in Poldi's slot, and while he wasn't horrible, he came up lacking. The Reus / Mueller conundrum is a tricky one. And, I definitely sat on the fence a few days about it. But, the Italian defence is an organized one (unlike a direct Greek wall), and perhaps Mueller (who is better off the ball than Reus) would be a bit more patient in that regard. Also noting that this pair of wingers are more likely not to get caught up in the moment of "Oh, crap! I'm in a semi-final!" and track back to defend.
Gomez or Klose is the huge question here, and points could be made for either. Obviously, I think Jogi will go with Klose. (It says so a few paragraphs up.) While Gomez would definitely have a height advantage- Deutschland averages three inches north of the Italians, which is fantastic for poaching goals- Klose is a better ball handler. And Klose has the advantage of playing for Lazio in Serie A. To people who say that Gomez needs to start every match, I say, he came off the bench in these ten qualifying matches a few times and did well. Klose ended up qualifying with nine goals and Gomez with six. (Gomez playing for Bayern Munich is an entirely different matter.) In the end, it's kind of a push for me. If one doesn't get on the board, the other will be subbed in.
Cesare Prandelli has his own decisions to make. Unfortunately for him, the Azzurri had to slog it out in the hot, hot heat of Kiev against England; and have had two less days to get his players fit. (To which I say, shoulda won your group, Cesare.) Daniele De Rossi is suffering from sciatica, Antonio Cassano from fatigue, Christian Maggio is suspended, while Giorgio Chiellini and Ignazio Abate both have knocks (although both will feature).
Italy: Buffon - Abate, Barzagli , Bonucci, Chiellini - Pirlo, De Rossi - Marchisio, Montolivo - Balotelli, Cassano
The diamond-midfield- with De Rossi playing ahead of Pirlo and Montolivio playing ahead of Marchisio- leaves Italy susceptible on their flanks. And with defensive wingers Abate and Chiellini with the aforementioned knocks, die Mannschaft should have a ton of space to operate down those very flanks, and may be able to catch some Azzurri with their pants down. But, the battle will be won in the central midfield. If we are allowed to assert ourselves, we can wrangle control from Pirlo - Italy's answer to Bastian Schweinsteiger.
After watching the snoozefest (or laughfest, depending) that was the Spain / Portugal match, this promises to be a good one. I mean, really... It can't be any worse! With neither coach ready to relinquish their philosophies or style of play, it's shaping up to be an open, entertaining game.
We won't know whether I picked right or wrong until after Germany's team meeting at 17:30. Jogi Low has insisted he won't give his starting XI until then. And, while I want to get it right, a small part of me wants to get it wrong, muse on it for a while...
...And then watch the magic happen. Auf gehts, 'Schland!
My original intention was to go to Gdansk for the Greece match, but a Bergfest and my family, coupled with train schedules and the like, meant I got stuck in Berlin. So, I braved the Fan Mile. You would think, when you see it on television, that it is an absolute crush. But, it's not. Five hundred thousand German fans and I all had breathing room, except when Germany scored. Any beer you had in your hand was knocked upwards and onwards; showering a delirious crowd. I consider it €20 very well spent, and would gladly pay any amount to see the almost total domination put forth by die Mannschaft.
Hours before the match Sport Bild somehow got a hold of Jogi Loew's line-up. Instead of the attacking formation of Mueller, Oezil, Podolski and Klose, the Bundestrainer had switched out Reus for Mueller, Schuerrle for Podolski and Klose on top for Gomez. And while I'd expected Lukas to eventually be replaced by Andre, the other two gave me a bit of pause. But, apparently again, this is why I'm not Jogi Loew.
The attacking changes gave Germany a bit of get-up-and-go that was missing in the previous group stage matches, and with it, unleashed the invigorated midfield duo of Sami Khedira and Mesut Oezil. Jogi's trust in Marco Reus and Miroslav Klose was rewarded by a goal from each. Sami Khedira, with a bullet, and Philipp Lahm, with the opener from distance, also added to the tally.
What Went Right?
Even Ethniki trainer Fernando Santos gave Loew props for strategy, stating, "We weren’t expecting so many changes to Germany’s lineup. Their coach wanted to change to freshen things up, and for me it was the right move on his part." Right move, indeed. With a bench as deep as Deutschland's, it is gratifying to know that Jogi can start whatever XI he sees fit. And, that alone is a huge thorn in the side of opposing coaches, as they'll never know what they're gonna get. (I might as well stop trying to predict line-ups now.)
While UEFA gave Oezil the MOTM award- and with two assists and a 93% pass-completion ratio, it's hard to argue it- I would still tip Sami Khedira over him. Khedira, playing more upfield than Schweinsteiger, absolutely marauded through midfield. And while he didn't get on the assists sheet, his build-up in play lead to all four goals.
What Went Wrong?
Jerome Boateng was excellent in the group stage matches, but something got away from him here. His two mistakes both resulted in Greek goals. On the first he let Samaras get away from him, and the second was a converted penalty after he was deemed to handle the ball. I would consider this a one-off for now.
Andre Schuerrle, while having three excellent chances before the half, was guilty of sloppy passing. He'll need to tighten up a bit if he wants to start the semi-final match. And it pains me to say that Bastian Schweinsteiger was guilty of the same. He's been nursing an ankle injury for quite some time now, and will doubtfully be 100% during this tournament. He told Welt, "Honestly, my ankle has been causing me trouble. I have been carrying it since February and it did not heal properly." Whatever he lacks in fitness is made up for in presence, and I sincerely hope he can will himself for these next two matches.
While the final score said 4-2, this match was nothing nearly close to that scoreline. While it was a brave performance by Greece, Germany simply had too much... everything. Herr Loew continues to be a tactical master- a marionette pulling on so many strings. This was Deutschland's 15th competitive win in a row; now holding a world record for that mark. If we can get to 17, we get a big, shiny trophy!
Italy or England loom next. I'll be supporting the Three Lions, 'cos it's not really a tournament unless Germany play England, now is it?
A Greece - Germany match wouldn't usually attract this much attention, but the economics and politics between these two vastly divergent states has turned this quarterfinal in to a bit of a spectacle. Well, alright then... Spectacle it is.
Germany and Greece have met eight previous times, with Germany going undefeated in all (W5, D3). And history is on die Mannschaft's side, as they have never lost a quarterfinal match in this competition. While Greece snuck through the group stages with a shock win over Russia, Germany were mostly comfortable through long stretches of their group, emerging as the only team to collect all nine points.
Looks like a classic David vs. Goliath match, doesn't it? Not one pundit I can think of has tipped Greece to win, and I don't think I've seen anyone tip Greece to get on the scoresheet. My personal opinion is that we're gonna batter 'em- much like everyone else's- except for one small problem: The Ethniki are goal poachers. And our weakness happens to lie in defending set pieces and counters.
Greece Starting XI: Sifakis - Torosidis, Papastathopoulos, K. Papadopoulos, Tzavelas - Katsouranis, Makos, Maniatis - Salpingdis, Samaras - Gekas. (Can I just add that typing this line-up gave me fits? Sheesh. Thank heavens we're not playing Poland next!)
Playing without their talismanic captain Karagounis, Greece is not likely to be an out-and-out attacking side. They'll be happy to sit back, with their three defensive midfielders covering the back line, and wait for a mistake. It's not pretty, but it is effective, as we saw in their match against Russia. Luckily, for Germany, they have an established weak point in Samaras, who has had a horror tourney so far.
Germany Starting XI: Neuer - Boateng, Hummels, Badstuber, Lahm - Khedira, Schweinsteiger - Mueller, Oezil, Podolski - Gomez.
Boateng returns to the line-up after being suspended for the Denmark match. And while there is a lot of speculation about Klose starting over Gomez, it seems unlikely to happen. I mentioned above that Greece have a weak point, and it will be up to Mueller and Boateng to expose that right side. It will be hard for our attack to find space as Greece will be essentially playing with seven men in the box. But, we've shown lately that we can be patient over long stretches, eventually finding holes to get forward.
We'll need to score early, but I wouldn't expect Greece to open up after the first goal. Probably only after the second will they have to try to play football. Once they do open up, their lack of pace will be their undoing, as Germany's controlled passing game should be too much to overcome.
Greece is a plucky side, playing for national pride amidst their crippling debt situation. And Germany, with Anglea Merkel in attendance, are starting to play to the expectations of being tournament favorites. Politics aside, while it won't always be pretty, it promises to be pretty entertaining.
Auf geht's, 'Schland!
I was extremely fortunate to watch the Denmark match with Uli Hesse, German football writer extraordinaire. As we sat in the Prater Biergarten in Berlin, I was able to pick his footballing brain a bit as I regaled him with my stupid travel stories. As we discussed the first two matches, he gave a special mention – which is noteworthy in its timing – to Jogi Low's tactics. When he asked me about who my starting XI would be, I left out Lukas Podolski (of course) for Andre Schurrle, and instead of Lars Bender starting in place of suspended Jerome Boateng, I had Philipp Lahm moving over with Marcel Schmelzer opposite.
And this is why I'm not Jogi Low.
His tactical decisions have seen Germany escape the Group of Death with all nine points. Replacing Per Mertesacker with Mats Hummels has seen the Borussia Dortmund defender become the revelation of the tournament. His faith in Mario Gomez paid off as the Bayern Munich striker leads the goal-scoring tally with three in three matches. Keeping Podolski on the field culminated in the Arsenal attacker scoring the opener against Denmark, and starting Bender in defence, where he has never played, saw him score the match winner against that same side.
We controlled the match for 70 or so minutes against Portugal, looked to be in the driving seat for much of the Netherlands match except a bit towards the end and I thought was never really in danger of losing to Denmark, despite the questionable defensive side that they put on the field. Low stated: "We knew Denmark would do this. They didn't seem to care about the result."
Astonishingly, we are the only team thus far that has not dropped points. And are sure to face another ultra-defensive Greek side in the quarter-finals on Friday. Low has been up to the task in sorting out opponents who "park the bus" against us. The only knock against the Startelf, I would think, is that we don't defend set-pieces well, using a zonal-marking system on corners. And it continues to be a problem in this tournament, as it was during the 2010 World Cup. Perhaps it's a small price to pay for a team that looks, right now, very complete (and with a deep, deep bench where the likes of Mario Gotze and Marco Reus are failing to get any minutes on the pitch).
Also, there are fitness questions for Per Mertesacker and Miroslav Klose, which may have cost them their starting places. And Bastian Schweinsteiger laboured through the Portugal and Denmark matches. (He was fabulous against old foes Netherlands, though.)
And a quick note on the supporters. While the charge levelled against the DFB for the fans throwing paper balls on to the field during Portugal set-pieces was funny (I got a good giggle out of that one and feel the €10,000 was a small price to pay), there was more serious charge being levelled against us: the Denmark match saw a German supporter holding up a Neo Nazi banner. Come on, seriously? There are so many generalisations about Germany that to perpetuate that side of history is truly a shame. Respect and tolerance must be the rule of the day.
But, all in all, it's been an enjoyable tournament with Low leading the German charge. I'm confident that his tactics will sort out a Greece side that managed to keep the Russians, the best side in Group A, from progressing. Three matches until we're champions of Europe. That has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?
I've just landed in Munich, after a furious round of packing, flying and birthday celebrations, and I've had a chance to mull over our not-quite emphatic 1-2 victory over the Oranje. I only say "not quite" because I'll admit to being a little worried the last 20 minutes or so of the match- when Robin van Persie moved to the wing, and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was brought on. But I use the word "emphatic" because, while it was only a one-goal win, the difference in class between the two sides was marked.
Bert van Marwijk only made one change to the line-up that went down against Denmark- a defensive one- as Joris Mathijsen was fit to start. Many had expected the Holland skipper to replace van Persie with Huntelaar from the opening whistle. Perhaps his reasoning to keep the Hunter on the bench was due to the knowledge his ex-teammate, Manuel Neuer, has on him?
Meanwhile, Jogi Loew ran out the same starting XI that defeated Portugal on Saturday. Despite Mario Gomez being roundly criticized- after scoring the match winner against the Selaccao, for Pete's sake- Loew gave the Bayern Munich striker another starting chance. And it paid off in spades. Two goals in the first half ought to silence all the detractors, don't you think?
What went right?
I could make this paragraph short and say the first 70 minutes, but there are a few special mentions. Jerome Boateng and Philipp Lahm did a number on Afellay and Robben, respectively. Mats Hummels has been a revelation in these first two German matches, getting a piece of everything thrown his way. But, this battle was won in the midfield by the wonderful play of Mesut Oezil, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira. Basti's only two passes to Mario Gomez in the first half resulted in goals.
What went wrong?
Lukas Podolski continues to be a non-entity. When I think about the match, I can not recall anything positive in his play. It makes we wonder how long Herr Loew will continue to give him respect, as for me, he hasn't done anything in the first two games. Andre Schuerrle is knocking at the door.
When Bert van Marwijk switched up Robin van Persie, making him a ten, things started to go wrong for Germany. But, the Dutch lacked cohesion, despite several good scoring opportunities, and the DFB was able to hang on for a win.
I would have liked to see Jogi make substitutions earlier, and was perplexed by team's evident exhaustion towards the end of the match. Fitness, in the strange Ukrainian weather, continues to be an issue.
Holland is not out. Germany is not in. One of my Dutch friends told me that they have a 12% chance of progressing to the next round. I think the math comes down to Denmark would have to beat us by more than one, and Portugal would have to lose by two. I think.
Although we were a bit shaky defensively towards the end, this was a complete performance by a complete team. And the Oranje seem to have gone back to being, well... Dutch. Gone is their camaraderie that brought them to the World Cup Final in 2010. And, as a German (American), I'm happy to see it go.
But, for now... WE BEAT HOLLAND! And that is (almost) enough for me. The chanting starts directly after the Denmark match.
My original trip to Germany was supposed to start on June 7th. And with that date, I had purchased Holland / Germany tickets because... well, really... why wouldn't you?
Undoubtedly the glamour match of the group stage, and my team involved? Yes, I'll have two tickets, please.
And then I tried to get to Kharkiv.
And then I tried some more. Flights and hotels had been so incredibly price-gouged that it was nearly impossible. At one point, I was considering a flight to Zuerich, then over night to Istanbul (not Constantinople), next day landing in Lviv. And still faced with a long train ride. All for nearly 800 Euro. And that's before lodging.
But, my life got in the way here, and I had to delay my trip for a week (I now leave Thursday). However, I'll make the Denmark match in Berlin, and get to the quarterfinal. I definitely feel like I'm coming out a winner. But, oh! To actually be there in Kharkiv?! It's gonna be fantastic!
I don't think it's necessary to comment on the contentious history- football and otherwise- between these two squads. Frank Rijkaard and Rudy Voeller? Berti Vogts and Johan Cruyff? But, with both teams being ranked top five in all the land? And, a Germany that's playing pretty similar to the Dutch "Total Voetbal" way? It's destined to be a classic.
I think I might be the only person in the world that suggested that Denmark would nick off Holland in their opener. (I will graciously accept my "genius" status for as long as I can.) I don't know why I thought so, but I did. And Denmark did. Group B got a lot more interesting.
Now, Denmark didn't throw ten men in front of goal in the first half, they tried to play football with varying degrees of success. Only after they scored did they start to pull, en masse, in front of goal. And got exceeding lucky that Robin van Persie lacked a final touch. Really, the only guy that was effective offensively for the Dutch was Wesley Sneijder, who could not be stopped by any Dane.
Bert van Marwijk’s Netherlands plays in the same 4-2-3-1 formation as the Germans. The coach seems likely to retain the two defensive midfielders, captain Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong in the starting XI even though the pundits have been clamouring for Rafael van der Vaart to start there, in more of an offensive role. First choice centre-back Joris Mathijsen was back in training and is expected to get the starting nod over Ron Vlaar. And up front, the coach is expected to start Klaas-Jan Huntelaar over Robin Van Persie, who Bert would move out to a wide position opposite Arjen Robben.
Netherlands Projecting Starting XI: Stekelenburg - Van der Wiel, Heitinga, Mathijsen, Willems - N. De Jong, Van Bommel - Robben, Sneijder, Van Persie - Huntelaar
On Jogi Loew's side of things, even though he stated that he could make changes, I don't think it's likely here. Lukas Podolski will get about 45 minutes to show what faith the coach has in him, but I think it's likely he's the first to be subbed out for Andre Schuerrle.
Say what you want about Mario Gomez, but he's earned his right to stay up front. While his chances were few in the Portugal match, he did score the winner and had a goal disallowed. However, if he doesn't get on the scoresheet, you will see Miroslav Klose.
Germany Projected Starting XI: Neuer - Boateng , Hummels , Badstuber , Lahm - Khedira , Schweinsteiger - Mueller , Oezil , Podolski – Gomez
The best possible thing to happen before this match is the Dutch have started their famous infighting already. Factions for Huntelaar, factions for Van Persie... And a crybaby Van der Vaart who inexplicably gave an interview stating that Germany only had three "world class" players- Oezil, Schweinsteiger and Goetze. Silly Rafael, you're not making it any easier for your wife to work in Germany, now are you? I think I can safely say that his statements were completely disregarded, but I hope it gives all of our world class players on the pitch a little impetus to prove him wrong.
This is a must-win for the Netherlands. And we can play the spoilers and send our arch-rivals home early. I am salivating at the prospect! However, with that being said, we may face a Dutch side like the 2010 World Cup- a slashing, destructive side playing with their backs against a wall.
Swedish millionaire referee, Jonas Eriksson, hands out an average of four yellows a match. I would think the total will be higher here. Jerome Boateng and Holger Badstuber will have to be careful as their bookings would cause them both to miss the Denmark match on Sunday.
The final before the final? Deutschland, are you ready to rumble?
An hour or so before match time in Lviv, word started leaking out that Jogi Low had made some last-minute changes to his Startelf to face Portugal. I'd always thought that Per Mertesacker was a ponderous selection as he runs like he's got a refrigerator on his back. And I'm sure Paulo Bento, Portugal's coach, was salivating over having the slow guy to exploit in our back four.
But, Jogi got... dare I say... tricksy? Choosing instead Bayern youth product and Borussia Dortmund standout Mats Hummels, he selected familiar centre-back partnership with Holger Badstuber - they'd played together for years at the Saebenerstrasse. (And can I just interject here that I will never forgive Jurgen Klinsmann for letting Hummels go in favour of Breno?) And Hummels repaid Jogi's confidence in spades, easily the man of the match: intelligent positioning, excellent ball distribution and a nuanced performance like he's been doing week in and week out with the Schwarzgelben.
Low's other last-minute change was to start Mario Gomez instead of Miroslav KIose. And while he was left stranded for stretches of the match - through no fault of his own - he ultimately scored the match winner on 72 minutes with an untouchable header off a deflected pass.
What Went Right?
The two aforementioned substitutions were brilliant, but there were other factors that contributed to our three points against Portugal. Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger did a nice job not allowing space between themselves and the back line. Jerome Boateng was fantastic, reeling in Cristiano Ronaldo for most of the match, and his professional foul may have saved Portugal from getting on the scoreboard.
The defence, in general, had a great match, and Manuel Neuer was fantastic. He took Postiga's foul as well as he could, and his point-blank save against Oliveira two minutes from time was everything we've come to expect from him.
What Went Wrong?
Strangely enough, the weak link in a soundly defensive display was Philipp Lahm. Not a horrible match by any means, but not vintage Lahm, either.
And while I credited Khedira and Schweinsteiger with not allowing space, they also did not get forward enough as necessary. Bastian's fitness is still an issue, I would think, but he's gonna need to be able to get up-field a bit more and contribute offensively.
Jerome Boateng, in my opinion, held on to the ball for a bit long, allowing Portugal to come over, and thus stranding Thomas Muller. Especially in the first half. Everything was being crossed over to Podolski, who rushed the opportunities that came his way.
Dare I say that Mesut Ozil, in this case, might have been a bit more selfish? He finds space where there is none, drills holes to be exploited... but then? He is fantastic, but with only two weeks of full squad practice, Germany were definitely missing that last touch. It's a question of communication and I'm sure it will get better but, with Netherlands looming on Wednesday, there's no time like the present.
And, The Other Guys?
Portugal had a good match. Paulo Bento really had no choice but to play defensively against us, relying on Nani and Ronaldo on fast-breaks and counter attacks, but their best football came after Germany scored and they opened up the field a bit more. It'll be interesting to see how they stack up against a defensive Denmark side.
While it wasn't the goal-fest I expected, Germany showed maturity and a defensive prowess that, to me, signals an upturn in form. When the communication in the passing game gets sorted out - which it's sure to do - this team will rightly show why so many have picked them to win the whole thing.
The inflatable kiddie pools- I mean "stadiums", and the hats with streamers have left the pitch, Lewandowski just scored the goal of the tournament - so far, and I'm finding it incredibly difficult to concentrate on writing this preview. Thank Kahn! I have my lucky German football floppy hat to get me through!
I thought I'd catch a lot of flak for saying that Portugal may only get a couple of points out of Group B - at best, but I'm not sure anyone actually read my introductory blog. Certainly not any Portuguese. My heart is broken. Germany's opening match against a Seleccao is tricky. He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named is almost certain to get on the scoresheet, I'd be surprised if he didn't. But, I'd be absolutely shocked if die Mannschaft didn't come away with three points.
Portugal have improved since Paulo Bento's takeover from Carlos Queiroz. But, with the upturn in form has also come some rather unsavoury behind-the-scenes dust-ups; notably defenders Jose Bosingwa and Ricardo Carvalho being left out of the squad. That being said, it's still a rather formidable back-four with Joao Pereira, Bruno Alves, Pepe and Fabio Coentrao; adding Rui Patricio in goal.
Sitting in front of the backline is Miguel Veloso who distributes the ball to Raul Meireles on the right and Jose Moutinho on the left. Meireles on the right- Portugal's weaker side due to the left-side pairing of Coentrao and Cristiano Ronaldo- moves more freely in attack than Moutinho; and the closest thing Portugal's got to a playmaker.
The attack will either feature Helder Postiga or Hugo Almeida up-front, with Nani on the right and Ronaldo on the left. Obviously, like I said before, the left is the stronger side going forward, but can also be caught out of position on the fast break. Thomas Mueller, with his good positional sense, should be able to exploit that...
...Which brings us to Germany. Manuel Neuer is, obviously, between the sticks for Deutschland, and it will be up to him to manage/cover mistakes in communication that are sure to happen between the back four. He'll have to be at his sharpest, especially in set-pieces, as Ronaldo is ever a threat.
Jerome Boateng may not feature on the right, after Jogi Loew busted him being out in the early morning hours before they left for Poland. And, here's where I say, "Jogi, Jerome doesn't even drink. Who cares about a lack of Zzzzz's?!" Herr Loew has been practicing with Lars Bender at right-back, although I think that's hardly wise, considering he'll be facing Ronaldo. Per Mertesacker, recently fit, and Holger Badstuber will be holding down the middle, with captain Philipp Lahm on the left.
Sami Khedira plays a bit behind, fit again, Bastian Schweinsteiger, although both are free to run box-to-box. While Germany is lately a pressing / possession squad, these two will have to be mindful of quick counters by Portugal- closing down space in front of our backline quickly.
A pre-and probably post-tournament favourite for Best Player, Mesut Oezil as playmaker has zero down-side. Positionally aware, with wonderful ball distribution and completely unselfish inside the box. On the right side, Thomas Mueller will be ready to pounce on any defensive errors by Coentrao. And on the left, Lukas Podolski will start, although he's been often replaced by Andre Schuerrle- whose offensive presence is almost immediately felt whenever he's subbed in. Lukas needs to jump on to the scoreboard early to retain his starting position.
Conundrum of the Startelf? Who will start up front? My bet is that Jogi will start Miroslav Klose and use Mario Gomez as a second-half substitution. Depending on the form of either, this is subject to change throughout the tournament. That being said, Klose / Podolski have a great understanding, and Gomez / Schuerrle have worked well as second-half subs. And yeah, Oezil plays well with everyone.
Nani, with some misplaced sense of bravado, recently remarked, "If we are feeling anxiety, they will feel it too, because they will be playing against Portugal, they know who they will be playing against and what Portugal have. I have been hearing a lot of things about Germany, Netherlands and Denmark, but they must have heard about Portugal, too."
Well, suuuuuuuuure... We've heard of Portugal, no doubt. But with an 8-5-3 record against you? And a 2008 quarterfinal win? Nani, you'd better hope your foot is totally healed. 'Cos we'll be coming at you.
Auf gehts, 'Schland!
Back in December, when the draw for Euro 2012 was being played out, and Russia were picked in Group A to play along with Greece, Czech Republic and tournament co-hosts Poland, I took a look at Group B and thought, "We're next". And indeed, we were. Germany landed in the Group of Death. Holland. Portugal. Denmark. And then I got excited.
My club team, Bayern Munich, was also in the midst of its own Group of Death facing Manchester City, Napoli and Villarreal in Champions League competition. And, look at how well that turned out... OK. Don't. But, before the heartbreaking, soul-sucking final loss to Chelsea, we were on top of the world. Well, not really. My team saw the '11-'12 season as the bridesmaid. The first loser. And, in a way, it parallels greatly with die Mannschaft. Not so surprising, I suppose, as one-third of the national team is comprised of Bayern Munich players. Both squads, in recent history, have been very, very good. Excellent, even. But, lack that last final... something. Is this the tournament where we're finally the bride?
Perhaps. It doesn't have to go the way I want it to- it usually does not- but I don't think this modern Deutschland team has ever had a better shot at winning. The three favourites- us, a team that's beat us the last two tournaments, and some people we owe bicycles- also happen to be three of the top four teams in the world rankings, currently. Vicente del Bosque's Spain, by all rights the bettor's favourites- winning EURO '08 and the 2010 World Cup- might just be starting to be a little old, and a little tired of winning. Yawn. And Holland, famously paired with us in Group B, has a tendency towards implosion and in-fighting, although Bert van Marwijk seems to have gotten that under control.
So, where does that leave us? Zee Germanz with the (second) most excellent footballing pedigree? Jogi Loew has picked a squad that's very, uh... Jogi-like: A tidy blend of experience, young guns eager to make an international name for themselves, and stalwarts in their prime. Let's take a brief look at the 23 men picked to bring us, once again, to European glory.
Ron-Robert Zieler (Hannover 96) never started in goal for Manchester United, coming over to Hannover in the '10-'11 season and earning a regular starting berth since. He's famous for being the first German 'tender to give up three goals in his debut since 1954 (a 3-3 draw against Ukraine). I can't imagine he'll see a minute, but if he does, one can only hope it can't be any worse than his first outing.
Tim Wiese (1899 Hoffenheim) played second fiddle to Neuer at the 2010 World Cup, missing the third-place match due to injury, allowing Hans-Joerg Butt a start. (Butt! Butt! Butt! Butt! Butt!) He made his international debut against England in 2008, replacing Rene Adler. Ueber-dependable, and not very flashy, he was a stalwart between the sticks for Werder Bremen for seven seasons. An admirable replacement for...
Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich). This agile, mobile giant has an almost child-like enthusiasm for the game (and indeed, makes some rookie mistakes because of it). He was first called up against UAE in 2009, and then, after the death of Robert Enke and the injury to Rene Adler before the World Cup, became Germany's Number One. He's got 26 caps to his name, and a brilliant EURO qualifying record of 10-out-of-10. I hear he's a bit of a Schauspieler (see England).
Die Abwehr (The big, fat question mark)
Marcel Schmeltzer (Borussia Dortmund), a regular left-back for Dortmund, helped the Schwarzgelben to a double over Bayern Munich this season. He has six caps for Germany.
Benedikt Hoewedes (Schalke 04) first match for Schalke was a Champions League start in 2007. Certainly one of the highest rated centre-backs in the Bundesliga, he made his international debut against Uruguay in 2011. Unfortunately, his international form doesn't stand up to his league form. He has eight caps.
Mats Hummels (Borussia Dortmund) first cap for Germany was a friendly against Malta in 2010. He currently has 14 caps, scoring a goal against Switzerland in May. Will likely lose out a starting position due to...
Per Mertesacker (Arsenal). To me, this was a curious selection, only because he lacks speed. But, what he lacks in motor, according to Loew, he makes up for in experience. And height. A towering 6' 6", he is also used as an aerial threat in set-pieces. And at age 27, he has an astonishing 81 caps for Germany, dating back to 2004.
Jerome Boateng (Bayern Munich). After a disappointing stint with Manchester City, Boateng came back to the Bundesliga at Bayern Munich to improve his chances for caps with the national team. Although he prefers centre back, he will likely start on the right, opposite der Kapitan. He's currently on 21 caps and holds the dubious honour of being the first German sent off on his debut for the national team.
Holger Badstuber (Bayern Munich). Finally free of the autocratic Louis van Gaal, Holger's come in to his own at Bayern Munich, establishing a solid centre-back partnership with the aforementioned Boateng. Playing on the left-side of centre, he'll be happy to have fellow Bavarians around him. He scored his first international goal against Azerbaijan in 2010, and judging by Loew's experiment with three defenders, he looks to be Jogi's solid first choice at centre.
Philipp Lahm (C) (Bayern Munich) is highly regarded as one of the best fullbacks in the world. Even on the national team, he is not only the best left back, but the right as well. Taking over as captain from Ballack in 2010, he is a quiet leader (except for that book). Lahm has 437 total appearances in his stellar career, with 16 goals in total and 86 caps for Germany. His most-notable goal was the match winner in 2008's EURO semi-final against Turkey in the 90th minute.
Ilkay Gundogan (Borussia Dortmund) scored a 120th minute goal in the semi-final of the DFB Pokal this season, sending Dortmund through to the final. After being approached by Turkey, he decided to play for Germany. He has 2 caps.
Lars Bender (Bayer Leverkusen) and his twin brother, Sven, both made the provisional EURO squad, with only Lars making the final cut. He currently has 6 caps for Germany, but might not feature for any length of time this tournament.
Mario Goetze (Borussia Dortmund) is widely considered an up-and-coming world class player, as attacking midfielder or right-winger. His first cap for the senior team was in 2010, and his first international goal, against Brazil, came when he was 19 years and 68 days old. He has 14 caps.
Marco Reus (Borussia Dortmund) made the switch back to his youth club this year, having spent three years at 'Gladbach, scoring 36 goals in 97 appearances there. He has six caps for Germany, scoring once in the friendly against Switzerland in May.
Toni Kroos (Bayern Munich). Strange to see a midfield so talented that he starts on the bench, but with his versatility in holding midfield and playmaker roles, he'll be sure to get his minutes. He has 26 caps for the senior side, and his two international goals coming, oddly enough, against tournament co-hosts: Poland and Ukraine.
Andre Schuerrle (Bayer Leverkusen) is called from the bench to replace Lukas Podolski on the left side. In 14 appearances for Germany he has already scored seven international goals. If Poldi doesn't come out of the gate firing, expect Andre to be starting for the remainder of the tournament.
Sami Khedira (Real Madrid). Leaving Stuttgart for Madrid in 2010, Sami has found success both in Spain and earning a regular starting position in defensive midfield for Germany. He has 27 caps, with his lone goal being scored against Uruguay in the 2010 World Cup.
Bastian Schweinsteiger (Bayern Munich). Those of you who know me from my Bayern blog know exactly how I feel about this man: Easily my favourite player ever. Vice-captain of his club and country, how he goes also goes his squad. He has competed on the national team since EURO '04, and at 27 years old has 90 caps and 23 goals for Germany.
Lukas Podolski (Arsenal) had a resurrection of sorts at FC Koeln over the last couple of seasons, after a disappointing stint at the Allianz Arena; hence his upcoming move to the Gunners after this tournament. With 97 caps and 43 goals, Poldi is Jogi's first choice on the left. But, Schuerrle is breathing right down his neck.
Thomas Mueller (Bayern Munich) had what many called an off-season this year at Bayern, but I would consider it quietly good. He won the Golden Boot and the Best Young Player Award at the 2010 World Cup, netting five goals and three assists. He is currently on 27 caps and ten goals scored.
Mesut Oezil (Real Madrid) plays in the ten-slot for both Madrid and Germany. He topped La Liga's assists chart this season with 17. He started being called up for Germany in late 2009 after winning the U-21 European Championship earlier that year. He has eight goals and 33 caps for the national team. Jose Mourinho famously said about Mesut, "Ozil is unique. There is no copy of him – not even a bad copy."
Miroslav Klose (Lazio) is already a footballing legend and hasn't retired yet. He is the only player in history to score five goals in two World Cup tournaments, and shares the German record of most goals scored in that same competition with Gerd Mueller, one shy of Ronaldo (no, not this current one). 116 caps and 63 goals for this one. And, can I say that he definitely deserves to win a title?
Mario Gomez (Bayern Munich). A bit of a dry spell at the end of this Bundesliga season, saw him lose the scoring crown to Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Widely criticized by the media (and myself) after failing to score during EURO '08, he is a more dependable poacher in the last few years, scoring against every team in our qualification group despite coming off the bench. Klose's lack of fitness, due to injury, may mean Mario initially gets to start, but he will only keep that place if he scores goals.
So, what do I think will happen in this group?
Here's where I say some unpopular things and lots of people insult me. Not only is this the Group of Death, but it also contains my sleeper team for the tournament: the Danes. Sure, sure... the glamour match of the entire group stage is Germany - Holland. The only people that disagree with me on that are French and English. But I have a funny feeling that the decisive match in our group will be Denmark - Holland. If Denmark can manage to sneak past the Oranje? All hell will break loose. I also have a feeling that Portugal might be able to muster a couple of points, at best. Yes. I said that. And yes, I know who he is.
Next up: Germany / Portugal preview.
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