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Thursday, March 1, 2012
Experience an issue for hungry Germany

Andy Brassell

If anything could have emphasised the sea change in Germany's national team over recent years, it was a return to Bremen. The last time Die Mannschaft were in town was in September 2005, when South Africa were vanquished 4-2 courtesy of a Lukas Podolski hat-trick. Today, the Weserstadion's running track is gone and its stands are pressed right up to the edge of its pitch, mirroring the intensity with which Germany have crackled since the 2006 World Cup. The renovated ground itself isn't the only thing that has undergone a startling facelift since then. The buzz around the ground before kick-off, and the abundance of fans wearing red, black and yellow garlands as if going to a beach party, underlined the mood now surrounding Jogi Low's team. While Germany (and West Germany) were the subject of grudging admiration for their successes up to the 1990s, they are now loved as young, bright, daring entertainers. A final and two semis in the last three major tournaments has begun to suggest that watchable can be winning and, coupled with Spain's erratic form in friendlies, many have installed Germany as favourites for this summer's European Championship. Even if some of the key protagonists in Low's bright project were absent against France - including Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm and Mario Gotze - many expected them to flex their muscles pre-Euro 2012 in the season's final international match. France coach Laurent Blanc was one of them, warning that his side had an uphill task to contain Germany and acknowledging their hosts' huge strides in infrastructure. "Germany has a far superior football culture to ours," Blanc said at his pre-match conference. "They have great facilities, they have a top quality league, and their clubs are better at keeping their best players." He must have been as pleasantly surprised at this result as Bremen was deflated. The celebratory atmosphere had been enhanced by some strong local interest. Goalkeeper Tim Wiese enjoyed a rare chance at his home ground, with his first rush to receive the ball greeted with a huge cheer. Miroslav Klose, the captain for the night, and Mesut Ozil, meanwhile, were returning to the ground where they made their names with Werder. Ozil received a prize for the national team's 2011 Player of the Year before kick-off to a rapturous ovation. Maybe it was all just too much comfort for Germany. Early on, they buzzed with their now-habitual zesty intent. Naturally Ozil was at the hub, all flicks and one-touch passes. The harmony that the midfielder had hyped up in the build-up to the match was clear, with even the sometimes-hurried Jerome Boateng swinging extravagant crossfield passes towards a willing Andre Schurrle. Yet as a committed France neglected to fold and pressed themselves, Germany faltered. Most of the focus will fall on that recurrent theme, a malleable defence, but midfield had its own issues. The production line is so voluminous that it is easy to forget that some of these bright young things are still to convince us they are ready to dominate at international level. Borussia Monchengladbach's Marco Reus has been putting Bundesliga sides to the sword at will but was quiet here against Eric Abidal, and Toni Kroos was careless in possession in his deep midfield role, usually occupied by Schweinsteiger. Kroos' senior clubmate is still thought of as a relative youngster by some at 27 but, in terms of this team, Schweinsteiger is a 90-cap veteran who gives the side considerable authority. Low will lament that the hole left by him, even temporarily, is a tricky one to fill. He will feel that his defence continues to be a concern, too. If the injured Per Mertesacker has sometimes resembled a pensioner stranded on a traffic island during a tricky debut Premier League season, he did at least have presence, experience and an impeccable sense of timing to fall back on. Bayern Munich's Holger Badstuber was rather more imprecise both in his passing and his positioning. In a scratchy first-half display, his flustered handling of the ball as France's tricky winger Mathieu Valbuena fooled him on the right summed up his night. He went off at half-time, with his prospects for the summer hardly enhanced. Wiese had plenty to prove himself, even as a back-up to Manuel Neuer, with a dizzying swell of young goalkeepers including Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Ron-Robert Ziegler clamouring for recognition. The impressive Werder goalkeeper kept Les Bleus at bay for a while, making a super stop from Yohan Cabaye's header, but he had little assurance from those in front of him. The ease with which Mathieu Debuchy shimmied inside to set up an unattended Olivier Giroud for the opening goal was alarming, and the sight of Florent Malouda dancing around a lumbering Benedikt Howedes in the game's final quarter was too much for some, with boos ringing from the Weser's stands. By this time Jeremy Menez and Samir Nasri were toying with Germany, and Boateng was even cautioned by super-lenient referee Paolo Tagliavento for a desperate trip on Menez, as the PSG winger surged up the left. The tried and tested were Germany's best hopes, with the home side's best chance of the first half coming as Ozil surged up the right to set up Klose, who was denied by Hugo Lloris. The Real Madrid man later cracked a shot wide from range as half-time approached, but he faded, leaving the worrying implication that if Ozil is stopped, so is the bulk of Germany's attacking threat. Low's side will still begin their summer campaign in Lviv against Portugal on June 9 much fancied, but there is plenty for the coach to ponder ahead of the final friendlies against Switzerland and Israel. "Germany aren't the sole favourites for the Euros," the coach mused after the game. "There's Spain, France&we know we have to improve before the tournament." Germany's dynamic image has been built on a magnificent academy system, but the old stagers still have their value in gluing everything together.


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