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Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Never mind the Ballacks

Nick Bidwell

After a bright new era dawned for the Germany at the World Cup finals last summer, Lothar Matthaus believes absent skipper Michael Ballack has become surplus to requirements in a fresh-faced Nationalmannschaft. While the injured Ballack will again be missing as Germany travel to Gothenburg to take on Sweden in a friendly international on Wednesday night, national team boss Joachim Low insists the former Chelsea star still has a future, but Germany's 1990 World Cup-winning captain begs to differ on this divisive issue. Matthaus suggests the young guys who turned in such impressive displays as they saw off England and Argentina in South Africa 2010 are doing just fine without the veteran midfielder, even though he has plenty of sympathy for the midfielder who is just two caps shy of collecting his 100th for his country. "It's a shame for Ballack that he's having one major injury problem after another, but I'm convinced his absence has worked out to the advantage of the national team," Matthaus says, having recently taken over as head coach of the Bulgaria national side. "Germany are playing much quicker as a team now and, even if the tactics are based around counter-attacking football, you always have a chance when you can destabilise the opposition with speed. "I have to admit I was surprised how well the boys did in South Africa. Germany's preparations were not the best, with Ballack's injury in the days before the tournament seen as a major blow for an inexperienced squad. However, we didn't need to worry as we got into a good groove from the off and we weren't far from going all the way. "What especially impressed me about the side was their freshness and enthusiasm. Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil, Jerome Boateng, Sami Khedira and Manuel Neuer are all young, but they were not intimidated at all. They just went out and played. They were relaxed and natural and this is never easy when the stakes are so high at a World Cup finals. "This is why I'm convinced Germany will be one of the teams to beat at Euro 2012. Ozil and Muller will have two years more experience and any team which can count on players of the calibre of Schweinsteiger, Lahm and Klose has to be taken very seriously. Klose is the sort of guy every side wants as he is hard working, a real team man and always there when you need a goal. He's one of the greats of our game, without question." Such lavish praise of national team stalwart Klose confirms that Matthaus believes there is room for experience in the Germany squad, yet he clearly believes Ballack is looking more like a relic of yesteryear in a midfield line-up now oozing pace, skill and vibrancy rather than the traditional mix of steel, graft and efficiency that you associate with this nation. Whether Ballack should reclaim the captain's armband from stand-in Philipp Lahm if and when he returns to national duty is a debate that continues to rage, yet Matthaus suspects the youngsters who have taken the place of the absent skipper are more important for the future than yesterday's man. "Before the World Cup finals last summer, I wondered if Germany had the individuals to make an impact, but Muller and Ozil proved me wrong and there is no question that these two are going to be big stars," he says, referring to a duo who have been rested from the experimental squad Joachim Low will take to Sweden this week. "With his strong running, eye for goal and hunger, Muller is sensational. The same is true of Ozil, who has the sort of touch and creativity you can only dream about, and I'm sure he will develop into an even better player under Jose Mourinho. This great coach will make sure he stays on the straight and narrow and all Mourinho players end up feeling as though they are world-beaters. "They will also benefit from the encouragement and confidence placed in them by Joachim Low. He has turned this team into a magnificent outfit. They have a balanced line-up, a good mix of young and old and the sound organisation we are renowned for. "Low has to be congratulated on all counts: for having faith in youngsters, giving them the necessary self-belief and putting in place a flexible and effective tactical system." While Matthaus will always have one eye on Germany, his focus for the foreseeable future has to be on the misfiring Bulgarian squad he took charge of in September, with his new side preparing for an international against Serbia on Wednesday evening. "International football is an especially stimulating environment and I'm proud that the Bulgarian federation chose me for the challenge of making this team competitive again," he says. "This will not be an easy task as Bulgaria have struggled for some time and the fans have been very critical, so my task is to pull us out of the downward spiral, and I'm confident I can. I have never shirked a challenge in my life and I'm ready for this one. "Time is in short supply and I have to hit the ground running, working night and day to get to know all the players available to me and to produce a credible tactical plan of action. I have to transform the side into a tough and co-ordinated unit, with every player performing to the limit of his potential as quickly as possible. "Clearly England are favourites to win our qualifying group, but we have to aim for the very top. We need to bring a winning mentality back to this squad as it has been lacking for too long." Matthaus has already suffered one big blow in his first few weeks as Bulgaria boss, with Manchester United striker Dimitar Berbatov confirming his international retirement will not be reversed. "I have spoken to Berbatov and he won't be coming back," he says. "It's a shame as he is a top quality goal-scorer and creator, but there is nothing I can do about it. Someone else will have a chance to step in and make their mark." The football fates tend to throw up scenarios script writers would struggle to get away with, so few would be surprised if Matthaus finds himself up against his beloved Germany at some stage during his reign as Bulgaria boss. His preferred location for that enticing encounter would doubtless be the Euro 2012 finals.

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