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International football returns the next week with the start of European Championship qualifying, with Germany coach Joachim Low under extreme pressure.
Low announced last week he was ending the international careers of 2014 World Cup winners Thomas Muller, Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels. The trio, with 246 caps between them, joined Mesut Ozil in international exile following the Arsenal star’s controversial retirement from the national team.
It marks the end of an era for Germany that began in 2009 when they won the European Under 21s Championship. The juniors won with a team that included Boateng, Ozil, Hummels, Manuel Neuer, Sami Khedira and Benedikt Höwedes. However, of that group, only Neuer remains in Germany’s squad.
Low is starting again in an attempt to re-energize his team; a far cry from where Germany stood just one year ago.
When Germany raised the Confederations Cup at the Luzhniki Stadium in June of 2017, it looked a precursor to them raising the World Cup in the same stadium one year down the line.
It was a view enhanced further by Germany’s Under 21s being crowned European Champions that same weekend, and all this achieved with their star players given the summer off to prepare for their World Cup defence.
Fast forward a year, Germany arrived at the Sochi World Cup. Rumors of cliques in the camp spread through the press, not helped by the fallout from Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan’s controversial photo with Turkish President Erdogan.
On the pitch, Germany were made to look slow and ponderous by a quicksilver Mexico side and slumped to defeat. Toni Kroos appeared to have rescued their campaign with a stunning last-second winner against Sweden, but Germany were again short on inspiration against South Korea. The strongest of favorites had fallen victim to the curse of champions that previously accounted for France, Italy, and Spain, and were out at the group phase for the first time since 1958.
Hopes that the summer had just been a blip were soon extinguished in the Nations League, as Germany suffered away defeats to both France and Holland. The miserable year for Germany was rounded off by giving away a late two-goal lead to Holland in Gelsenkirchen. In result, Germany slipped to an alarming 16th place in the FIFA World Rankings after winning just one of their seven competitive games in 2018.
Even after their year, Low’s decision to dump the Bayern Munich trio has been met with opposition. Joshua Kimmich, a key figure in the national team, has criticized the decision to drop his Bayern teammates.
It isn’t difficult to see Low’s logic, as Boateng suffered a shocking World Cup, and Muller appears to be a shadow of his former-self. More choices await with question marks over Low’s continued faith in Neuer as the starting goalkeeper.
Neuer played throughout the ill-fated World Cup campaign, despite missing most of the club season with Bayern. The 32-year old was criticized after another costly error in Bayern’s Champions League loss to Liverpool.
Many are calling for Barcelona’s Marc-Andre ter Stegen to replace Neuer after another strong season at the Camp Nou. In defence, Low must decide on his new central defensive pairing, with Antonio Rudiger, Niklas Sule and Thilo Kehrer emerging as strong contenders. Low has promoted defenders Niklas Stark and Lukas Klostermann from the under 21s to freshen up the squad, while Cologne’s Jonas Hector has also been dropped.
In midfield, the squad appears more stable with Kroos, Gundogan and Leon Goretzka in the centre. Attacking midfield remains Germany’s strongest hand, with Marco Reus enjoying a strong season. Julian Draxler is currently injured, but Low has added another new face in Werder Bremen’s Maximilian Eggestein. Crucially Leroy Sane is back in the team after his surprise World Cup omission.
In attack, Germany have struggled for an out-and-out centre forward since the retirement of Miroslav Klose. Muller often played as a false nine, making the continued absence of Mario Gotze questionable. Low has shown confidence in Timo Werner, who hit 8 goals in 14 internationals prior to the World Cup, but has just 1 goal in his last 9 games for Germany.
A new campaign
Germany open their qualifying campaign with a tough return to the Johan Cruyff Arena to face the Dutch. However, with two qualifying spots up for grabs, a group that also contains Northern Ireland, Belarus and Estonia shouldn’t present a serious problem.
In the last year, Europe’s pecking order has changed dramatically. France are sitting as World Champions, Belgium are top of the FIFA rankings, while Holland and England have re-emerged as serious contenders. Low needs to use the campaign to hone his new look side and present a team capable of challenging at the finals next summer.
Picture Credits: FourFourTwo, Toronto Star, Talksport