Suspense is growing to find out who, out of the many lauded footballers selected to fill the rosters of the leading teams, will receive the honor of actually taking to the field in the starting formations when the UEFA European Championships kicks off in less than two days' time.
Some teams are still struggling to define their starting XI, as last-minute injuries are ravaging the well-laid plans their coaches may have made.
Spain and Italy, the favored Group C rivals, both have had their share of worries, as Carles Puyol and David Villa have been ruled out altogether, and Andrea Barzagli and even Giorgio Chiellini—Italy's stalwarts in central defence—are uncertain to start.
England looks particularly unfortunate after Gary Cahill and Frank Lampard have had to forfeit their chances heading into the tournament.
With Rio Ferdinand not selected, the position at centre-back alongside John Terry is still vacant, though Roy Hodgson seems likely to award Manchester City's Joleon Lescott with this important responsibility.
Now, Jermain Defoe, more crucial than ever for the Three Lions' attack with Wayne Rooney suspended for the first two encounters, has had to rush back home as untimely private tragedy has struck—certainly a further distraction as England prepares to take on France in what could be the decisive match to determine which side will leave Group D as head of the table, thus avoiding a potentially tournament-ending quarterfinal against mighty Spain.
Laurent Blanc has problems of his own.
The questionable status of defensive midfielder Yoann M'Vila looks more worrying to les Bleus now that his substitute, Alou Diarra, seems to have drawn a thigh injury in the last friendly against Estonia.
That match was won handily, but apparent weakness in central defense could become an issue without a tested ball-winner in front of the defensive line.
Germany, seen by most to be the main challenger of reigning Champions Spain, has had better luck in respect to the calamity of last-minute setbacks.
It seems that both Bastian Schweinsteiger and Miroslav Klose will be ready to start Saturday's opener against dark-horse Portugal, as they have apparently recovered from different ailments they brought to camp, and Per Mertesacker, after having looked especially rusty in the friendly against Switzerland (Germany lost 3:5), seems to have returned to form just in time to salvage his starting role from highly touted Mats Hummels from Bundesliga champion BVB Dortmund.
The starting XI the "Adler" will field on Saturday thus appeared basically settled.
The last decisions on who would start where in defence were seemingly made, with Philipp Lahm accepting to play left-back and his Bayern München teammate Jérôme Boateng expected to take the other wing, fending off any challenge Schalke 04's right-back Benedikt Höwedes might have constituted during the last months.
True to Germany's motto of serenity and self assurance, defensive responsibilities would be confided to the familiar Bayern-block, with Holger Badstuber and the experienced Arsenal centre-back, Per Mertesacker, getting the nod inside.
So quite a few eyebrows were raised by today's team press conference, when Germany head-coach Joachim Löw lavishly praised Bayer Leverkusen's defensive midfielder Lars Bender (23) as a thinkable option to start against Portugal.
Thanks to his excellent performances in training sessions, the remaining Bender twin has suddenly become a hot subject of speculation at right-back for "die Mannschaft," especially after the revelation of Jérôme Boateng's alleged nightly excursion from training camp with a celebrity model.
Joachim Löw wasn't particularly amused by this breach of prescribed team discipline, which Germany's feared tabloid, Bild Zeitung, seems intent on transforming into an irritating "scandal."
Though conceding that Boateng would seem an evident choice as starter, he insisted that the Bayern defender now had amends to make if he is to conserve his position.
What could be an intriguing tactical option may thus still turn out as being but an exercise in additional individual motivation, but it does seem that the otherwise extremely relaxed Joachim Löw is still experiencing a bit of a headache in trying to determine whom to set against one of the most potent opposing offensive threats, Real Madrid superstar Christiano Ronaldo.
Not that Jérôme Boateng's defensive skills could seriously be questioned, but a troublesome knack of over-engaging his opponents—and giving away too many unnecessary free kicks—have led to a certain unease in respect to the veteran of 112 Bundesliga appearances.
What could be more bothering in Löw's eyes is the Bayern back's almost quotable harmlessness in attack.
Not having scored in any of his Bundesliga appearances could be excused, but Jérôme Boateng is considered a relatively weak passer with obvious deficits in opening the game after successful recuperation of balls.
Passing a bit under the public radar due to a mediocre showing of his current club Bayer Leverkusen this season, Lars Bender has quietly replaced his experienced teammate Simon Rolfes on Germany's national roster.
Like his twin brother Sven, who plays just in front of Dortmund's solid defensive line, Lars Bender is an aggressive, physically robust ball-winner who has speed and endurance, and—standing at 1.82 meters tall—he can also bring additional support to his side's game against high balls.
As a member of Germany's successful and classy national youth teams, his swift transition from defensive to offensive motion have always been remarkable—and this a quality Germany's head coach especially appreciates.
During the season, Lars Bender slowly evolved into Bayer Leverkusen's accurate-passing playmaker, and as of late, he has even developed a taste for scoring important goals for his club.
So, though it seems a bit awkward having to rely on a defensive midfielder with only four international appearances to his erstwhile credit as his choice to defend the right wing, it wouldn't be totally shocking to see Joachim Löw hand him the job.
Soon we'll know.
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