Germany rebounded from last October's 4-4 draw with Sweden as they earned a 3-0 win away to Kazakhstan. The result ensured that Joachim Low's team remained on top of their group after five matches—from which they've now taken 13 points.
Low had to do without several star players on the night, including the suspended Marco Reus and injured Holger Badstuber, Mats Hummels, Miroslav Klose, Mario Gomez and Toni Kroos among others. But the depth in his squad and adaptability of several key players ensured a rather comfortable result.
Bastian Schweinsteiger (20') and Mario Gotze (22') each scored early on, and Thomas Muller (74') added a third later in the second half.
Especially given all the changes to Low's usual lineup and tactics, the match was no ordinary one. Click "Begin Slideshow" for analysis of the key talking points from Friday's match.
In recent years, two of the most important questions concerning the German national team have been who will replace Miroslav Klose following the striker's retirement and how Joachim Low will accommodate an ever-increasing number of world-class attacking midfielders in his squad.
The answer to both, it seems, is to use Mario Gotze as a false striker.
Germany constantly looked dangerous on Friday, and critically, were unpredictable in attack. Although he lacked the physical presence of a player like Mario Gomez, the Dortmund man used different athletic advantages, namely his quickness and agility.
Rather than leaping for headers or holding off markers, Gotze made sharp turns and explosive runs and drew defenders away from central areas. More than that, his aggression and alertness to the ball made him a nightmare for the Kazakh defenders—he'd pounce on any botched clearance or deflected ball and then drive toward goal.
A case-in-point was Gotze's goal, which he took when most players from both teams were trying to understand why a foul hadn't been called against Thomas Muller.
Critically, there was synergy between Gotze and the rest of the German attack—particularly Mesut Ozil. When Gomez plays for Germany, he's typically an isolated figure up front, disconnected from the play behind him.
Kazakhstan are not exactly renowned as top opposition, and the use of Gotze in a central striker role is still yet to be justified against opponents on the level of those that will compete at the World Cup.
Still, the action on Friday was a step in the right direction. And with the return of Marco Reus to the team next Tuesday, we'll have an even better look at what Germany are capable of doing with a fluid front four.
One lesson was learned before kickoff: Joachim Low now rates Julian Draxler ahead of Lukas Podolski as a left-winger.
A match against a team on Kazakhstan's level is a great opportunity for a misfiring striker to regain his confidence. Yet Podolski, who has scored just twice for Germany since October of 2010 and once in the last 18 months, was left on the bench on Friday.
Julian Draxler instead got the nod to start on the left wing and looked bright before a head injury cut his evening short. Podolski was brought on and had 71 minutes to prove himself, but was found lacking as he has so often in recent years.
Apart from a brief spell early in the second half, he was anonymous as Mario Gotze, Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller and Bastian Schweinsteiger ran the show.
Despite his 108 caps, Podolski's international career continues to wane. Marco Reus usurped his starting role in World Cup qualifiers in the fall, and now, Draxler has apparently claimed the role of deputy. With Andre Schurrle and many other youngsters on the rise, Podolski's international career is in serious danger.
Germany looked comfortable throughout Friday's match, with many thanks to the dominant Bastian Schweinsteiger. The Bayern man was superlative in the center of the pitch and contributed in all areas.
Schweinsteiger's clever touch and superb finish put Germany ahead early, and that was only the beginning. The 28-year-old had 134 touches, completed 109 of his 115 attempted passes, and won more tackles (16) than any other player on the pitch. He followed the ball wherever it went, drifted into attack to press the Kazakhs and offered solidity in defensive areas.
Joachim Low's side struggled at Euro 2012 with an unfit Schweinsteiger and missed the vice-captain in last November's scoreless draw with the Netherlands as well as August's 3-1 loss to Argentina. Die Mannschaft are always at their best when Schweinsteiger is in top form; they'll need him to be sharp if they are to win the 2014 World Cup.
Heading into Friday's match, there was little question as to how the points would be distributed between Germany and Kazakhstan.
The FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings list Germany as second in the world, while Kazakhstan stand 139th. The German bench includes players who start at some of Europe's elite clubs; most of Low's first XI are world-class.
By contrast, only one Kazakh player (Heinrich Schmidtgal) plays for a team in the top flight of a league located in Europe, and he plays for a Furth side that stand last in the Bundesliga and are almost sure to be relegated in May. He and Konstantin Engel are the only players in Miroslav Beranek's side who ply their trade outside the Kazakhstan Premier League.
The run of play in Astana was incredibly one-sided. Germany were comfortable in possession and barely pressured and completed a staggering 854 passes, a success rate of 93.95 percent. Four Germans completed over 100 passes. The most completed by a Kazakh player was 28, by Kayrat Nurdauletov.
It may be arrogant to consider Kazakhstan vs. Germany a foregone conclusion, but the gap in quality between them is undeniable. Lesser clubs are screened from facing top sides in the Champions League; that's why the winners of the Maltese Premier League have to play through four qualifying rounds before they can reach the group stage.
It's strange enough that Kazakhstan, a country located in central Asia, competes against European teams in World Cup qualifiers.
The last thing German and Spanish players and players from top international associations—many of whom compete on three fronts—need at this point in the season is a 5,000 km trip to Astana. It's time for UEFA to consider a restructure of their World Cup and European Championship qualifiers.