Germany faced a monumental challenge on Wednesday as their makeshift squad took on Ecuador in Boca Raton. Joachim Low's first team would have been favored to beat the South Americans handily. But with Per Mertesacker the only member of his strongest team used in the first XI, and with Sidney Sam, Max Kruse, Philipp Wollscheid and Nicolai Muller all making their debuts, this German side played as underdogs against an Ecuador side listed at No. 10 in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
What followed in the opening minutes was therefore a monumental surprise as Germany absolutely hammered La Tri. Just nine seconds into the match, Lukas Podolski opened the scoring with what stands as the fastest goal in the history of the DFB team. Lars Bender made it 2-0 inside four minutes. Podolski scored again not long thereafter, and Bender completed his brace on 24 minutes as Germany took a commanding 4-0 lead.
After a shockingly poor performance in the opening half hour, Ecuador gathered momentum and Antonio Valencia scored a deserved goal before halftime. La Tri had all the momentum after the break and dominated the play, but Walter Ayovi's late free kick was their only goal in a frustrating second half.
Ecuador can only be disappointed by the result, both in terms of the play on the pitch and the score at full time. From a German perspective, the score was a fantastic result, if one that was marred by their performance in the second half.
With neither team entirely satisfied, the real winners on the day were Podolski and Bender. Before Wednesday's match, Metro.co.uk reported that the Arsenal man was involved in a spat with DFB general manager Oliver Bierhoff, who had criticized the player for "unsatisfactory" performance over the last season. Podolski replied: "I don't care. I know what I have in me." And on Wednesday, he showed just that. Although his opener came largely as a gift from the Ecuadorian defense, Podolski's second was magnificently taken.
Podolski's brace comes at a critical time in his international career. A regular for his country ever since 2004, the ex-Koln man became the youngest European to amass 100 caps during Euro 2012. But his goals tally has dwindled greatly in recent years: Heading into the Ecuador match, he'd scored just one goal since September of 2011. Accordingly, last fall he lost his starting role in Low's team to 2012 German Player of the Year Marco Reus.
The emergence of Julian Draxler and Andre Schurrle as other options on the left wing, plus added pressure from the versatile Mario Gotze, has had Podolski's international future looking rather bleak. But the Arsenal man's brace was a reminder that he still has something to offer. Although perhaps missing something in the build-up play and lacking the ambidexterity of some of his competitors, he has a cannon of a left foot and is a brilliant finisher.
Bender, too, enjoyed a superb game against Ecuador. He scored his first goal after spotting a gap in the Ecuador defense—which had trouble adjusting to a Germany side that played without a full-time striker—running into space and latching onto a through pass. His second came somewhat fortuitously, but the Leverkusen man deserves credit for powering his shot home off the hand of goalkeeper Maximo Banguera.
Goals are not the usual expectations for a holding midfielder, but they are a good way to gather confidence and attention to a player whose role is often understated. Whereas Podolski's level of play dropped along with that of his other attacking teammates after the fourth goal, Bender was instrumental to Germany avoiding what could have been a repeat of their 4-4 draw with Sweden last October. In that match as well, Germany had a commanding, 4-0 lead overturned after a prolonged spell of utterly complacent football.
After the Sweden result, a frustrated Bastian Schweinsteiger claimed via Spox.com: "With a Bender, this would not have happened! And against Ecuador, it didn't. La Tri's 24 shots tripled Germany's tally, but so many of their chances were harried or snuffed out entirely by Bender, who led his team in tackles won, touches and passes completed. If not for the tireless and ubiquitous midfielder, perhaps a less hassled Tri attack would have earned a draw.
Bender has traditionally been a bit-part player for Germany, one who has taken a back seat while Schweinsteiger or Ilkay Gundogan took on the duties as primary distributor from midfield. Against Ecuador, Bender proved he is also an effective passer and even scorer, and his stock surely rose as a result.
Germany's win against Ecuador was encouraging for the DFB team, even if the score did not tell the whole story of the match. But it was an even greater win for Podolski and Bender. In such a competitive Mannschaft squad, their chances have been limited. But they took theirs on Wednesday and can expect more in the coming months.