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Germany: Mature Boateng Makes Strong Claim for World Cup Starting Role

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 25:  Jerome Boateng of Bayern Muenchen celebrates after winning the UEFA Champions League final match against Borussia Dortmund at Wembley Stadium on May 25, 2013 in London, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Clark WhitneyFeatured ColumnistSeptember 10, 2013

Back-to-back 3-0 wins against Austria and the Faroe Islands over the last four days put Germany on the verge of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. And for the first time in over 15 months, Joachim Loew's side managed to keep two consecutive clean sheets. It also marked the first time since Euro 2012 that the DFB-elf featured the same exact back four in back-to-back matches.

Captain Philipp Lahm is always a starter for his national team, and the 92-times-capped Per Mertesacker is no surprise either. Marcel Schmelzer is perhaps a weak point at left-back, but Germany's talent pool in his position is surprisingly low.

But the surprise of the recent international break was Jerome Boateng starting alongside Mertesacker in central defense, replacing longstanding starter Mats Hummels.

After the Austria match, Focus claimed Loew had benched Hummels for his poor performance in a 3-3 draw with Paraguay in August. Bild inquired:"Is this our World Cup defense?"

Given that Loew retained the same back four against the Faroe Islands on Tuesday, it seems so. Given that the Faroes' most valuable lineup consists of a combined €1.2 million according to Transfermarkt, it's no surprise that Germany kept a clean sheet in Torshavn.

But in fairness, Boateng and Mertesacker looked quite strong in defense against Austria.

Things can change in the blink of an eye in football, and Hummels knows that. Criticized for never quite playing to his potential for Germany, he responded with some absolutely stunning performances at Euro 2012. Readers of the Guardian rated him the best performer of the group stage as Germany rather comfortably advanced from the so-called "Group of Death" with a perfect record of nine points.

But a player-of-the-tournament award slipped away in an instant in the semifinal when he took a gamble and was turned by Antonio Cassano. Seconds later, Mario Balotelli nodded Italy ahead, and Germany were on their way to a 2-1 defeat.

Even though his Dortmund team shocked Europe in the Champions League last season, Hummels had a rather lackluster 2012-13 and has not exactly covered himself in glory in the early stages of the current campaign. As Loew put it after the Austria match, "In the last one or two games with us and at Dortmund, one could see that he may not have had the reliability of yesteryear."

Loew was full of praise for Boateng, whom he claimed "has clearly improved in some areas." Often used out of position at right-back, the 25-year-old never impressed for Germany until recently. In fact, he was not always a starter for Bayern last season, particularly because he had the same kind of inconsistency that Loew attributed to Hummels.

An example is his absolutely needless red card in the midst of a comfortable 4-1 win against BATE.

But something about Boateng changed towards the end of last season, and he fully won the support of then-Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes.

A year after giving an absolute nightmare performance in the Champions League final against Chelsea, Boateng gave perhaps his best display as a Bayern player as the Bavarians edged Dortmund at Wembley.

Boateng has put his best foot forward this season, winning over the support of Pep Guardiola and further solidifying his role as a starter at club level. And now, it seems, he's convinced Loew to include him in his preferred starting lineup ahead of the World Cup.

After Boateng was given the start against Austria, Juergen Klopp was quick to come to Hummels' defense. The BVB coach claimed that his defender could not be faulted for mistakes made in midfield and had a good point: Defending requires teamwork, and great center-backs often are made to look ordinary when left with one-on-one defending situations.

But the system that highlights Hummels' best qualities, that which Klopp uses at BVB, is not the same as the one Loew prefers. And accordingly, there may be no room for Hummels in the DFB XI.

For now, the Boateng-Mertesacker combination seems to be the best option for Germany. It's only been two games, though; the real test comes next summer.

Follow Clark Whitney on Twitter.

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