Lars Bender's Replacement and 5 World Cup Decisions for Germany's Joachim Loew
With Germany's opening World Cup match against Portugal now less than one month away, tension and nerves continue to grow as the famous international tournament edges ever closer to Joachim Loew's unprepared side.
Although Germany have always been slightly overcritical of their own chances ahead of recent World Cups—with Philipp Lahm's injury prior to the 2006 competition and Michael Ballack's before 2010—the Bundestrainer have come under perhaps even more pressure following a whole host of problems that look set to trip up the national team in Brazil.
In just a few weeks, we'll know for sure where Germany stand among the great nations of world football, but for now, we can only speculate and try to predict where Loew will have to alter his plans if Lahm and Co. are to go on to any degree of success this summer.
Here are the problems about which Loew must make a decision before the 2014 World Cup.
Lars Bender's Replacement
The most pressing issue for Germany at the moment is, of course, the terrible news that Bayer Leverkusen midfielder Lars Bender sustained a thigh injury while training with the national team in Northern Italy on Thursday and has been ruled out of the entire competition.
As reported by Reuters, per The Guardian, the Leverkusen defensive midfielder will now play no part in Loew's squad this summer, joining his brother Sven Bender and other notable players, such as Borussia Dortmund's Ilkay Gundogan, on the injury list. That leaves Germany's midfield ranks dangerously thin.
Although Bender was never confirmed as a forerunner for Loew's starting XI, the 25-year-old would have undoubtedly played a large part in the first team, and his absence leaves a glaring hole on the German substitute bench.
This leaves the German coach with just Borussia Moenchengladbach's Christoph Kramer and Freiburg's Matthias Ginter in reserve should Lahm or Sami Khedira need replaced in the defensive midfield role. They are two excellent young midfielders, but both have far too little experience at this level.
Philipp Lahm's Best Position
This brings us to the next debate: Should German captain Philipp Lahm be considered amongst Germany's midfield core, or should he return to his former full-back position?
With Bender's injury leaving Khedira as the only true defensive midfielder of genuine quality in the squad, it seems likely Loew will keep the Bayern Munich captain in midfield. But is that really what Germany needs?
In a 4-2-3-1 formation, other players—such as Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger—can play in central midfield alongside the towering Real Madrid star, allowing Lahm to move back to defense, where he would surely be more suited.
One factor that must be taken into account is that Lahm has played as a central midfielder for the duration of this past season for Bayern and would perhaps feel much more comfortable in his new role. It's an issue Loew has clearly wrestled with considering the baby-faced star's recent starting positions for the national team in friendlies.
Who Will Play Up Front?
We now come to the offensive side of Germany's patchwork team, and we again find more question marks than anything else. Who will Loew play as the lone striker against Portugal, Ghana and the United States?
The problem here is that Loew hasn't helped his cause all that well with the dubious selection of Arsenal's Lukas Podolski and Hoffenheim's Kevin Volland. One is a mediocre wide player, and the other is a young, inexperienced striker.
The real worry is that Lazio goalscorer Miroslav Klose will fail to overcome his injury-ravished season. He's a true great of German football, but how much can we expect of a 36-year-old player who missed 13 games in the Serie A this season because of injury?
Aside from those already mentioned, we have the usual gang of midfielders who could play up front. Thomas Muller would seem like the most logical option. But he and others such as Marco Reus or Mario Goetze seem like they would limit Germany's attack rather than add to it.
Will Bastian Schweinsteiger Be Ready?
One of the game-changing decisions Loew may have to make in this competition is whether to drop Bayern Munich star Bastian Schweinsteiger if he isn't playing at his best.
Schweinsteiger is an odd one simply because he is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the best players on the German squad. Following a two-year spell of total domination with Bayern Munich—under Jupp Heynckes and now Pep Guardiola—he stands out within the squad as a true winner.
But the downside to the midfield general is his well-publicised problem with tendonitis in one knee, which had a clear effect on this past season with Bayern. Although Schweinsteiger may have picked up two more trophies with the Bavarian giants, he was far from his best.
The 29-year-old has made it to the pre-tournament training camp but is not training with the first team as of yet. That's a worrying sign for Loew and a problem he may have to fix before it's too late.
Can Loew Rely on Sami Khedira?
Following extensive debate over Bender and Lahm, it comes as little surprise that Loew's fortunes this summer may hang in the balance with regard to just how fit and ready Sami Khedira is in a few weeks' time.
Due to the Champions League final on Saturday, the Real Madrid star will be one of the last players to meet up with the team before the competition. After a season in which the defensive midfielder missed 21 games in the Spanish top division, Loew may find himself with another unfit star on his hands.
If Khedira is indeed deemed unfit to start for Germany, the coach will be forced to play either Lahm or one of his backups, Kramer or Ginter, in the defensive midfield position, which could either pull Lahm out of defence or force a young player into a high-pressure situation.
With all the injury problems that seem to be facing Germany at the moment, Loew will be praying that Khedira comes through Saturday's final unharmed and ready for a summer full of football.
What of Germany's Defence?
One aspect of Loew's side that doesn't reside within the realm of doom and gloom is the defensive back line, which seems to offer plenty of options with which the German coach can play around.
In the centre of the defense, we have a three-man tussle for two available centre-back positions, as Per Mertesacker, Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng all offer genuine quality, athleticism and experience at this level.
Germany may boast one of the few squads in this summer's competition with two genuinely impressive left-backs in the Dortmund pairing of Marcel Schmelzer and Erik Durm, while Kevin Grosskreutz and Benedikt Howedes fight for the right-back position. And that's all before we even consider where Philipp Lahm might play.
While Loew struggles to find a fit striker or two able central midfielders, he'll welcome such luxuries in front of Manuel Neuer's goal, as a number of combinations and backup defenders are ready to offer their services.
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