The overarching narrative for Germany going into the World Cup in Brazil has unanimously been their long and growing list of injured players.
Last week Lars Bender was the latest casualty and was forced to pull out just two days into training camp due to a thigh injury. He joins Mario Gomez and Ilkay Gundogan, two potential starters who have already been ruled out due to long-term injuries.
To make matters worse, coach Joachim Low is still waiting on the fitness of five of his most influential players. Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Sami Khedira and Miroslav Klose—all starters when fit—are still working to reach full fitness in time for the tournament.
Klose, who has been plagued with injuries throughout the season, has been mostly on a player-specific individual training regimen rather than participating with his teammates. It is a race to fitness for the veteran striker who admitted last week (link in German) to not being at his best yet.
Khedira, on the other hand, just arrived at the training camp in southern Austria after an extended celebration with Real Madrid following their Champions League win.
He too faced a battle with a long-term injury this season after tearing a ligament in his knee in November and just recently returned to action for his club. Initially it was thought that Khedira wouldn't even recover in time to make the squad, but his recovery has been quicker than expected.
Low took a big gamble naming him on his roster knowing he is not 100 percent yet, and it will be a close call whether he can, in fact, start in Brazil.
Germany also face the potential absence of their first-choice central midfielder and vice-captain, Bastian Schweinsteiger. The Bayern Munich midfielder has been struggling with a knee injury for over a month and missed the German Cup final as a result.
He has been training by himself at camp and is being evaluated on a day-to-day basis. Even though his progress is positive at the moment, whether his knee can withstand the intensity of a competitive match remains to be seen.
Low also faces issues with his goalkeeper. Neuer suffered a shoulder injury in the Cup final against Borussia Dortmund and is currently still resting. It's an injury Neuer has never had to deal with before, and so far, Germany are only training with their backups.
Neuer has been the backbone of this side for over four years, and a sudden absence could compromise the defense further if not filled adequately.
Then there is the team captain and arguably most important player, Philipp Lahm. He too picked up an injury in the Cup final and has been resting and training on his own. Although his injury is not as serious as his teammates' injuries it is hard to estimate a timetable for a full recovery.
So the question is: What is Low's backup plan? What are his alternatives, and can those alternatives successfully replace such key players in such a high-pressure situation?
The good news is that Germany's depth in talent gives Low plenty of options. Different options to be sure, but it's not all doom and gloom when you look at who some of the alternatives are.
On paper, Klose's injury seems irreparable because he is the only real forward on the roster. But Germany's group of attacking players have all had experience playing up top over the years.
In Mario Gotze, Marco Reus, Thomas Muller, Andre Schurrle and newcomer Kevin Volland, Low has five extremely talented and capable players who could not only effectively replace Klose, but potentially improve the fluidity of the team's attacks.
All are mobile, quick and good finishers. The fact is that despite perhaps missing out on his experience, Klose's injury and absence are the least threatening to the team's chances.
The real problem area is in midfield. What was Germany's strength last year is now the biggest area of concern going into Brazil. Without Gundogan and Bender—and potentially Schweinsteiger and Khedira—Low will be without four of his five preferred central midfielders.
Khedira and Schweinsteiger's fitness could very well determine whether Lahm starts in midfield or defense. That's if he himself is ready in time of course.
Worryingly, the collective injuries could realistically lead to a scenario where Germany are forced to start with Toni Kroos and the inexperienced Christoph Kramer against Portugal. That is the worst-case scenario, of course, and one Low will be hoping to avoid in the run-up.
Kramer, who was renowned for his ability to cover ground this season in the Bundesliga, was a surprise inclusion by Low, and most are also expecting him to be cut when everyone is available. But the depleted roster may just necessitate his inclusion.
While Kramer is a promising young player who has grown tremendously this season, the learning curve could be too steep, especially against opponents like Ghana and Portugal who play a quick and physical game.
There is also Matthias Ginter, another player who was initially included just for the experience but may now emerge as a contender to travel to Brazil.
Although Ginter is traditionally a centre-back, he is listed as a midfielder by the German Football Association. He is three years younger than Kramer and has yet to make a competitive appearance for the senior side.
This leaves Kroos in the precarious position of potentially playing as the lone holder, a role he has played once or twice before for Germany but never at a level like the World Cup.
The bottom line here is that, unlike the attack, the options here are not quite as encouraging. Low is more or less depending on certain players to recover in time.
Finally there is the all-important goalkeeping position. Neuer is so rarely injured that most never would have expected him to even be a worry. But the timing and unpredictability of his injury is cause for concern.
Roman Weidenfeller and Ron-Robert Zieler stand ready, and both are capable and consistent performers for their clubs, but they have next to no experience with the national team. In fact, they combine for just four caps.
Both are seasoned at club level but lack experience playing with Germany's defenders. With the defense already shaky, introducing a foreign element could be even more disruptive.
This is another scenario in which Low will hope for a speedy recovery. Neuer is perhaps the most important component to a solid defensive performance by Germany. Without him, Germany lose whatever organization they have at the back and also their great build-up play from the back.
This is very unfamiliar territory for Low. He has not experienced this many injuries to key players in any of his three tournaments as head coach.
The group stage opener is less than three weeks away, and the core of his team have yet to train with the rest of the squad for any significant amount of time.
In some areas Low will be able to compensate. In others, not so much. How quickly some of those players come back and how well their potential replacements perform will determine whether the tournament is a success or total disappointment.
For Germany, and for Low, time is ticking.
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