10 Questions for Joachim Loew Ahead of Germany's World Cup Opener with Portugal
With Germany's opening game against Portugal in the 2014 World Cup upon us, time is running out for coach Joachim Loew to iron out any small matters that have been bugging die Mannschaft in the build up to the competition.
The Brazilian tournament has already shown itself to be one of outstanding drama and entertainment for football fans across the world, but for the teams involved it will undoubtedly be no more than a series of trials and tribulations on a day-to-day basis.
Here are 10 questions that will be troubling Loew ahead of Germany's game against Portugal on Monday.
Can Germany Avoid the Same Fate as Spain?
First things first, Germany are not Spain: They don't have the same players, the same level of success and won't have incredible pressure thrust upon them to the extent of Vicente del Bosque's side on Friday night.
Yet there is the risk that they too could suffer an unlikely upset in their first game.
Despite the somewhat inconsistent form of Loew's side, they are undefeated in international friendlies and competitions since June 2013, when they were beaten 4-3 by upcoming Group G opponents USA. That doesn't mean they are immune to an opening day mishap.
This World Cup has already thrown up some incredible upsets—from Brazil's limited success against Croatia to Mexico's two disallowed goals against Cameroon—and Germany will have to be certain that they leave nothing up to fate when they take on Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. on Monday evening.
Who Will Play at Left-Back?
One of the most surprising aspects of Loew's final squad selection prior to his team travelling to Brazil was the exclusion of Borussia Dortmund's left-back Marcel Schmelzer. Although the 26-year-old has never been a world beater, he was one of the few remaining left-footed defenders in the German squad and the only natural player in that full-back position.
Once the decision was made, we were led to believe that Erik Durm—also of Dortmund—would take up the role when he featured in the left-back position against Cameroon in a pre-tournament friendly. Despite his inexperience in the national team, he slotted straight into the side with his speed, power and technique.
We then saw Benedikt Hoewedes—a Schalke player who played as either a central defender or right-back throughout his career—on the left when Germany thumped Armenia 6-1 in their final preparation match. An unusual move from Loew, but the experienced defender did well against an admittedly limited opponent.
So who is going to start against Portugal?
On the day it will come down to how Loew wants his side to play. Hoewedes certainly offers more defensive cover, which seems to be one of the Bundestrainer's greatest concerns in this tournament, while Durm is fantastic at racing up the pitch and offering his services in attack. Two defenders who play completely different styles of football and leave plenty for Loew to ponder.
Will Manuel Neuer Be Fit Enough to Start?
Bayern Munich shot-stopper Manuel Neuer is undoubtedly one of the best goalkeepers in world football and, as such, will be absolutely vital to any success that Germany enjoy in this World Cup.
Yet the goalkeeper has been out with a shoulder injury that he picked up in the DFB-Pokal final against Dortmund on May 17, meaning he hasn't playing a competitive game of football in almost a month.
The good news is that, on Wednesday, head goalkeeper coach Andreas Koepke stated that Neuer would feature in first-team training that day and would be fit for the Portugal game.
In the press conference, reported by FIFA on June 11, he stated:
"Things are going in the right direction for him. Manuel is experienced enough and we're constantly discussing how his shoulder feels. It's not the case that he doesn't have faith in it. Manuel is fully fit."
Fit enough is one thing, but will the towering 28-year-old goalkeeper be sharp enough to start against Portugal?
How Do Germany Deal with Cristiano Ronaldo?
One of the biggest questions that will be floating around on Monday ahead of Germany's clash with Portugal won't be that of who can win the tournament, whether Germany can beat Portugal or even who can progress from the group. No, it will be a simple matter of asking how Loew's side will stop Ronaldo.
Although the greatest player in world football at the moment has only ever scored two World Cup goals— against Iran in 2006 and North Korea in 2010—he has scored 49 goals for Portugal over the course of his international career, as stated by Soccerway.
Yet Loew does seem to have a plan, which entails playing central defender Jerome Boateng at right-back while Philipp Lahm covers in the defensive midfield position.
As the German coach stated in a FIFA press conference on June 12, when asked about playing Boateng at right-back: "It does play a role who can keep Ronaldo in check, and Jerome Boateng has done that in the past."
Loew was referencing Boateng's successful job of keeping Ronaldo quiet during the opening game of Euro 2012. He added: "So too has Lahm so together they will deal with him.
"You cannot let him out of your sight, literally. You've always got to ask 'what's Ronaldo doing, where is Ronaldo?'"
Who Will Play Up Front for Germany?
At the other end of the field Germany face yet another conundrum: Who will play as the lone striker in Loew's 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 system?
Over the past few months, Loew has been ridiculed for relentlessly attempting to adopt a new style that involves playing Mario Goetze as the lone striker in a false-nine role. This ploy has never truly worked and often tends to frustrate the German attack more than actually help it.
The good news for football purists is that the German coach has seemingly reverted back to a simpler, more direct style of attack. Thomas Mueller featured as the lone striker for prominent parts of the side's friendlies against Cameroon and Armenia, with Goetze featuring as a left-winger in the latter game to much better results.
As such, we should expect to either see the Bayern forward feature up front or perhaps see Germany start with Miroslav Klose as the lone striker. Either way, it seems likely that Loew will rotate between these two more conventional forwards throughout the tournament.
Who Else Could Threaten for Portugal?
One of the least obvious talents of truly world-class players is their ability to attract enough attention from the opposition and allow their team mates to exploit any space or holes in defence.
For Germany, one of the most important aspects of Monday's game against Portugal will not only be to keep Ronaldo quiet but to also ensure that his teammates don't offer any surprises either.
Paulo Bento's side may be a one-man attack, with Helder Postiga and Nani alongside Ronaldo, but they do offer plenty of danger from elsewhere in the side.
Joao Moutinho is the obvious danger from midfield. The Monaco star has truly came of age since Euro 2012 and will undoubtedly relish the prospect of playing as a deep playmaker for Ronaldo's darting runs. Left-back Fabio Coentrao offers his services as one of the most adept attacking full-backs in the world.
Ronaldo may run the show with Portugal, but they are a team that tick just as well as a unit.
How Do Germany Replace a Player Like Marco Reus?
"A dream has ended from one second to the next." That was how Marco Reus chose to describe his anguish following a bitter ankle injury that ruled him out of the World Cup, as reported by FIFA.com.
Such a phrase could have so easily been used to describe the state of German fans across the world. Without Reus, die Mannschaft no longer have their brightest, attacking player to hand in what was already looking like a daunting task in Brazil.
Yet Loew does have options to replace Dortmund's star forward. Prior to any preparation for this World Cup the speculation over Reus' successor would have ended with Chelsea's Andre Schurrle, who has had an impressive debut season in the English Premier League and recently relished his increasing responsibilities with the national team.
However, we could also now see Lukas Podolski take up such a role on the left of Germany's attack. Although the Arsenal forward has never been a favourite for die Mannschaft, he has burst into life in the past two games—with four assists and a goal in the past two games—and shown a real passion to prove his doubters wrong on the international stage.
There is also Mario Goetze, who could so easily slot in on the left if Loew decides to stick with Mueller and Klose up front. The 22-year-old is undoubtedly one of Germany's greatest talents and could offer just as much of a threat as Reus if given the chance.
Should Philipp Lahm Play in Midfield?
One of Loew's most obvious traits throughout his time as German head coach has been his eagerness to jump on whichever bandwagon is currently riding through German football at any given time.
When Louis van Gaal first started playing Bastian Schweinsteiger as a central midfielder, Low shoehorned him into Germany's team accordingly. When Mario Goetze became a forward under Pep Guardiola, the Bundestrainer began experimenting with the player's role too.
With Philipp Lahm often playing as a defensive midfielder at Bayern this season, we will undoubtedly see the captain also sit in Germany's midfield as well.
This isn't exactly a bad thing, of course. Lahm has been exceptional in his new role in midfield and would undoubtedly flourish there for Germany. But is that what die Mannschaft need?
While Loew's side boast an incredible roster of midfielders, the defensive line is incredibly tight—as we have already discussed with the left-back predicament—leaving many to wonder whether Lahm should in fact be playing at full-back against Portugal.
Even though the Bayern and German captain should always play in his most favoured position, a talent like his could go to good use elsewhere on the pitch. And, as we all know, he'd be the last person to disagree with that.
Should Jerome Boateng Keep His Spot at Right-Back?
We have already spoke at length about the troubles that look to bother Germany at left-back, as well as Low's calculated decision to play Boateng at right-back to tackle Ronaldo on Monday. Yet we haven't exactly spoke at length about the Bayern central defender's use as a full-back throughout the entire tournament.
Most would agree that, in a perfect world, this would be a position that Lahm possessed without any doubt. However, with the Bayern captain engaged in other responsibilities elsewhere on the pitch, it essentially comes down to a duel between Boateng and Kevin Grosskreutz of Dortmund.
Grosskreutz was exceptional for Jurgen Klopp's side last season—considering his transformation from an out-and-out winger just last year—with an unrivalled drive and physicality that often compensates for a lack of tactical awareness and technical ability.
What we musn't forget is that Boateng has came a long way since his troubled days at Manchester City, and he possesses not only all the physical attributes that make him a strong defender but also the attacking mind that makes him a useful full-back. He may not require the skills to bomb forward for Guardiola's tiki-taka Bayern side, but his more direct approach seems to be the perfect fit for Germany.
For now he suits Germany's right side.
Has Germany's Chances of Winning the World Cup Gotten Better?
Very few people would have predicted just how the first two days of the World Cup would have panned out—with Brazil struggling to overcome Croatia and Spain losing so emphatically to Holland. Least of all the German national team, who could now see their path to the final open up favourably.
If Spain do go on to finish second in their group, they could face Brazil in the round of 16, meaning Germany would potentially face just one of the two favourites for the competition in the semi-finals, rather than one in that round and the other in the final.
If Loew's side can finish top of Group G they will likely face Russia, the side expected to finish second in group H before playing the winners of what will most likely be a last 16 showdown between France (proposed Group E winners) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (proposed second place in Group F).
What will appeal to Loew and German fans the most will be the fact that they may not end up playing Italy or Spain—the teams that knocked them out of the last two international competitions—while avoiding Argentina and Netherlands until the final.
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