Why Sunday May Be Lahm and Schweinsteiger's Last Chance for World Cup Glory

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Why Sunday May Be Lahm and Schweinsteiger's Last Chance for World Cup Glory
Matt Dunham/Associated Press

When Germany finished third at the 2006 World Cup, it was considered a huge achievement, one that revealed the promise the Nationalmannschaft had in a young generation of stars including Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Podolski and Per Mertesacker.

The same result in 2010 was still regarded as an accomplishment, especially given how ravaged Joachim Low's side was by injuries.

But although new youngsters like Thomas Mueller and Toni Kroos could be pleased, there were fewer celebrations from the 2006 team's breakout stars. They'd been there before and knew they were running out of chances.

Now, in 2014, the class of 2006 has finally reached the World Cup final. And for many, it could be a last chance to be crowned world champions. At the very least, it's the last chance they'll have during their prime years.

Lahm will turn 31 in November, Schweinsteiger and Mertesacker 30 in August and September, respectively. Podolski is 29. All will be well into their 30s by the time the next World Cup comes.

Even a year ago, there was discussion of Ilkay Gundogan as a possible replacement for Schweinsteiger before the World Cup in Brazil.

Legendary midfielder Gunter Netzer told Bild (h/t Andrew Wychrij on Goal.com): " I see Schweinsteiger's place at risk, despite his great contribution to the national team." He cited Gundogan's more direct approach to building the German attack as preferable to Schweinsteiger's slower, more horizontal play.

Gundogan has not played since last August due to a back injury, but if he finds the form that made him a superstar in 2012-13, it may soon be impossible for Joachim Low to leave him on the bench—especially with Schweinsteiger turning 34 in 2018.

Aside from Gundogan, Germany have quality, ready-made defensive-midfield options in Sven and Lars Bender. Emre Can is on the rise and, having joined Liverpool, now has the platform to stake his claim in the German team if he is indeed a success.

Behind him, the likes of Leon Goretzka and Levin Oztunali are among the talented midfielders who could make a breakthrough in the next four years.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images
The 2006 semifinal was painful, but Germany's third-placed finish was seen as a positive.

The threat isn't only from natural central midfielders; Schweinsteiger's role could also be under threat from attacking players. It would alter the tactical balance for Low to use only one or two holding midfielders, but if his options in that area are not sufficient and there is enough quality in attack, he could make a switch.

Either way, Germany's growing number of top-class attacking options does not bode well for Podolski's future. The Arsenal man entered the World Cup in tremendous form. But after being used sparingly in the early stages of the tournament, he seems to have given way to Andre Schurrle.

The Chelsea man has proven himself, scoring three goals in just 156 minutes off the bench. He's just 23 years of age, so he'll still be in his prime when Podolski retires.

Beyond Schurrle, the likes of Mario Goetze and Julian Draxler may not have impressed at this World Cup but will only be better in four years' time.

There are also recently capped starlets like Goretzka and Max Meyer, as well as Timo Werner, Julian Brandt and Serge Gnabry who, despite their youth, are already key players for competitive professional clubs. In fact, all but Werner have played in the Champions League.

In four years' time, all of the aforementioned will be at least 18 months older than Thomas Mueller was when he won the Golden Ball at the 2010 World Cup. And although it's unwise to expect any individual to become a superstar, by the Law of Large Numbers, Germany should have at least one or two new international-class attackers by 2018.

Like Podolski, Mertesacker is already being marginalized by a young generation of center backs, particularly the 1988-born Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng and Benedikt Howedes.

Although Low had regularly rotated Mertesacker, Hummels and Boateng in the two central-defensive spots, the fact that Boateng recently displaced the Arsenal man from the lineup does not bode well for the latter's international career.

Time is not on Mertesacker's side, and if he isn't trusted to start now, he certainly won't be in four years. A 2018 appearance for Mertesacker seems all the more unlikely with youngsters Shkodran Mustafi and Matthias Ginter already providing pressure, plus more talents like Marc-Oliver Kempf and Jonathan Tah behind them.

Paradoxically, the oldest among Germany's 2006 breakout stars may also be the most assured in his role. Lahm, unlike Schweinsteiger, Mertesacker and Podolski, has played every minute of every game for Germany at the World Cup.

The Mannschaft are short of options in either full-back position, and Lahm's performance since being moved back to his favored role on the right of defense has coincided with a big upturn of German form. He will be nearing 35 at the next World Cup but nonetheless stands a decent chance of retaining his position.

Joern Pollex/Getty Images
2010 was a second disappointment for Lahm, Schweinsteiger and company.

Low has historically been faithful to those players he has favored. But after seeing an aging Spain side exit the 2014 World Cup in the group stage, he will be wary of the risk of being too loyal.

To his credit, his benching of Schweinsteiger in the opener against Portugal and his decision to demote Mertesacker and Podolski show that he is not ready to let his judgment be clouded. Should Low remain Germany coach until 2018, no player will be safe on reputation alone.

Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Mertesacker and Podolski are all hugely experienced already and have every chance of making the 2018 squad.

Whether as starters, substitutes or simply player-coach types, they will have roles to play. But as key, star players in their prime in whom Germany can put their trust and hopes, Sunday's final may be an endgame.

Indeed, even if Germany dominate the next decade of international football, if the 2006 golden generation is ever to cement its place in the history books, Sunday may be a case of now or never.

 

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