It has not been an easy two months for the likes of Mats Hummels and Thomas Muller, footballers entitled to regard themselves as serial champions, men for whom defeat is only a very occasional intruder. They have lost a domestic cup final, a Uefa Champions League semi-final, and their national team, Germany, has won just one of its last six games.
It has been even tougher for some of their Bayern compatriots. Take Manuel Neuer and Jerome Boateng, two more totems of Germany's World Cup triumph in Brazil four years ago. Boateng missed his club's last few matches of a bitter-sweet end of the season - he had been around for the wrapping-up of the Bundesliga title - with a hamstring injury that restricted his World Cup preparation time. As for Neuer, he played his last competitive football match in September. He says he is fit enough now, after that long lay-off with a broken bone in his foot, to captain his country in Russia.
These figureheads have a winning habit stitched into their being, which makes it all the more noteworthy when it vanishes, and none of them are claiming Germany’s immediate preamble to the defence of their title has been ideal.
"When we make the kind of mistakes we have been doing we become just an average team, who will lose to sides like Austria," manager Joachim Low warned this week. Yes, Austria, who are not a World Cup qualifier. Their 2-1 win over Germany, two weeks before the champions' opening match against Mexico, completed a sequence of five German outings without a victory, an ordinary run of form scarcely camouflaged by last weekend's 2-1 victory in Leverkusen against Saudi Arabia, the nation ranked lowest of all the 32 World Cup finalists.
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In the past seven months, Germany picked some of their friendly opponents to better replicate likely quarter- and semi-final quality, and the audit looks middling, at best: Low's team lost to Brazil, and drew with Spain, England and France. Granted, warm-up matches are more useful as a guide to points of detail than broader truths, and Low, heading to his fourth World Cup as a member of the national team’s coaching staff, his third as the main man in charge, will look at the last two years, since Germany bowed out of Euro 2016 at the semi-finals, as his real route map.
He made a radical decision last summer to rest a majority of his nominal first XI and to send instead back-up players to the Confederations Cup in Russia. Germany B, as it were, won the tournament, while Germany’s Under 21s triumphed at the same time in their European Championship.
That was quite a statement, not least for other countries obliged to gaze in awe at Germany’s strength-in-depth. For Low, those 2017 success also armed him with antidote to that most threatening syndrome: complacency. He could, on the evidence of the Confeds Cup and the U21 Euros, name perhaps two talented alternatives for each of his first-team positions. And he knows it is an enduring lesson of World Cups that the champions need to refresh themselves: no country has retained the title since Brazil in 1962.
For the likes of attacking midfielder Leon Goretzka and striker Timo Werner the Confeds Cup was a useful springboard. They will play their first World Cup in Russia, Werner likely to be the starting centre-forward. And Germany 2018 will look significantly distinct from the Germany who finished their 1-0 win over Argentina in Rio de Janeiro in the 2014 final. Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Per Mertesacker are all retired from national duty; the goalscorer Mario Goetze and the player whose pass set up his goal, Andre Schurrle, did not make the squad this time around.
Neuer, who succeeds Lahm as captain, sweated on his participation too. Neuer, the dynamic, all-terrain goalkeeper, has convinced Low that his long stint on the treatment table has not left him too rusty to take up his position as No 1 goalkeeper. The manager has also heard Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who played in the Confederations Cup final and has just won the Spanish league as a key part of Barcelona’s excellent defence, wonder about the value of two years of German auditioning. “It’s disappointing when you have played to the maximum level all season,” Ter Stegen said when he was told he would be second-choice to the Neuer who has played very little of the season.
Leroy Sane, who had a stunning season with English champions Manchester City, was also peeved and perhaps a little startled to be left out of Low's 23-man party. His pace on the left flank may be missed if Marco Reus, who missed the last two major tournaments with injury, pulls up lame in Russia. The Borussia Dortmund player's availability in the meantime is an exciting bonus for the world champions, and if Germany can make the best use his combination of pace and intelligence with the ball nobody will think too wistfully about Sane or Goetze.
“I am excited,” Low said. “There is nothing better than a World Cup, the highest grade of 50-50 contests.”
Going to one as champions, though, means something different. “Every opponent will meet us with extra motivation,” he acknowledged. “We have to be wide awake from the start, be fully concentrated and push to the limits of what we know we can achieve.”
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