Loew's Germany can take heart

Richard Jolly lauds the gifted but unlucky side who, in spite of losing to Serbia, played with character under the guidance of an intelligent coach.

After coining and exporting the word schadenfreude, it has been the Germans' hard luck that others often have delighted in their misfortunes. Not that there have been many; this is a country that has reached the last eight of every World Cup since 1954. Amid the inevitable delight at their defeat, the setback to Serbia merits sympathy.

Joachim Loew's side were the victims of a startlingly bad refereeing performance by Alberto Undiano, the pernickety Spaniard. In a tournament where the standard of officiating has been high, this was an unwanted exception. Undiano's nadir may have come when he penalised Thomas Muller for an audacious overhead kick that was cleared off the line. The pivotal decisions, however, came at Miroslav Klose's expense as he was dismissed for two innocuous fouls that Undiano deemed bookable offences.

Thereafter, Philipp Lahm was punished for winning the ball and ignored when he was fouled and Mario Gomez was denied a penalty when Dejan Stankovic kicked him in the box. It was an occasion when the Germans could be forgiven for feeling persecuted. But theirs was an intelligent and imaginative answer to adversity. Loew's boldness extends beyond his choice of outfit. Down to 10 men, his response appeared one of idleness, but proved one of excellence. He did nothing. Or, to be more accurate, with Klose's expulsion, he operated without a centre forward. Mesut Ozil, the playmaker, became the man stationed furthest forward, but he rarely went in direct opposition to Nemanja Vidic and Neven Subotic, the Serbian central defenders.

Instead, a seemingly negative 4-4-1-0 formation proved positive. Ozil dropped deeper and allowed others to surge beyond him. Wherever he roamed, he proved a pivot for attacks. His incisive diagonal ball played Lukas Podolski in on goal; the finish was less precise. A second, short ball, afforded the winger the chance to thrash the ball into the side-netting. Had Podolski converted a penalty, a deserved point would have been secured.

It was won, albeit indirectly, by Sami Khedira, the energetic box-to-box midfielder who pressurised Vidic into handling a cross. The Stuttgart player made a series of intelligent runs into the Serbia area and, with a rasping half-volley, struck the cross bar. Like Ozil, he is of Turkish heritage; like Ozil, he should have a lengthy and lustrous future in the Germany side. Ozil has a precocious awareness, the priceless ability to judge time and space and an innate understanding of the game. He is the sort of footballer who plays the game at his own pace.

Whereas Podolski confounded the stereotype that Germans never miss from 12 yards, Ozil is showing that the cliché of machine-like efficiency ignores the artistry the machine can produce. It is an image that even seems to fool some of their most-capped players. "In Mesut Ozil, we have the No 10 we have been missing for some years," said the injured Michael Ballack in his column in The Times of London. Some years, yes, perhaps including the whole of Ballack's distinguished international career. But not the preceding decade. Lothar Matthaus, Andreas Moller, Thomas Hassler, Pierre Littbarski, Stefan Effenberg, Thomas Doll and Matthias Sammer were all capable of creativity. Each could pick a pass with enviable accuracy.

Where Germany erred yesterday, besides wasting a World Cup penalty for the first time since Uli Hoeness was thwarted from the spot by Poland in 1974, was in Ozil's removal. With 20 minutes to go, and the creator seemingly tiring, conventional wisdom took over and on came Cacau, an orthodox forward. However, he struggled to get into a game his predecessor had run. A starting role beckons for him in Wednesday's crunch game with Ghana when Klose will be banned. The form of Holger Badstuber, the left-back, targeted ruthlessly by Milos Krasic, the midfielder, represents a cause for concern. Yet there are depressing defeats and laudable losses. This belongs in the latter category. Germany are down, but they should not be too downhearted.

Group D
Country M W D L GF GA Pts
Germany 2 1 0 1 4 1 3
Serbia 2 1 0 1 1 1 3
Ghana 1 1 0 0 1 0 3
Australia 1 0 0 1 0 4 0