Monday, May 17, 2010

Can traumatised Germany cope with the “brutal” loss of Michael Ballack?

The short answer to the title question is this: they can’t. At least that’s the opinion of Rudi Völler, star of Italia ’90 and Nationalmannschaft coach between 2000 and 2004.

“This is absolutely brutal, terrible for Michael,” Völler told the German tabloid Bild. “He was full of optimism and wanted to play a good World Cup. There are players who can't be replaced and Michael Ballack is certainly one of them.”

From his blistering, decisive double in the 2002 World Cup playoff with Ukraine; through his peerless displays in Japan/Korea – where he inspired his team to the final, only to miss out through suspension following a ‘professional’ foul which helped defeat South Korea in the semi; to the blistering free-kick against Austria at Euro 2008 – where he again played a talismanic role in reaching the final; Ballack has proved himself a man above all others, where the national side is concerned, for the best part of a decade.

Following the Chelsea man’s FA Cup final injury at the hands, or rather feet, of Kevin-Prince Boateng who, conspiracy theorists (including a devastated Ballack: “It looked pretty intentional to me”) were quick to point out, will represent Germany’s group stages foes Ghana this summer; there is a gaping void in the centre of Jogi Löw’s first eleven.

Everyone who’s anyone in German footballing circles – from Dieter Hoeneβ, to Löw, to his assistant Oliver Bierhoff – has been quick to bemoan the luck of their Captain Fantastic. Berti Vogts followed his commiserations by putting forward versatile Bayern Munich midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger as the main man to shoulder the extra responsibility in Ballack’s absence. Once consigned to the flanks at international level, ‘Schweini’ has benefitted immeasurably from Löw’s controversial decision to ditch outspoken stalwart Torsten Frings. The maturity of his game at club level has gone up another notch this season under the exacting aegis of Louis Van Gaal and the 25-year-old, set to participate in his fourth major tournament this summer, will undoubtedly be a key piece in the German jigsaw.

It is the slot, however, alongside Schweinsteiger – at the heart of the engine room – which now lies vacant. There are a number of potential suitors, but, as befitting a team going through something of a generational transition, few, if any, have the requisite top-level experience to command absolute confidence.

Löw prefers a 4-2-3-1 set-up, with the two central-midfielders lying deep, protecting the back four and distributing the ball quickly and efficiently to the lone front-man (usually Miroslav Klose) and those occupying the flanks. Of course, his thinking may change in the light of such a debilitating development as Ballack’s unavailability, but the stylish Bundestrainer will consider the likely candidates’ defensive attributes a priority. That could be bad news for Bayern Munich’s creative wunderkind Toni Kroos.

Having spent the best part of the last two years on loan with high-flying Bayer Leverkusen, the 20-year-old has impressed all observers with his cool-headed approach, precise passing and eye for goal. A set-piece specialist, Kroos made his full debut as recently as the surprise home defeat to Argentina in March. It would be a bold move to place the hopes of a nation upon his relatively slender frame, but on such gambles World Cup campaigns are often won and lost.

Other, more conservative, options include moving adaptable Schalke defender Heiko Westermann into a holding role – young full-back Christian Träsch can also fill-in here, but is less well established in the squad. Sami Khedira, a contemporary of Träsch at resurgent Stuttgart, is similarly inexperienced at the top level and has only just returned from knee injury.

Attention must then surely turn to the men initially rejected by Löw. 51-cap midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger, out of favour with both Stuttgart, then new club Lazio this season, was omitted from the provisional 27-man squad. So, too, was Wolfsburg’s Christian Gentner – soon to join Stuttgart.

Neither man, alas, can offer the stature of a man ostensibly discarded to make way for super-talented young guns such as Kroos, Marko Marin, Mesut Özil, and Bayern’s latest prodigy Thomas Müller – all of whom are most effective at the other end of the pitch. It is Werder Bremen warhorse Frings whose wealth of experience and dogged style would so well complement the more refined talents of Schweinsteiger, Özil, et al.

It would take a substantial swallowing of pride from both men, but it’s surely not too late for both Löw and Frings to overcome their manifest differences ‘in the national interest’. Frings finished the Bundesliga season in uncharacteristically free-scoring form (with a run of five goals in seven games) and generally turning in a series of vintage performances which had the likes of erstwhile national team team-mate Per Mertesacker backing his claims for a recall. If parachuted straight back into the starting line-up, it is less likely that the headstrong veteran would cause any trouble in the camp. Necessarily, Löw will need to think long and hard before he discards this compelling option.

The one-time deputy of Jürgen Klinsmann has at his disposal a more innately talented squad of players than any Germany coach for a long while. The new tranche of attacking-midfield talents will be complemented by Manchester City new-boy Jerome Boateng and the implacable Serdar Tasci in defence, while blonde beanpole Stefan Kieβling joins the attack.

Losing their first-choice goalkeeper, René Adler, and their inimitable skipper during the run-in to the tournament, however, may be a fatal blow to their title hopes. Nevertheless, the belief that the Germans always produce eine Turniermannschaft (a ‘tournament team’) holds firm among German fans and media. It’s safe to conclude that whichever combination takes to the field in South Africa, they’ll be a fearless, formidable outfit.

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