Germany: Repeat in Russia?/Group F

Group F: Can Germany conquer the 'champions' curse?

Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer lifting the World Cup trophy at the Maracana in 2014 after the 1-0 extra-time victory over Argentina. The captain is back from injury to lead Germany's title defence.
Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer lifting the World Cup trophy at the Maracana in 2014 after the 1-0 extra-time victory over Argentina. The captain is back from injury to lead Germany's title defence.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Tricky group or not, Germany's mixture of experience and youth should be too strong

Should Germany retain their title come July 15, they will become only the third side after Italy in 1938 and Brazil in 1962 to win back-to-back World Cups.

First, the world's top-ranked team will have to avoid a "champions' curse" that befell recent winners - 1998 champions France, Italy (2006) and Spain (2010) all exited at the group stage four years after their respective triumphs.

But, as former England striker Gary Lineker aptly put it: "Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and, at the end, the Germans always win."

He has a point. After all, Germany are not dubbed the "Turniermannschaft", or tournament team, for nothing. In 18 Finals, they have failed to reach the quarter-finals just once, in 1938.

In fact, they have already broken a curse of sorts with their triumph in Brazil four years ago - the first European nation to win a World Cup in South America, the fifth time it was held on the continent.

Germany proved that they are the team to beat in Russia when they qualified with a perfect 10 wins, the second team after Spain in 2010 to achieve that feat.

But Joachim Low's squad selection has come under scrutiny.

Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer is set to lead the team despite being outsince last September after a broken foot that required surgery. Low is confident the 32-year-old will be fit for the Group F opener with Mexico on June 17, before games with Sweden and South Korea.

 

But there is no place for Sandro Wagner, who was Germany's joint top scorer in qualifying with five goals, and Mario Gotze, who scored the extra-time winner against Argentina in the 2014 final.

The duo's exclusion is curious considering Low has a Miroslav Klose-sized hole to fill at the apex of the attack.

Klose, the World Cup's all-time leading scorer with 16 goals, is one of three German centurions who called time on their international careers after 2014. The other two were midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger and full-back Philipp Lahm.

It looks like Low will pin his hopes on Timo Werner, who has 42 goals in the last two seasons for RB Leipzig and shot into the limelight by winning the Golden Boot at the 2017 Confederations Cup.


  • Germany

    KEY MAN: TONI KROOS

    The Real Madrid man is a Rolls Royce of a central midfielder, dictating the tempo with his cool head and incisive passing. With Bastian Schweinsteiger retired, he is tasked to lead from the middle of the park. With 82 caps, he is the most senior behind Mesut Ozil (89) and Thomas Muller (90).

    MANAGER: Joachim Low

    WORLD CUP FINALS: 19

    BEST RESULT: Winners (1954, 1974, 1990, 2014) 2014

    WORLD CUP: Winners



    Mexico

    KEY MAN: HIRVING LOZANO

    The winger, 22, racked up 17 goals and 11 assists in his debut European season, after joining PSV Eindhoven in the Dutch Eredivisie from Mexico's CF Pachuca last summer. Already linked with top clubs like Barcelona and Juventus, his value could soar with a successful World Cup.

    MANAGER: Juan Carlos Osorio

    WORLD CUP FINALS: 16

    BEST RESULT: Quarter-finals (1970 and 1986) 2014



    South Korea

    KEY MAN: SON HEUNG MIN

    The Tottenham forward, 25, is now a bona fide Premier League star, with 18 goals this season after 21 in the previous term. He will be the talisman for a side missing injured attackers Lee Keun Ho and Kwon Chang Hoon.

    MANAGER: Shin Tae Yong

    WORLD CUP FINALS: 10

    BEST RESULT: Semi-finals (2002) 2014

    WORLD CUP: Group stage



    Sweden

    KEY MAN: EMIL FORSBERG

    The RB Leipzig attacking midfielder is a dead-ball specialist, scoring a stunning knuckleball free kick against France in qualifying. He will be expected to provide the ammunition for striker Marcus Berg, who top-scored for the Swedes in qualifying with eight goals.

    MANAGER: Jan Olof Andersson

    WORLD CUP FINALS: 12

    BEST RESULT: Runners-up (1958) 2014

    WORLD CUP: Did not qualify


    KEY MATCH

    Germany v Mexico (June 17, 11pm)

    DID YOU KNOW?

    At 39, Mexico defender Rafael Marquez is the oldest outfield player at the Russia World Cup. He joins German Lothar Matthaus and compatriot Antonio Carbajal as the only players to appear at five World Cups.

Call it the brashness or the confidence of youth, but the 22-year-old said last month: "We're absolutely favourites. I don't know by how much, but we definitely are."

In central midfield, the pair of Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira should cover the loss of Schweinsteiger. But Kroos played down the favourites' tag after the 1-0 friendly loss to Brazil in Berlin in March - their first defeat in 22 games.

The midfielder said: "To say we are the top favourites is nonsense. Perhaps more people accept that now. We lost the ball too easily and made far too many mistakes.

"Repeating that in Russia won't be a good idea."

Bayern Munich defender Joshua Kimmich, 23, is a natural successor to Lahm after racking up seven goals and 17 assists in 51 games for club and country since last July.

Low can also count on talented World Cup debutants such as Julian Brandt, Leroy Sane, Leon Goretzka, Niklas Sule and Jonathan Tah.

Whether the "curse" may or may not be of the champions' own making, Germany will want to control their own fate, especially after drawing tricky teams in Group F.

Mexico, the next highest-ranked side at No. 15, have an air of unpredictability about them with Juan Carlos Osorio at the helm .

The Colombian has a penchant for chopping and changing. When he was coach of Colombian side Atletico Nacional, he went over 200 matches without fielding the same starting XI.

Sweden are making their first appearance in 12 years, having failed to qualify in 2010 and 2014.

Even without the retired Zlatan Ibrahimovic, they can upset the hierarchy. They beat France and pipped the Netherlands to a play-off spot before stunning four-time winners Italy to seal their Finals spot.

South Korea might have struggled to qualify but, in Shin Tae Yong, who replaced the sacked Uli Stielike, they have a master tactician and a good motivator.

With a team lacking world-class talent, he will depend on Tottenham star Son Heung Min and former Swansea midfielder Ki Sung Yueng to deliver the goods.


Talking points
 

NO IBRAHIMOVIC, NO PARTY?

Despite several hints that he may return for one last international hurrah, Zlatan Ibrahimovic will not be strutting his stuff in Russia.

Even with their all-time top scorer, Sweden crashed out of Euro 2016 at the group stage, scoring just once as they drew once and lost twice. Perhaps they can emerge from Ibrahimovic's shadow and count on their collective strength to pull off a surprise or two.

UNPREDICTABLE OR UNFAMILIAR?

Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio puts the original "Tinkerman" Claudio Ranieri in the shade; he has named a different starting XI in his 45 matches.

The policy has divided opinion.

El Tri topped the final round of 10 qualifiers, losing just once. But the setback came against unfancied Honduras after nine changes. And, after Osorio made six changes, including the goalkeeper, they were hammered 7-0 by Chile in the 2017 Copa America.

CAN ASIA'S MOURINHO DELIVER?

After leading Seongnam to the 2010 Asian Champions League title, Shin Tae Yong declared himself a "Special One". Only 41 then, he was tagged the "Asian Mourinho" because he was a young and confident coach.

Now eight years older, he could well be "Moan-rinho" because his plans have been ripped to shreds. Veteran attacker Lee Keun Ho was ruled out, joining talented young centre-back Kim Min Jae and winger Kwon Chang Hoon on the treatment table.

With the odds stacked against his side, it will truly be a special feat if Shin can guide them out of the group stage.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 03, 2018, with the headline 'Conquering the 'champions' curse''. Print Edition | Subscribe