World Cup 2010: Efficiency may not be enough

FRANZ BECKENBAUER is normally a voice of reason. As Germany's most revered footballing icon, he can be relied upon to provide realistic and insightful analysis. One thing he is not prone to is exaggeration. But surely this time Der Kaiser has got ahead of himself.

We all know the old refrain "Never rule out the Germans" but to suggest his country has a strong chance of reaching next month's World Cup final is a risky assessment – unless of course he knows something we don't.

A more enlightened suggestion might be that for the first time in their esteemed footballing history, Germany might suffer the unthinkable and not make it even through the group stage. While England fans bemoan the absence of skipper Rio Ferdinand, the Germans have far more to worry about in terms of injuries. Four times more to be precise.

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When Joachim Lw's side open up their campaign against underdogs Australia today, they will be without no fewer than five regulars, most notably their inspirational captain Michael Ballack. He may be exiting Chelsea – where he too often flattered to deceive – but has long been the linchpin of the national team.

Life without their chief orchestrator is going to be tough but Beckenbauer, who won the World Cup with West Germany as both a player and coach, says his country's never-say-die attitude will pull them through. "Ballack is the most important player in the German team. When the big players aren't there at the World Cup they are missed. But if the other players are able to give 5-10 per cent more, you can balance that out ... and the team can get to the final," he said.

Whilst the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira have made a seamless transition from supporting actors under Ballack to playing leading roles, Germany still look short of the four world-class players that Martin Peters once said any team needs to win the World Cup.

Another ex-British footballer, Alan Hansen, got it famously wrong when predicting you can never win anything with kids. But it is hard to see the Germans, who go into this tournament with their youngest squad in 76 years, making too much of a play in South Africa as a result of their crippling injury crisis.

Those that are here, for their part, are commendably clubbing together. "Young or old, it does not make a difference," says striker Lukas Podolski. "We have many young players who are outstanding and they want to become champions."

Yet remarkably, at 25 years old, Podolski is among the most experienced players in the squad, having won 73 caps. With only three of their squad over the age of 30, Germany go into the tournament with a backbone of players from the European under-21 championship-winning team in 2009. These include Manuel Neuer, Marko Marin, Khedira, Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil and Jerome Boateng. Hardly household names, though Boateng has just agreed to join Manchester City.

Versatility has been key to coach Lw's squad but whether he can avoid putting square pegs in round holes remains to be seen. His young team may be too strong for Australia today, but how they will react against the more powerful Serbia and Ghana is unclear, though their enthusiasm is palpable. Lw has made no attempt to curb this exuberance, though in a telling hint last week he apparently told the players their time might not be quite yet.

Australia, too, have worries over niggling injuries, though Harry Kewell and top scorer Tim Cahill took part in training on Friday after being doubtful for the match with groin and neck strains respectively. "Everyone is looking for angles against the Germans, saying they are a young team, saying the pressure is going to be on them," said Kewell. "But let's not forget, every time they come up to a big tournament they are always the favourites to near enough win it."

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Philipp Lahm, who has been handed the German captaincy in the absence of Ballack, has tried consistently to put on a brave face when facing the media in the build-up to today's Group D game in Durban. "That we have lost players who are enormously important for us is a shame," said the Bayern Munich full-back. "But we still have a top squad which can go far."

But how far and from which areas of the pitch? Lw admits out-of-sorts striker Miroslav Klose will find it tough to turn his form around. The 32-year-old has scored 48 times in 96 games for his country but struggled for games and goals with Bayern Munich last season. He is a shadow of the player who finished top scorer at the 2006 World Cup. "It is clear that it will be no easy task to get Miro in form," Lw said. "It will be hard work, for him, for us. He has to work a lot. He still hasn't shown the form that he is actually capable of."

Hardly a ringing endorsement but it's the simple truth, given the fact that Klose's last international goal came in the 1-0 World Cup qualifying win away to Russia last October. If Germany are to make any kind of stand similar to four years ago, when they surpassed expectations to finish third under Jurgen Klinsmann's attack-minded guidance, it could be down to Schweinsteiger, one of eight Bayern Munich players in the squad. "I hate to see our opponents create chances," says the man known as Schweini. "If you play in the World Cup, you also want to win the tournament. The fact that a lot of us know each other well from Bayern makes it perhaps a littler simpler. But in my eyes we have a very difficult group. If we get through that, we can achieve a lot."

On paper, Lw's squad looks no match for the likes of Spain, Brazil, Argentina or England. Then again, it would not be the first time an unfancied Germany have slipped under the radar. Turn the clock back just two years, for example, when they confounded the critics by reaching the final of Euro 2008.

"It is often the case that when an important player is missing others step up and fill the space, and I expect this to happen in South Africa," says former German skipper Lothar Matthus. "Michael Ballack will be missed but the team will come closer and remain strong. German teams are always well-organised, disciplined and difficult to defeat."

No one could argue with that. Efficiency has long been a watchword in Germany but even if they conform to type and make it through to the knockout phase, organisation and strong resolve may not be enough to progress much further.

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