FOX Soccer Exclusive
Schweinsteiger is Germany's fulcrum
"I was desperate and disappointed, like I was paralyzed. I wasn’t aware of what was going on around me. I didn't see the president's hand."
Those are the words of the dazed and desolate Bastian Schweinsteiger, the personification of Bayern Munich’s devastation after its Champions League final loss to Chelsea. Wrapped in his own world, the Germany midfielder even managed to wander past president Joachim Gauck’s attempt at a post-match handshake.
How Schweinsteiger – and the rest of the Bayern contingent – recovers from this most deflating of home losses will surely have a huge bearing on Germany’s prospects this summer. As the team widely touted as Euro 2012 favorite limbers up for the tournament in Poland and Ukraine, Germany's trademark élan has been conspicuously absent this calendar year.
Germany lost to neighbor France in a February friendly, with the influential Schweinsteiger and club mate (and national team captain) Philipp Lahm absent, but few were worried. A poll of current Bundesliga players in Kicker saw over 65% tip Germany as Euro 2012 winners, while a recent survey asking the magazine’s readers for their thoughts provided a similar result.
Both sets of respondents will hope the Champions League final will not retrospectively prove to be a watershed. As disappointed fans milled out of the Allianz Arena and onto the streets that Saturday night, Munich’s public transport system buckled, as if unable to compute the failure of its local representatives.
Shorn of its Bayern players, sent on a recuperative trip to the Monaco Grand Prix together, the national team wandered back into action the following weekend in a similar daze. Joachim Low’s side lost 5-3 in Switzerland, marking the first occasion that Germany had shipped five goals since a humiliating 5-1 defeat to Romania in April 2000.
Nobody is suggesting that this loss is going to preface the sort of tournament humiliation that befell Erick Ribbeck’s limited team at Euro 2000, but there is concern. The tetchy reaction of the 43,000-strong crowd in Leipzig as Germany labored to a 2-0 win against Israel on Thursday betrayed several degrees of anxiety.
It’s all a long way from the qualifying campaign, when Low’s team swept home in imperious fashion, winning ten out of ten. If Euro 2000 had been Germany’s nadir, the national side was now reaping the benefits of the youth academy reforms put in place after that crash and burn. After near misses in the latest attempts to capture silverware at World Cups in 2006 and 2010 and Euro 2008, Germany looked primed for success this summer, aided by Spanish fatigue.
As the defeat to the Swiss might suggest, defense is the main area of concern. Low is keen to have the experienced Per Mertesacker back in the center, despite the towering center-back’s trying first season in the English Premier League with Arsenal and his fitness doubts – he hadn’t played since picking up an ankle injury at Sunderland in February until the game in Switzerland.
If Mertesacker’s rustiness was understandable, the extent to which he was dominated in the air – the area of his game which one would assume is untouchable – was alarming. A pair of Bundesliga regulars exposed him, with Hoffenheim’s Eren Derdiyok scoring a headed hat-trick, all from early crosses by Tranquillo Barnetta.
The clean sheet against Israel was a step in the right direction, even if the visitor’s strike pair of Itay Shechter and Eran Zahavi had scored a combined total of five league goals for Kaiserslautern and Palermo respectively this season. Bayern’s Jerome Boateng replaced Schalke’s Benediky Howedes at right back for the match, after the latter failed to convince against either France or Switzerland. The concern at right back is great enough that the possibility of Lahm being switched over from the left hasn’t been ruled out.
"Next week we will decide where Lahm plays and then he will stay there,” Low pledged after the Israel game. “The decision in central defense will be made next week." The coach claimed that the starting XI for the Euro 2012 Group B opener against Portugal in Lviv would be “similar” to the one that took the field for that final friendly. Low knows that a reliable right back will be key, as he will face Cristiano Ronaldo, ably supported by his Real Madrid teammate Fábio Coentrão.
If any gremlins at the back can be caged, Germany’s initial confidence will not seem misplaced. The Israel match represented only the second time in the last seven outings that Germany has scored less than three. One of those, the 3-0 dismissal of the Netherlands in Hamburg back in November, is Germany’s point of reference, a performance so comprehensive that it still casts a shadow over the team assumed to be its biggest rival for control of Group B. If Germany fires, the rest will simply be left scrapping for second place.
In the supply department, there is no more incisive – or aesthetically pleasing – midfield playmaker at the tournament than Real Madrid’s Mesut Ozil, ably supported by the zest of Bayern’s Toni Kroos or Thomas Muller, depending on Low’s choice. Arsenal’s new signing Lukas Podolski, always at his very best for Germany, provides goals and pace on the left. The veteran Miroslav Klose provides the focal point in the middle, and knows that five goals at the tournament would bring him level with the legendary Gerd Muller’s national team record of 68.
Klose’s presence means there is unlikely to be a starting place for Kroos’ club colleague Mario Gomez, despite an extraordinary 41 goal-haul for Bayern this season. Nevertheless, Gomez is now an entirely different proposition than he was in his tentative first steps in the international game, or at a goalless 2010 World Cup. The forward scored important goals at opportune moments throughout the qualifying campaign.
He will be in good company on Low’s substitute bench. Mario Gotze and Marco Reus, who promise to form such a deadly pair for champion Borussia Dortmund next season, offer guile and potential width, while Leverkusen’s Andre Schurrle scored his seventh goal in only 14 international appearances against Israel.
The key, however, rests with Schweinsteiger. He made Germany motor in the last Euro four years ago, with a sublime performance from the left wing in the quarterfinal win over Portugal in Basel. Now 27 and with 90 matches for Germany to his name, he dictates from a deep position in the center, in the quarterback role so often eulogized in modern soccer but rarely carried out with such vision and authority as ‘Schwieni’ can do.
“He’s feeling no pain now, and he’ll be ready,” insisted Low after the Israel match. After an injury-interrupted end to the campaign left Schweinsteiger short of his usual imperious standards, Germany will be focusing more on the mental scars of his career’s biggest disappointment - and hoping that they have faded sufficiently to allow him to lead his talented young side to victory.