Germany and Portugal will get their World Cup campaigns underway in Salvador on Monday looking to put behind them buildups to the competition blighted by fitness concerns.
Injuries have come in heavy measure for Germany coach Joachim Low. Those who have not even made it to Brazil include Ilkay Gundogan, who missed almost the entire season, Mario Gomez, who was discounted for selection because of an injury-plagued campaign with Fiorentina, and left-back Marcel Schmelzer, who was unable to convince Low of his fitness. An injury suffered to attacking midfielder Marco Reus in Germany’s final warm up game means he will also miss the competition, while key players Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm, Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger all come into the competition after various fitness concerns.
It is hardly ideal buildup for a team that has identified this World Cup as the time to correct their nearly-men tag of recent times. In the last four major tournaments, Germany have been eliminated from the semifinals on three occasions and finished as runners-up in the other. Hardly a shabby record, but with the youngsters from 2006 -- Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski -- now vastly experienced, an exciting young group from 2010 -- chiefly Khedira, Neuer, Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller -- now in their prime and another emerging pool of talent to supplement them, there is expectation back home for a trophy to be delivered this time around.
Despite their injuries, Low retains a supremely talented group of players from which to choose. The one position which is an obvious exception is up front. One can’t help but be struck by the name of just one striker in Germany’s squad, and that being 36-year-old Miroslav Klose. It is possible Low could have taken more natural options up front, but it is clear that he is intent on fielding a false nine for much of that tournament.
Mario Gotze has had experience occupying the role with Bayern Munich this season, while goals can still come from around him with Thomas Muller and Lukas Podolski or Andre Schurrle. That system would help Germany’s transition to a more possession-orientated team away from the counter-attacking side of 2010. With Germany having to play all three of its group games in the hot north east of Brazil, two of them at the hottest time of the day, retaining the ball will be key.
It remains to be seen then whether attacking midfielder Mesut Ozil will feature from the start or a more natural central midfielder will be utilized. Ozil has been given backing by teammates in recent days, but endured a difficult first season for Arsenal.
Portugal’s build up to their first game has been dominated by concerns over the fitness of Ozil’s former Real Madrid teammate Cristiano Ronaldo. After a niggling muscle injury hampered him during the climax of the club season, Portugal’s star man was diagnosed with tendinitis in his left knee shortly before the World Cup. He returned to start Portugal’s final pre-tournament friendly against the Republic of Ireland last week, but raised further concern after leaving training early last Thursday and being seen with an icepack on his problematic knee. Having taken a full part in training over subsequent days, however, he now looks sure to start against Germany.
“Cristiano is training well, he's training hard and we are sure he's going to be 100 percent to help us and to have an excellent game,” Portugal goalkeeper Eduardo said, according to FIFA.com.
“He's healthy and he can't wait to start this tournament. He's determined and he wants to play to the limit, like all of us, with an immense will to win and give our best. You can see it in training, in the hotel, and that's certainly going to reflect in the tournament.”
It goes without saying that a fully-fit Ronaldo is crucial to Portugal’s hopes in their opening game and of attempting to improve on a disappointing round-of-16 exit in 2010. Ronaldo struck a memorable hat-trick to secure Portugal’s place in Brazil via a playoff with Sweden. And while he will be aided by his Madrid teammate Fabio Coentrao behind him and the creativity of Joao Moutinho, Portugal’s attack remains heavily reliant on their talisman.
How Germany will counter his threat remains unclear. The chief question being whether Lahm will play in his traditional full-back role or be deployed as the defensive midfielder that Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola so successfully turned him into last season. While Lahm will aid Germany’s ball retention in midfield, he could be crucial going up against Ronaldo. Germany’s defense has shown a weakness against counter-attacks in the past, and, with Low’s team likely to maintain the bulk of possession, Portugal will attempt to expose that vulnerability on the break through the pace of Ronaldo and either Silvestre Varela or Nani on the other flank.
Prediction: Germany could well still be attempting to fine tune their strategy in their opening game, while it is doubtful whether Ronaldo will yet be at 100 percent. And, with both teams unlikely to be too disappointed to walk away with an opening point ahead of games against group rivals the United States and Ghana, together with the conditions that will doubtless lead to tiring of legs late on, a draw could be on the cards.
Germany 1-1 Portugal
When and where: The World Cup Group G match will kick off from the Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador at noon ET.