Germany will kick off its challenge to become just the third team to follow up World Cup victory by becoming champions of Europe two years later when taking on Ukraine in Lille on Sunday. While both France and Spain have accomplished the sizable feat, Germany has never managed it, despite winning four World Cups and three European Championships in its illustrious history and holding both titles simultaneously in the mid-1970s.
Now after a new wave of German talent came good to win the World Cup in Brazil two years ago, Joachim Löw’s side enter Euro 2016 as one of the favorites. Yet it has not been all smooth sailing for Germany since Mario Götze’s extra-time goal sunk Argentina at the Maracana.
Qualifying, expected to be a breeze, especially with an expanded format to 24 teams, turned into a far more arduous affair. Defeats to both Poland and the Republic of Ireland meant that Germany went into its final match still not guaranteed of an automatic place in France.
Much of that could be down to a post-World Cup hangover and the difficulty of getting back motivated for Euro qualifiers after just lifting the biggest prize in soccer, but there were other more serious concerns. With the World Cup victory came the retirement of some of the team’s most experienced and important players, notably captain Philipp Lahm and record goalscorer Miroslav Klose.
Their departure saw the squad lose valuable leaders, and perhaps explains why Löw was so keen to name Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski in his squad for Euro 2016. But those two cannot fill the void, made only bigger by Lahm and Klose’s departure from the scene, at full-back and up front.
Adding to Löw’s concerns, he has suffered some big injury blows ahead of the tournament. Borussia Dortmund duo Ilkay Gundogan and Marco Reus had already been ruled before defender Antonio Rüdiger tore his anterior cruciate ligament in training this week. With fellow defender Mats Hummels also set to miss the opener, Löw has much to ponder.
Yet it is not an unfamiliar story for Germany. There were plenty of injury concerns ahead of the last World Cup, too, and Löw also found a way during the tournament to counter the lack of options at full-back and up front. And, with the likes of Thomas Müller, Manuel Neuer, Mesut Özil, Toni Kroos and others fit and available, Germany still possesses enough quality to make it the envy of almost every other country at the championships.
Certainly Ukraine would love to have Germany’s problems. Ukraine had to come through a playoff against Slovenia in order to make it to France after finishing below Spain and Slovakia in its group. Mykhaylo Fomenko's team has, though, won nine of its last 12 matches, including its last four. And, in wingers Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka, Ukraine has two players who can do damage to any opponent.
What the team doesn’t have anymore is a striker of the quality of Ballon d’Or winner Andriy Shevchenko. The former Milan and Chelsea forward scored twice in his international swan song as Ukraine bowed out of Euro 2012, when co-hosts, at the group stage. Now an assistant coach with his country, Shevchenko accepts that Ukraine will have to find ways to overcome its talent discrepancy with Germany.
“Every game is going to be difficult, but in the first one some nervousness might play a part,” he told the tournament’s official website. “We understand what we are up against. Maybe we are a bit weaker individually, so we have to be better collectively. We will try to build on our compactness, movement, tactical nous and fast attacks, which have always been typical for Ukraine. We are going to give Germany a good game.”
Prediction: There is reason to believe that this will not be a straightforward opener for the world champions. With Germany having particular problems defensively, Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko could cause real problems on the counter attack. This isn’t, though, an outstanding Ukraine side and Germany’s quality going forward should eventually tell.
Predicted Score: Germany 2-1 Ukraine
Kickoff Time: 3 p.m. EDT
TV Channel: ESPN
Live Stream: Watch ESPN