We are halfway through the tournament yet the sense is that Germany’s campaign is just beginning. The world champions qualified from their group without conceding but they also did so without impressing.
Joachim Löw’s team face Slovakia in Lille on Sunday after three performances that were solid but lacked spark in attack. They are the favourites to go through, of course, but they did lose to their opponents just a few weeks ago in a pre-Euro 2016 friendly, Marek Hamsik scoring a stunning goal in Augsburg as the visitors won 3-1.
Mario Gómez is likely to start up front again for Germany and scored in the last group game against Northern Ireland but the feeling is that, three games into the tournament, Löw still does not know what his best line-up is. The defence is settled with Jérôme Boateng likely to be fit after a calf injury to partner Mats Hummels in central defence and so are the two defensive midfielders (Sami Khedira and Toni Kroos).
Then comes the main dilemma: what to do with Mario Götze, the player who won Germany the World Cup with his goal in the final against Argentina but who has been struggling for playing time at Bayern Munich this season after he fell out of favour with Pep Guardiola.
The 24-year-old started the tournament as Löw’s false No9, against Ukraine, in front of three attacking midfielders, but failed to make an impact. In fact, Bastian Schweinsteiger, who came on to replace him in the 90th minute, managed to score in the three minutes he spent on the pitch. In the second game, against Poland, Götze was again deployed as the side’s main attacker but once more failed to impress and was this time taken off after 66 minutes.
Finally, against Northern Ireland he was positioned on the left of the attacking three. Sadly, he did not fare much better there. Most coaches would probably have dropped him by now but Löw is desperately hoping that Götze will come good.
Before the tournament Löw said: “Mario was injured for a long time and I have seen in training that Mario is not, when it comes to fitness and sharpness, where he once was but technically he is so good, he has unbelievable possibilities and can work in very little space and decide games. I am still counting on him for the Euros.”
As well as hoping that Götze comes good it seems that Löw does not trust the other attacking options he has in the squad. Julian Draxler, André Schürrle and young Leroy Sané could all play instead of Götze but only Draxler has been given a proper chance before being dropped to the bench.
It is possible, of course, that Gómez could carry the main attacking burden now that he has been reinstalled as the team’s main striker, and take some weight off Götze, Thomas Müller and Mesut Özil. Gómez has had a wonderful season on loan at Besiktas from Fiorentina and explained yesterday what it is that makes Germany so difficult to beat.
“We always want the best for each other in every game,” he told uefa.com. “I was there when we lost to Italy in the 2012 semi-final. We were devastated and ended up feeling like the biggest losers of the tournament. But in 2014, you could see that each and every one of us would benefit from being world champions. Even from a distance, I saw clearly that the team has to function as a whole to win a tournament like a World Cup and that’s the way it is today.”
Looking ahead to the last-16 game against Slovakia, he said: “We will analyse our opponents very thoroughly; we played them recently and we know this game won’t be a walk in the park. Those possible ties later in the tournament are a great prospect, though. This is a European Championship and you want games like that.”
The Germany team has come under pressure for their lacklustre start to the tournament with the former international Michael Ballack saying that they lacked leaders. Löw, however, was very dismissive. “Things repeat themselves so much,” he said. “The discussion conjures a smile from me. In 2014 there was the discussion that we have no leading players. Then we were world champions and they were suddenly the great leading players. Now we play a 0-0 and have this discussion again. The players have great leadership.”
And now, as the serious business begins, is the time to show it, starting with Slovakia on Sunday.
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