Germany on Wednesday welcome an injured Michael Ballack back as captain for a friendly against Austria after an absence of almost 11 months. But some are concerned by the team's sluggish Euro 2008 preparations.
Ballack is back to captain Germany, but Jogi Löw still has a roster full of headaches
The German star's return to the roster is one of the only high points for national team coach Joachim Löw before the friendly match in Vienna on Wednesday, Feb. 6, as several of his first-choice players are stuck at home nursing injuries.
Defenders Christoph Metzelder, Arne Friedrich, Clemens Fritz and Marcell Jensen as well as midfielder Torsten Frings and striker Oliver Neuville are absent.
Ballack has been key to -- and absent from -- the Germany midfield
Ballack, who finished Saturday's Premier League game with his head bandaged and later received nine stitches, will play his first international since Germany's 2-1 defeat of the Czech Republic in Prague on March 24 last year.
"We are very pleased that Michael is fully fit and returns after so long away from the national team," said Löw. "As captain and a leader, he plays a very important role in our European Championship planning."
Löw was also pleased that Jens Lehmann was back in goal for Arsenal at the weekend, while the coach saw several players immediately back in form after the Bundesliga winter break.
They included striker Kevin Kuranyi, who scored twice in Schalke's 4-1 defeat of VfB Stuttgart, while two other Schalke players, Jermaine Jones and Heiko Westermann, could well get their first caps as Löw tries a few alternatives.
Kuranyi scored all three goals when Germany beat Austria 3-1 in Vienna in August 2004, the last time the two nations met.
Euro a tougher win than World Cup
Could sponsoring shoots, like this one for a car company, hinder German preparations?
Meanwhile German team manager Oliver Bierhoff admitted Monday to being worried about the team's preparations for the European Championships, which run from June 7 to June 29.
"We have to watch out and be awake to the fact that the European Championships has already begun," Bierhoff said. "The World Cup in our own country was a fixed point. In comparison, the European Championships has faded away a little bit."
Germany, who were the first team to qualify for the Euro finals, are seen as among the favorites to win the tournament, an expectation team officials, including Bierhoff, have recently been trying to play down. The manager this week added that the European Championships would be "the more difficult tournament."
Moreover, tournament co-hosts Austria will also be one of his team's opponents in June in a group also featuring Poland and Croatia.
"Everything is just dribbling along," he said of Germany's preparations. "I don't like it at all. I am concerned."
A Kaiser's concerns
German soccer Kaiser Franz Beckenbauer also expressed his concern that the players like Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Podolski and Philipp Lahm aren't performing on the field.
The Kaiser wondered if World Cup stars could be whipped back into shape for Euro 2008
"A year and half ago they were celebrated as World Cup heroes," Beckenbauer told the mass-market Bild newspaper. "Since then there's been a drop in performance. It could have psychological causes -- that the players aren't quite finding their way in normal course of the league."
With just one more friendly against co-hosts Switzerland before the tournament begins, Bierhoff said the national team coaching staff would be in weekly contact with players "to get more out of them."
It pays to win
Financial motivation is one aspect team staff won't have to address in their weekly chats with players. Germany's Euro 2008 team members will earn a 250,000-euro ($370,500) bonus if they bring the tournament trophy back to Germany, the German Soccer Federation (DFB) said Monday.
The figure is 50,000 euros per player less than would have been paid had Germany as hosts won the 2006 World Cup, in which they eventually finished third.
For reaching the last eight, each of the 23-man squad will be paid 50,000 euros. The sum will grow to 100,000 euros for reaching the semi-finals and 150,000 euros for reaching the final.
Victory in the final would be worth another 100,000 euros - making a total of 5.75 million euros in player bonuses. Players won't have any extra income to look forward to if Germany fail to qualify for the tournament's second round.