Europe is having to do a lot of waking up to Asian giants these days. On Tuesday (May 30, 2006) it was Germany's turn, when they faced Japan in an international friendly in Leverkusen. With the World Cup just nine days away, Germany managed to salvage a 2-2- draw which earned them a lot of praise for the spirit and little for the performance.
Podolski versus Nakazawa in Germany versus Japan in Leverkusen on Tuesday
The Japanese are good learners, especially with a Brazilian past master like Zico as their coach. They can hold the ball, pass it, look for the opening and even finish the proper Brazilian way, by now. The only sad thing is that it was done – both times – by Naohiro Takahara who hasn’t had much of a season with his Bundesliga club SV Hamburg and is being sold to Eintracht Frankfurt as a result. One wonders if the Bundesliga clubs – with some honourable exceptions like Bayern Munich and Werder Bremen – really know how to get the best out of their foreign legionaries, as they are fondly called.
The playing goalkeeper
But for German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann’s three brilliant saves, the Germans would have been in for a real thrashing in Leverkusen. Preferring Lehmann to Oliver Kahn had been German coach Jürgen Klinsmann’s wisest move at the selection stage – and now it has paid off. Interesting to note is the fact that Lehmann still swears by his Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger’s philosophy of the ‘playing’ goalkeeper, who ‘comes out’ whenever necessary, even if it involves risks, and big risks, as Lehmann himself has proved in the recent past. He has no intentions of changing his style of playing, Lehmann announced laconically immediately after the Japan tryst. In any case, there can be no doubt that this man is at the top of his form and in the form of his life, and that with the German defence being as weak as it is – at present, with few or no alternatives in sight – Germany will need Lehmann in that form.
A defence problem
Captain Michael Ballack’s ankle injury, whether fully healed or not, nor the fact that the team is in the middle of preparing and have ‘heavy legs’ as a consequence, can excuse Ballack’s lacklustre and often frustrating – and frustrated – performance: he made the highest number of fouls on the German side.
Miroslav Klose and Bastian Schweinsteiger not only scored, they showed both spirit and verve, and are obviously in fine fettle, while Lukas Podolski is slowly but surely waking up to his possibilities. There is nothing to worry about in that quarter.
Those who failed to convince against Japan are the pair in central defence, Per Mertesacker and Christoph Metzelder; Bernd Schneider, understudying as right back; Torsten Frings was certainly not up to notch in the attack; Jens Nowotny’s ‘comeback’ might already be a thing of the past; and Tim Borowski is hardly in a position to replace Ballack in the worst case scenario.
So what are we to hold of the German team’s chances in the World Cup?
The German game
A lot, since the Germans proved not just their spirit, but also their stamina and their condition after the Japanese ran themselves out of steam. Even if it should be fairly easy to score against this German team, it will be anything but easy to hold that lead right down to the 90th minute and beyond. Possibly the second half, or the second half of the second half will always belong to the Germans – all other teams being henceforth warned.
The Germans do not play magical, eye catching football: their forte is condition, discipline and the team spirit. And they’ll be playing in front of German crowds, whose support is not just assured but unconditional.
Strange that nobody should have noticed Klinsmann’s ‘secret weapon’ at its first presentation: we are talking of Borussia Dortmund midfielder David Odonkor, who was brought in late, on the right and ran the Japanese dizzy with his unbelievable speed: the man runs 100 meters in a little over 10 seconds in his football boots, we are told.
This too will be a new element in the normally rather staid and standard German game: speed. The Japanese can take it, though demonstrably not all the way. Other teams – with entire phalanxes of football artistes in their ranks – might feel, if not find themselves run out, run past and ultimately run over.