Ahead of the European Championships, Joachim Loew faces a task that Germany coaches haven't had to consider for some time: How to build a solid midfield. The team's traditional motor is showing signs of sputtering.
"I will find a way to balance this team"
Aware that the trip to the European Championships this summer will be the biggest test in his two-year tenure at the helm of the German men's soccer team, Joachim Loew started his preparations on Monday, May 19, with more than a week of double sessions for 26 Germany players.
After cruising through the qualifying stages to become the first team with a ticket to the finals, which run from June 7-29, three-time Euro title holders Germany are among the favorites to win the 16-team tournament.
"Now the serious work begins for us of choosing a team for the European championships," Loew said when he announced the team on May 16. "We want to exhaust all possibilities in the enlarged squad and we have the luxury of a training camp to scrutinize players. We need to see how players cope under pressure."
Unlike the pressure of taking the pitch against Germany's Group B opponents Poland, Croatia and Austria, the players will face more difficult competition from their German teammates as three of the 26 players training on the Spanish island of Majorca will be cut from the roster by May 28.
Spoilt for choice up front
Podolski and Klose hope to continue working together for Germany this summer
A total of six strikers are taking part in nine-day training session leaving Loew with the decision of which to put up front during the tournament.
World Cup veterans Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski as well as relative national team newcomer Mario Gomez and on-again-off-again Kevin Kuranyi look to have secured spots in the center circle for Germany. But they're going to face stiff competition from ambitious second-division strikers looking to earn a position or make their way back on the national side.
With 66 caps to his name, Oliver Neuville is the most experienced of the trio of forwards gunning for a spot on Loew's list. He can expect pressure from teenage teammate Marko Marin, a surprise midfield nomination who has made a name for himself on the Under-21 team, and Patrick Helmes, who has earned four caps for Germany.
Loew can count on Ballack in the midfield but other question marks remain
While Loew and his staff will have to choose among a number of strikers near the top of their game, the coach's midfield options have put in less inspiring performances with their club teams this season.
Other than captain Michael Ballack, whose participation the Champions League final with Chelsea means he'll be late to arrive at training on Majorca, Loew's preliminary midfield selection does not appear as strong as German sides of the past and -- other than 19-year-old Marin -- contains no real surprises.
While it was a slipped disk has put long-time stalwart midfield Bernd Schneider out of the Euro 2008 line-up, it remains unclear if a series of injuries has caused Werder Bremen captain Torsten Frings' performance to slip this season or if the 31-year-old's career is beginning its decent.
Either way he and Tim Borowski, who was substituted into six World Cup matches in 2006 and is moving south from Bremen to Bayern Munich next season, can count on making the trip to Austria and Switzerland while fellow World Cup holdover David Odonkor's spot on the national team is less than certain after a shaky season in Spain with Betis Sevilla.
Schweini will hope to improve on a lackluster season with Bayern
Since being chosen by Juergen Klinsmann for the 2006 World Cup, Stuttgart midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger and Bayern's Bastian Schweinsteiger have seldom left Joggi's good graces and helped him book 15 wins and just two losses in his first 20 games as head coach. Piotr Trochowski, on the other hand, will have to improve on the single goal he scored in the German league this season to retain a ticket to Austria.
Loew made clear that first-rate performances in the Bundesliga convinced him that Jermaine Jones and Simon Rolfes, called Germany's best field player by Kicker sports magazine, deserved a second look before he announced his final roster.
Defensive gaps closed in goal
A foot operation wasn't enough to keep Loew from nominating workhorse Christoph Metzelder, despite the central defender's recent return to Real Madrid's starting 11.
Germany's main goalkeeping question is about who will be on the bench
Most at home on the left side, Bayern's Philipp Lahm has proven capable of filling in wherever Loew needs him, and could potentially slide into a central position to anchor an otherwise shaky defense with Per Mertesacker if needed.
Marcel Jansen and Clemens Fritz provide the team with quickness on the flanks but, like central defender Arne Friedrich, have wobbled in past when dressed in Germany's black, red and gold jerseys.
With just two appearances for Germany, 25-year-old Heiko Westermann is the only recent arrival on the back line, but his aggressive nature -- he scored four goals for Schalke this season -- makes him a good fit in Germany's offensive-minded defense.
While no one in Germany was surprised when Loew nominated Jens Lehmann as his first choice between the posts, the exclusion of long-time backup goalie Timo Hildebrand in favor of Robert Enke and newcomer Rene Adler did catch many off guard.
When presenting the team Loew said the decision to leave out Hildebrand had been particularly difficult, but he would not be drawn on whether it was the end of the former Stuttgart keepers' international career.