Germany looking good to defend World Cup title
BERLIN: With a European record of 43 goals scored, Germany is on its way to defend its World Cup title next year in Russia.
The Germans completed their qualifying campaign with a 5-1 win over Azerbaijan on Sunday, but coach Joachim Loew expects bigger challenges ahead.
"It's a mistake to take this qualification campaign as a yardstick. Sure, it was good, it was a clear achievement," Loew said of beating Spain's qualifying record for South Africa in 2010 by goal difference. "But another other level awaits at the World Cup.
"That's why we need to keep the ball on the ground, there's still a lot to do. I want to achieve something really remarkable in a few months. It will be difficult enough to be world champion two times in a row."
Spain went on to win the title in 2010 after setting the previous record in qualifying, but Brazil was the last World Cup champion to defend its title in 1962 and Loew is eager to highlight the difficulty of the task at hand.
"Only we as world champion have something to lose. Everyone else can only win," Loew said.
Still, anything less than a second straight World Cup title would be a disappointment for Germany.
Here are some of the areas Loew will need to address before next year's tournament:
Arguably Loew's biggest headache is the sheer number of talented players he has at his disposal. Altogether, he played 37 different players in the 10 qualifying games. Only 23 can be selected for Russia.
The Bundesliga website identified four separate teams that Loew can send out while remaining competitive.
Injuries permitting, Loew would like to keep faith in the backbone of the team that won the 2014 title, with Manuel Neuer (currently out injured) in goal behind Bayern Munich teammates Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng, with Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira in midfield.
Timo Werner is likely to keep his place up front despite Hoffenheim striker Sandro Wagner making the most of his chance to impress with five goals in five qualifiers.
Much will depend on the availability and form of Marco Reus, Mario Goetze and Ilkay Gundogan - all have faced or are facing long injury layoffs.
"The door is open of course," Loew said after Sunday's game. "Every individual player's performances will be observed. Sometimes you have one or another coming through that you weren't expecting."
Maximilian Philipp, who didn't participate in qualifying, is another who could yet play his way into the coach's plans if he maintains his strong start to the season for Borussia Dortmund.
Such is Germany's dominance at times that complacency can be a problem, especially against smaller opponents. After taking an early lead against Azerbaijan, the Germans conceded an equalizer in a lackluster first-half performance.
"We put ourselves under pressure because we didn't have the options going forward quickly when we were playing from the back," Loew said. "That's what we wanted. It wasn't optimal in the first half."
One effect of so many changes in qualifying is that teamwork can suffer among unfamiliar teammates, as evidenced in the first-half display against Azerbaijan.
"You could see that we had never played in that formation before," Loew said. "We didn't play the game at tempo, we made minor technical mistakes. You also have to acknowledge that some young players are going through various stages of development. Not everything works out."
The Germany coach will hope to iron out any issues in the now customary pre-tournament training camp in South Tyrol, northern Italy.
Loew wasn't being arrogant when he said that qualifying opponents Azerbaijan, Northern Ireland, the Czech Republic and Norway were not at the same level as the teams that will be challenging for the World Cup title.
"The real work only starts when the qualifying is over," said Loew, who has steered Germany to the semifinals or better in every major tournament since he took over the top position after the 2006 World Cup.
To help fine-tune for Russia, Germany has November friendlies lined up against England at Wembley Stadium, then most likely France in Cologne, before it hosts Spain and Brazil for friendlies in Duesseldorf and Berlin next March.
"We have a good basis," Loew said.