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Jun 2, 2014

Is this Germany's year?

Germany's number one goalkeeper Manuel Neuer has been on a meteoric rise since his move from Schalke to Bayern Munich in 2011.

Sami Khedira, Mats Hummels, Andre Schürrle, Lukas Podolski, Julian Draxler and Miroslav Klose. What do these six players -- a combination of proven World Cup performers and formidable talents -- have in common? None of them was deemed good enough to be included in the Top 50 of ESPN FC's #WorldCupRank.

Two or three have a right to feel slightly aggrieved by the omission, none more so than Klose, the 36-year-old veteran who can equal Ronaldo's World Cup scoring record (15) and surpass Gerd Müller's international tally for Germany (68) with one more goal in Brazil. But the Lazio forward might not even start a single game for Joachim Löw's team, such is the competition for attacking places in the lineup.

Bastian Schweinsteiger, (Bayern Munich) the side's pace-setter in the middle of the park, would have also come under internal pressure if injuries had not deprived the Nationalmannschaft of excellent central midfield alternatives like Ilkay Gündogan (Borussia Dortmund) and the Bender twins, Sven and Lars.

It's tempting to look at those six names at the top and at the seven who were included, along with Schweinsteiger, and to surmise that Germany have never had it so good. "The best squad of all time" was the tag that gained currency a year ago, when two-thirds of the team battled it out at the Champions League final at Wembley.

Podolski and Lahm were part of the side that lit up the 2006 World Cup. This summer might be their last chance at international glory.
Podolski and Lahm were part of the side that lit up the 2006 World Cup. This summer might be their last chance at international glory.

Since then, the superlatives have been notably toned down. Löw and Germany sporting director Oliver Bierhoff have worked hard to inject a dose of realism into the debate (the heat, the humidity, etc etc). Injuries and loss of form have done the rest. As a result, the mood back home is peculiar. Few expect the team to truly win the country's fourth World Cup trophy, yet fewer still are prepared to consider anything less than another very close shave -- they were runners-up in 2002 and third in the past two competitions -- as failure.

So can they do it? The sheer amount of individual quality at Löw's disposal suggests that they will be strong contenders, problems and worries notwithstanding. A few years ago, the idea that a Germany team could boast more technically gifted, creative forwards than Brazil would have been deemed preposterous, but there's no argument now. Only Spain, the one country with as many players in the ESPN FC Top 50 (eight in total) have more artistic skill on a player-by-player basis.

- Uersfeld: Germany driven to distraction
- Schaaf: Kramer rises to the top
- 23-man squad: Schmelzer left out
- ESPN FC's #WorldCupRank

Unfortunately for Löw, though, the distribution of the talent could have been better. His Germany is one of attacking midfielders. Mario Götze (38th) Thomas Müller (28th, both Bayern), Mesut Özil (29th, Arsenal) and Marco Reus (33rd, Dortmund) all first have to fight each other (and Podolski and Schürrle) for a starting berth before they can do any damage to opposition defences.

Bayern's imperious goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer (27th), goes to Brazil with a shoulder injury and might not recover in time for the group-stage opener against Portugal. His club-mate right-back Philipp Lahm (22nd) is the outstanding defensive player ... but will he actually spend any time playing in the back four? His emergence as a central midfielder after a season under Pep Guardiola has increased Löw's options in defensive midfield. But a shift to the centre would create a second problem in the full-back positions.

Any club manager would have long ago addressed this persistent shortcoming and bought a high-class wide defender, but for Löw, solutions have proved elusive. He will have to rely on Bayern centre-back Jerome Boateng helping out or on newcomer Erik Durm of Dortmund rising to the task; maybe on both.

The pressure's on Joachim Low to extract the best from Germany's wealth of talented attackers in Brazil.
The pressure's on Joachim Low to extract the best from Germany's wealth of talented attackers in Brazil.

The generation of Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Podolski and Per Mertesacker will forever be credited for kick-starting the renaissance of Germany in 2006 under Jürgen Klinsmann. But their countrymen care about trophies, first and foremost. There is no concept of glorious failure in German football, only win or defeat.

After the nadir of Euro 2004, expectations have built up over the decade. Playing attractive football that the world admires has lost its lustre; Germans wouldn't mind a bit of hard-nosed, aesthetically deficient "Ergebnisfußball" (results football) to supplement the style. The time to write history is now.

Amazingly, that quartet is theoretically still young enough to be involved by the time Russia 2018 comes around, but in practice, it's hard to see anyone but the freakishly dependable Lahm playing at a similar level in four years' time. At 40, Klose will surely have retired by then. The pressure from younger players will have proved too great.

As far as the World Cup is concerned, this is their best -- and probably last -- shot. There will be a "Umbruch" soon, as Germans call it; a break or turning of the page after the tournament, whatever the outcome. The Müllers and Götzes will take over, after Euro 2016 at the very latest. For the "summer fairy tale" generation who made Germany 2006 such a thrilling competition for the hosts, the time to produce a belated happy ending is now.

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