By Clark Whitney | German Football Editor
Ever since he became Germany’s assistant coach in 2004, Joachim Low has carefully planned his team for the long-term. In his early years, Lukas Podolski, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Philipp Lahm were plucked from the talent pool, and have since become permanent fixtures.
In the months leading up to the 2010 World Cup, Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller emerged, while Manuel Neuer and Sami Khedira made strong impressions as last-minute replacements for their injured team-mates.
Since then, many more have made their claims for regular minutes, Bayern players in particular. Holger Badstuber, Jerome Boateng and Mario Gomez have all improved their status in Low’s team, while Toni Kroos is now not only a reliable deputy in defensive midfield, but a serious option for a starting berth.
Low has called up eight Bayern stars to his preliminary Euro 2012 squad, and in all likelihood, none will be cut when he announces his final selection on May 29. But following their unexpected loss to Chelsea in the Champions League final, one must ask: how much faith should Low have in the Bavarians?
Again and again, players like Lahm and Schweinsteiger have proven their class, particularly in big games in which their sides were underdogs. On the other hand, those players have again and again failed at the final hurdle, twice losing in the Champions League final, once in the European Championship, and twice in World Cup semi-finals. There is an undeniable trend that has emerged, and after the recent loss, even chairman Uli Hoeness doubted his team's potential: "Perhaps we should ask ourselves why it happened, whether these are the players who can impose themselves. Whether we have enough of them. We cannot say everything is fine if we finish second in three competitions."
|"Perhaps we should ask ourselves why it happened, whether these are the players who can impose themselves ... We cannot say everything is fine if we finish second in three competitions"
- Uli Hoeness
Finals make and break careers, and the inevitable loss of confidence that comes with the defeat to Chelsea will be a big concern to Low and his coaching staff. Particularly unsettling is the reluctance of so many to take penalties in the shoot-out. So dire was the situation for the third spot-kick that after a lengthy delay, Neuer was the man with the nerve to do what had to be done.
The goalkeeper won himself many fans for his performances in the last three Champions League games of the season: he has the heart of a champion and his starting role should not at all be considered in danger.
As it stands, Lahm and Schweinsteiger are the best Germany have in their positions, and Low has little choice but to hope they will put years of misery behind them in Poland and Ukraine. Both, but Lahm in particular, played well in the Champions League final, it must be said, although the latter let his emotions get the better of him in the shoot-out. The duo will have to overcome some serious demons if they are to finally see their success through to the finish line.
Having missed the final due to suspension, Holger Badstuber gets a free pass. The defender has made great strides this season, and Jerome Boateng’s utter incompetence in the final proves just how important Badstuber is as a centre-back.
On the other hand, there are some from Bayern’s ranks who simply cannot be trusted by Low. Boateng is perhaps the most undeserving, having struggled greatly in the final two rounds of the Champions League. Marking Karim Benzema was always going to be difficult, but for a man of Boateng’s athleticism, keeping an eye on an isolated 34-year-old Didier Drogba should not have caused as much trouble as it did.
As a centre-back, Boateng has Badstuber, Mats Hummels and Per Mertesacker decidedly ahead of him, but even in the right-back position, another option exists in the form of Benedikt Howedes. Low has even mentioned the possibility of using one of the Bender twins in a full-back role, an option that would not be entirely unfavourable.
In attack, Mario Gomez - despite 41 goals this season - cannot be trusted. The debate as to whether he is world class will rage forever, but the fact remains: the ex-Stuttgart man is Jekyll or Hyde depending on the day, and one can never tell which side of him will show up. Low may eventually rue the decision not to call up more centre-forwards, because as it stands, his options are thin. Miroslav Klose has struggled with injuries during preparations, while Cacau has not impressed the trainer and is said to be at risk of being cut. Low has labelled Marco Reus an option, but the agile attacker has never played as a lone centre-forward. Gomez is therefore under enormous pressure, and following his dismal end to the season, that cannot bode well for Germany.
The final Bayern player to consider is Toni Kroos, a favourite of Low’s, but one who had a very disappointing and very telling final. The youngster struggled alongside Schweinsteiger, with both simultaneously moving into attacking areas while leaving space between themselves and the back four: it was a tactical nightmare that Low may not have the time to fix before the tournament.
More significant was Kroos’ lack of confidence to take a spot-kick in the shoot-out. As arguably the most technically gifted player on the pitch, he ought to have had the nerve to step up. But weeks after failing to convert in a similar situation against Real Madrid, he would not test himself in the final. Should Germany enter a penalty shoot-out, the 22-year-old's composure cannot be assured.
|Trophies are the true measure of glory: they are not won by accident, and in they end they are what matter most in a player’s career|
In the past, Low has had little choice but to rely on Bayern for the majority of his starting XI: the German record champions were almost always the best team in the country, even when they did not win titles, and the trainer had few options to select from abroad. But now, with more and more talents heading overseas and with the emergence of other quality teams in the Bundesliga, Low has other options available.
Bayern have gone without a trophy for two seasons now, and their performance in the Champions League and DFB-Pokal finals betrayed a sense of nervousness. Khedira was a key figure for Real Madrid in their Liga victory, while the likes of Mario Gotze, Mats Hummels, Marcel Schmelzer and Sven Bender have won three titles since the 2010 World Cup. Even Howedes and Julian Draxler at Schalke lifted the DFB-Pokal 12 months ago.
All the above might have been viewed in the past with some scepticism. But trophies are the true measure of glory: they are not won by accident, and in the end they are what matter most in a player’s career.
Some among the Bayern ranks have a history of success and can be expected to bounce back in the coming weeks. But for others, Low would be wise to look past his favourites and consider the options on hand. If he doesn't then don't be surprised to see a Bayern-dominated Germany fall just short once again next month.
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