CHAMPIONSHIP COUNTDOWN: No 4 Germany; Vogts is a favourite at last

If you wanted an international side to play for your life you would think carefully about the Dutch, then choose the Germans. They are the time and motion man's dream team, maximising while others disappoint. They qualify for every major tournament and usually reach or get close to the final.

Their preparation for Euro 96 is typical. In all probability they will have only one chance of playing under the Twin Towers, in the final, but they have still laid a pitch of Wembley dimensions and turf in the grounds of their Cheshire hotel. You suspect it will not be in vain.

After the relative failure of the last World Cup, when they were beaten in the quarter- finals by Bulgaria, the Germans have staged a typically robust comeback, winning eight of their 10 qualifying matches. They have since also defeated fellow finalists Portugal and the Netherlands away from home in friendlies.

Even the coach, Berti Vogts ("if I walked on water my accusers would say it's because I can't swim"), has shaken off his critics and, after the final qualifying game against the Bulgarians, was afforded a standing ovation from 75,000 fans in Berlin's Olympic stadium. If Vogts, who has had more calls for his resignation than John Major, is popular, then the rest of Europe must look out.

"I feel confident this German team can win the European Championship," Franz Beckenbauer, one of four of Vogts' immediate predecessors who have won either world or European titles, said. "The form they showed against the Bulgarians proved it."

Not that Vogts is entirely without selection problems, which have centred on his strikers. Tottenham's former talisman, Jurgen Klinsmann, once he has served a one-match suspension, is a certainty after scoring nine goals in the qualifying games but finding a partner has proved more of a problem.

Karlheinz Riedle and Heiko Herrlich have not fully recovered from injury while Fredi Bobic has a suspect knee, Ulf Kirsten has lost form and Stefan Kuntz has looked a lesser player since moving to Besikstas in Turkey. In desperation, Vogts turned to the neglected talent of Oliver Bierhoff.

Never fully appreciated in the Bundesliga, Bierhoff has prospered since moving to Italy's Udinese via Salzburg and is the only German left in Serie A. First capped against the Portuguese in February, he scored both goals in a friendly against the European Championship holders, Denmark, and seems to have cemented a place.

Vogts' other dilemma is the position of sweeper, which would normally be in the possession of Lothar Matthaus, the World Cup winning captain in 1990. A ruptured Achilles tendon cost him his place in the national team, which was not regained despite some storming performances as leader and sweeper of the Uefa Cup winners, Bayern Munich.

In his place has come Matthias Sammer, the first East German to play for the unified national team in 1990 and now, Klinsmann and Thomas Hassler not withstanding, possibly the most influential member of it.

Player to watch

Matthias Sammer

(Borussia Dortmund)

Wales pinpointed Sammer as a potential weakness, his eagerness to push forward sometimes leaving gaps. Instead, he dominated their qualifier in Cardiff, firing more shots at Neville Southall in 90 minutes than an English sweeper would contemplate in a career. A player, as the advert goes, for those who prefer silk.

SQUAD

Goalkeepers

Andreas Kopke Eintracht Frankfurt

Oliver Kahn Bayern Munich

Oliver Reck Werder Bremen

Defenders

Markus Babbel Bayern Munich

Thomas Helmer Bayern Munich

Jurgen Kohler Borussia Dortmund

Stefan Reuter Borussia Dortmund

Matthias Sammer Borussia Dortmund

Rene Schneider Hansa Rostock

Midfielders

Mario Basler Werder Bremen

Marco Bode Werder Bremen

Dieter Eilts Werder Bremen

Steffen Freund Borussia Dortmund

Thomas Hassler Karlsruhe

Andreas Moller Borussia Dortmund

Mehmet Scholl Bayern Munich

Thomas Strunz Bayern Munich

Christian Ziege Bayern Munich

Forwards

Oliver Bierhoff Udinese

Fredi Bobic VfB Stuttgart

Jurgen Klinsmann Bayern Munich

Stefan Kuntz Besiktas

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