Football: Divided Germany still a force to be reckoned with

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The Independent Online
Germany's national team is said to be in crisis. It is too old, racked by injury and riven with dissension. The captain, Jurgen Klinsmann, is past it, while even the coach, Berti Vogts, has turned on his team.

So the theory goes, but it rather ignores the fact that Germany are the current European champions at international and club level and are favourites to qualify for the World Cup from Group Nine. Glenn Hoddle would like a crisis like that while Bryan Hamilton, whose Northern Ireland team play Germany at Windsor Park tonight, can only dream of such a predicament.

Not that the crisis line is entirely without evidence. The team is ageing; the 33-year-old Klinsmann has gone more than 10 hours since his last international goal; Fredi Bobic has publicly criticised his team-mates Klinsmann and Oliver Bierhoff; Matthias Sammer has not been replaced; and, most damning of all, Vogts wrote to all his players in the summer expressing "total dissatisfaction" at their World Cup performances so far. A loss tonight and they could yet struggle to ensure automatic qualification.

Since Germany have not beaten Northern Ireland in five matches and 20 years that must be a possibility but confidence, not tension, was in the air as the team prepared yesterday. A gentle training session at Blanchflower Park, during which Klinsmann's finishing was electric, was followed by a relaxed afternoon in the team's hotel a few miles from Belfast. It is the same base they used to prepare for Euro 96 and they are so comfortable they are already considering using it before France 98.

"If the team put into practice what we have been doing in training, I will be very content," Vogts said. "The problem is that everyone thinks qualification can be taken for granted. We must guard against that. The time has come to end this tradition of not beating Ireland."

Vogts' only problem appeared to be a freak training injury to Thomas Strunz in an accident with Bierhoff. The Bayern Munich player is earmarked to play as the midfield anchor as Dieter Eilts has been dropped. As he was many pundits' player of the tournament in Euro 96, Eilts' absence underlines Germany's strength - Karlheinz Riedle and Heiko Herrlich cannot find a place in the squad either.

Vogts is aware of the danger of allowing his champion team to grow old and, having already drafted in Jorg Heinrich, Dortmund's brilliant young wing-back, and Darius Wosz, VfL Bochum's late-developing midfielder, he has called up Lars Ricken. The destroyer of Manchester United and Juventus in the European Cup is regarded as Germany's most promising talent and Vogts added: "His call-up is a signal that the door is always open for high calibre players."

Not that the old guard are ready to move over. "Performance and quality are more important than age," said Klinsmann, who wins his 99th cap tonight. "When the pressure is on, the young players need the experience of the old ones."

Klinsmann played down Bobic's criticism, but Christian Ziege was more forthoming on Vogts' letter. "He was very disappointed with us and wanted players to think about how much they dedicate themselves to the national side. He fulfilled that objective," said the wing-back who recently joined Milan.

Vogts will certainly be disappointed if Germany lose tonight. Such is the imbalance, the bulk of Germany's squad will feature in this year's Champions' League, while most of Northern Ireland's are in the Nationwide League or Premiership reserve sides.

One of the latter is Manchester United's Philip Mulryne, yet to play in his club's first team, who may win his fourth cap in place of the suspended Iain Dowie. Attack, however, is a minor concern. With Tommy Wright - who defied the Germans in the 1-1 draw in Nuremberg last year - and Alan Fettis injured, Hamilton must choose between Roy Carroll and Aidan Davison between the posts. Carroll is 19, plays for Wigan and won his only cap playing the second half against Thailand in the summer. That day he replaced Davison, who was winning his second cap. He is at Grimsby and is still seeking his 100th League game after a decade as a professional.

Whoever plays, tonight will be the biggest night of their career. It is a chance to go down in Irish football history - or infamy.

NORTHERN IRELAND (probable team) (World Cup qualifier v Germany, Belfast, tonight): Carroll (Wigan); Hill (IFK Gothenburg), Taggart (Bolton), Morrow (Queen's Park Rangers), Gillespie (Newcastle), Lennon (Leicester), Magilton (Southampton), Hughes (West Ham), Horlock (Manchester City); Quinn (Blackpool), Mulryne (Manchester Utd).

GERMANY (probable team): Kopke (Marseille); Babbel (Bayern Munich), Kohler, Helmer (both Borussia Dortmund), Basler (Bayern Munich), Hassler (Karlsruhe), Strunz (Bayern Munich), Moller (Borussia Dortmund), Ziege (Milan), Klinsmann (Sampdoria), Bierhoff (Udinese).

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