Football: Ribbeck must provide answers

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A CRISIS for England is not qualifying for a major tournament; a crisis for Germany is not winning it. The latter's record of 11 finals in World Cups and European Championships to England's one should put their respective expectations into perspective, but also illustrates why the current stock of German football is as low as most people can remember.

"It's coming home," chorused Jurgen Klinsmann and his team-mates three years ago, stealing England's song as well as their thunder and holding up the European Championship trophy regarded as nothing more than their rightful possession. Since "only" reaching the World Cup quarter-finals last summer, which cost the coach Berti Vogts his job, the tune has changed into something altogether more mournful.

Erich Ribbeck, the veteran called upon to replace Vogts, has managed to win just one of his five matches in charge, losing the first Euro 2000 qualifer in Turkey and then, calamitously, presiding over a 3-0 drubbing by the United States. The latter performance, although during the mid- season break and without any of their foreign-based players, was widely held to be the worst ever - the always controversial former World Cup winner Paul Breitner putting his country's status on a par with Albania and Moldova.

In fact, an away win over the Moldovans had already restored the equilibrium in Group Three of the European Championship, in which victories against Northern Ireland at Windsor Park this afternoon and at home to Finland on Wednesday would probably propel the Germans to the top of the table.

If there is a genuine problem, it is the generational one that can affect any country at any time, one that Germany have somehow managed to avoid in the past. Klinsmann, Matthias Sammer, Jurgen Kohler and others have moved on, leaving only Lothar Matthaus, who, astonishingly, plays his 133rd international today. Ribbeck claims there are promising teenagers on the way up, but blames the short-termism of German clubs for signing expensive foreigners rather than nurturing the country's young talent.

The best he can do in the circumstances is construct a team around a nucleus of players from Bayern Munich, the European Cup semi-finalists, who have five representatives in the side Ribbeck was happy to name immediately on arrival at Belfast Airport yesterday.

Dietmar Hamann, increasingly impressive with Newcastle, is a former Bayern man who should add to the cohesion of an aggressive 3-4-3 formation. "We are a team in transition," Hamann said. "Everybody in Germany sees the future as black, but I'm of a different opinion, because we still have so many good players."

It is the sort of crisis that Northern Ireland would be happy to have, after failing to qualify in their last six tournaments, and one that may not work in their favour today. "If anything, it'll spur the Germans on even more," said Lawrie McMenemy, whose side have a win, a draw and a defeat so far and must travel to Moldova in midweek after failing to beat them in Belfast four months ago.

An unfeasibly good record against Germany (only one defeat in six games and some famous victories), plus the support of a sell-out crowd, are factors McMenemy can count on. Pondering where the goals might come from is, as ever, a worry for him; Iain Dowie seeks to equal Colin Clarke's record of 13, though it has taken Dowie 52 matches so far. He may also lack the running and crosses of Keith Gillespie, who has had hamstring trouble.

On Thursday, McMenemy interrupted Kevin Keegan's press conference with a good-luck telephone call. Today he is likely to give Fulham another full international by selecting their goalkeeper Maik Taylor (born in Germany) for the first time.

Northern Ireland (probable): Taylor; A Hughes, Patterson, Morrow, Horlock; Gillespie (or McCarthy), Lomas, Lennon, Rowland; M Hughes; Dowie.

Germany (probable): Kahn; Babbel, Worns, Matthaus; Strunz, Hamann, Jeremies, Heinrich; Neuville, Bierhoff, Bode.