FA Cup Final 2014: Arsenal's German Gang have taste for silverware
The unlikely trio of Mertesacker, Podolski and Özil have supported each other through Arsenal's struggles this year, they tell Robin Scott-Elliot
Friday 16 May 2014
Lukas Podolski has a loud voice. It booms around Arsenal's indoor training pitch. Outside the sun is shining, there is Wembley to prepare for. The mood is happily upbeat. "We love you Özil, we do," chants Podolski in English. "We love you Özil, we do. Oh, Özil we love you."
Mesut Özil looks embarrassed as the two disappear for their post-training lunch. Per Mertesacker is already there, the third of a German contingent who will ensure there is more interest from their country than ever before in this year's FA Cup final. Mertesacker's doppelgänger brother, Timo, who likes to travel to away games on the fans' coaches to improve his English, is bringing a large group of friends.
Once domestic duties are done Mertesacker, Özil and Podolski will head home, but not for long. Bags will be repacked and red kit exchanged for white with the next stop Brazil. Back home the expectation is for the Nationalmannschaft to win the World Cup. There is a groundswell of opinion that after impressing at the last two major tournaments now is the time to deliver – after all, promise can only sustain you for so long. There is a similar feeling around north London.
The three Germans are likely to start against Hull at Wembley and if all three play well then it is probable Arsenal will win, particularly if Özil is at his will-o-the-wisp best. There have been recent signs of a return to the sort of form that lit up the autumn at the Emirates. Since the leaves fell from the trees Özil has flickered sporadically, at times very, very good, at others peripheral. By the new year, without the winter break he and his body are accustomed to, the midfielder was flagging. Then came that dreadful penalty miss against Bayern Munich and an experience that had begun so sweetly was turning sour. "He looks lost," was Michael Ballack's judgement.
Mertesacker's presence was vital. The defender and Özil played together at Werder Bremen, where Özil scored the goal to win the German Cup in 2009 as an injured Mertesacker watched from the stands, and the elder (by four years) knew how to look after the younger. After Arsenal were battered at Manchester City in December, Mertesacker publicly berated Özil for not acknowledging Arsenal's fans afterwards, but this called for a gentler approach. His compatriots could see he was struggling.
"We tried every day," says Mertesacker of how he and Podolski sought to help Özil. "We tried to talk to him every day. I think it is very important to keep his confidence high because sometimes you go through that moment when you suffer a bit and you feel low.
"It is easier for me to explain [to him] in German what is going on and what will help him. I knew before he would suffer at some moment in his first Premier League season, so we are happy that he is fit again and that he has got a few games under his belt to go now to Wembley and show everything.
"I think he is improving as well with his English – that is very important in his first season [so he can] start the next season with much more confidence to play and speak."
They make a contrasting threesome, a cross-section of modern Germany: Podolski's parents moved there from Poland when he was a toddler, Özil is the grandson of Turkish immigrants. At home he spoke Turkish, at school German. Mertesacker was born and bred in Hanover, where his father was a coach, and juggled his early football career with working in a home for the mentally ill having decided against doing his national service in the armed forces.
Podolski has the self-assurance of a man who has played for Germany for a decade, while Mertesacker, also an international veteran, is at home in England – he used to visit an aunt here as a child – and a firm favourite of the Arsenal fans. They call him the BFG, although after Big it does not follow the title of the Roald Dahl book from which it is inspired (Mertesacker has released a line of BFG T-shirts to raise money for his foundation, originally set up to gather funds for the family of Robert Enke, his friend and former Germany goalkeeper who committed suicide five years ago). Özil is quieter, more reserved. He admits this season has been an eye-opening battle to adjust.
"We had many matches," he says of learning a new footballing language. "The pace was massive. The matches were exhausting, always forward and backwards, even against the smaller clubs, even if it was 3-0. In Spain the opponents stopped fighting when it was 2-0. It was the first time that I didn't have a break in the winter. It was the first time that I had a muscle injury."
It was in Munich in March that he suffered a hamstring injury. He sat in the stands and watched his new team's Premier League challenge fade, and he sat in the stands at Wembley to watch Mertesacker score in the semi-final and Arsenal earn their return for the FA Cup final – just.
"It looked a bit timid from the start," recalls Mertesacker of that nerve-ridden afternoon against Wigan. "When they scored, we were a bit frightened. It seemed to be that we couldn't score that day so a defender had to take responsibility and try to get something."
It was his second goal at Wembley this season, having also scored the winner for Germany in a friendly in November. There are parallels between his two teams, both easy on the eye, both have promised much and both, in terms of the hard currency of trophies, have delivered little in recent years. One trophy, just one trophy, so the north London mantra goes, and…
"That would be a big step for our team," says Mertesacker. "We went through a lot of difficulties. We were top of the league, then we dropped points and then came back to fourth position.
"With Arsenal it's difficult [these] days with all the financial power [of] the big clubs at the Premier League. We have done a remarkable job we think and so that raises our confidence. When you look at training today, everyone is very excited. A bit nervous, I think, but that's good to keep our focus."
Podolski has had his own ups and downs this season, injury hampering the early part, and his form fluctuated before settling in recent weeks. With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain out he has started the last eight games and scored four times in Arsenal's run of five straight wins. For the last four of those Özil has been back too, the three Germans lining up to start together for the first time since Podolski scored the winner against Liverpool in the fifth round.
"We can win titles with this squad," suggests Özil. "This is very important for the fans as well. They have been waiting for so long."
Özil has learnt about the waiting game at Arsenal. If he can play a lead role in ending that wait then Podolski will be right and everyone in the red-and-white corner of north London really will love Özil.
The Per Mertesacker foundation supports socially disadvantaged children in Hanover by encouraging them to take up sports. To make a donation visit: www.per-mertesacker-stiftung.de/en
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