Ballack injury scare as Spain look to reign

Pass master Fabregas can land knockout blow as Germany's captain faces race against time. By Steve Tongue in Vienna
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The Independent Football

Germany's hopes of winning a fourth European Championship title suffered a severe blow last night when their inspirational captain Michael Ballack missed training because of a calf injury and was declared doubtful for this evening's final against Spain. "We're not giving up hope," the team's general manager Oliver Bierhoff said. "We'll do everything we can so that he can play." The coach Joachim Low added: "We don't know how it happened. He was in pain and it hasn't improved since yesterday. We'll wait and see how it develops overnight but we'll have to think seriously about what happens if he cannot play. We're not going to upset our tactical system completely, because a similiar player can take Michael's position."

Apart from the worry for the team, the Chelsea's midfielder's absence would continue his dreadful run of personal misfortune in major competitions. He has never played in the final of an international tournament, missing the 2002 World Cup final (which Germany lost anyway) after unselfishly collecting a second yellow card to prevent a goal, to round off a season of finishing second; that year his club Bayer Leverkusen were runners-up in the Champions' League, the Bundesliga and the German Cup. He missed Chelsea's FA Cup final win in 2007 because of injury and this season now threatens similar disappointment after they lost the Champions' League final and Premier League to Manchester United and even the Carling Cup final to Tottenham.

Unlike their three previous European finals in 1972, 1980 and 1996, when the Germans were clear favourites, they have this time been provided with opponents to match their own worth in a genuine heavyweight encounter. Not that Spain, unbeaten in 21 bouts and with the equivalent of a good few knock-outs and stoppages among them, are mere sluggers. Although Russia were out on their feet by the end of Thursday's semi-final - 3-0 being the most emphatic result at that stage of the competition since the very first one 48 years ago - they had been jabbed rather than battered into submission.

In football terms, it was death by a thousand passes, and the Russian manager Guus Hiddink was powerless this time to prevent what was happening to his young team. Spelling out the lessons for Germany to heed this evening, Hiddink said: "Their plan was to tire us by their very good possession. We had to run a lot and then they had the power and quality to strike and hit us. So it was a very deserved win for a team who can play with one touch."

One touch and then another and another in a manner that must surely have convinced that old grouch of a coach, Luis Aragones, that he has hit upon his best formation for the final by the accident that befell the competition's leading scorer David Villa, pulling a muscle as he struck a free-kick after half an hour of the semi-final. Instead of summoning another striker to replace him, Aragones reverted to the system frequently employed before the finals by putting Cesc Fabregas - world football's best substitute - into midfield with Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Marcos Senna and defying the opposition to get the ball.

True, as the coach has pointed out, playing with two strikers worked well in the opening two group games, during which Villa and Fernando Torres scored five times between them. What he did not say was that the third match, the 'dead' one against Greece, was won with Fabregas playing just behind the reserve forward Daniel Guiza and that the fourth, a goalless quarter-final against Italy, was one of the tournament's few grim ones. Come the knockout stages, in which defeat cannot be countenanced and draws may not suffice, then possession of the ball - as England followers know to their cost - is the most important currency. In Fabregas and his midfield mates, Spain are on the gold standard.

The one proviso is that two or three of those in midfield must retain sufficient energy to get into the penalty box as Xavi and Silva did to devastating effect on Thursday. In Spain's case it is all the more important to do so since Torres, to the surprise of Merseyside and beyond, is having a patchy tournament. Three times Aragones has hauled him off, to the Liverpool man's evident displeasure, Guiza of unfashionable Real Mallorca coming on to further a reputation forged by topping the list of La Liga scorers with 27 goals last season.

Aragones, who leaves after the tournament, predictably played down the possible absence of Ballack last night, insisting: "He's a great player, but whoever comes in will run even more." He might have been unwittingly talking about the German captain, however, when he said: "The ones who finish second are soon forgotten. To be nearly there is not enough."

Germany's Bierhoff, who scored the winning goal in the Wembley final against the Czech Republic 12 years ago, made no attempt at keeping his team's tactics secret when he said: "We have to contain them, close them down and play a pressing game. Spanish football in general puts great emphasis on being comfortable on the ball, while their distribution is fantastic." The Germans have altered their system too during the course of the tournament - it is remarkable how often successful teams do - and they would be foolish to do so again with or without Ballack. He was instrumental in persuading Low to move to the modish 4-2-3-1 as a means of offering greater protection with two defensive midfielders as well as allowing him to push forward in support of Miroslav Klose.

If Ballack's calf does not improve, there could be a first game of the tournament for Tim Borowski, who has just joined Bayern Munich from Werder Bremen. Torsten Frings, fit again after damaging a rib, is expected to return alongside Thomas Hitzlsperger to protect a back four in which the towering centre-halves Christoph Metzelder and Per Mertesacker have recently looked more vulnerable than in the past. During a thrilling semi-final, the defiantly brave Turks showed how swift attackers can trouble the German defence.

Then there is the last line of it, the ever interesting Jens Lehmann, who now blames his indifferent form at the tournament on Arsenal for leaving him in the dug-out during so much of last season. Manuel Almunia, who kept him out of the team, is not considered among Spain's top three goalkeepers, though it would have been fun had the pair of them been in opposition today. Perhaps Lehmann should have stuck to his earlier resolution to move at Christmas if Arsene Wenger had not restored him to the team. OPT CUTLow has greater faith in him, though by choosing two deputies with hardly an international cap between them, he left himself little option. END CUT

"We have a long hard road behind us but we're going to mobilise all our forces to try to take the cup back to Germany," Low said. If he cannot mobilise his captain, that is all the less likely. Betting shop floors have been littered down the years with slips tipping against Germany but it might just be Spain's time again at last.

Germany (probable, 4-2-3-1): Lehmann (Stuttgart); Friedrich (Hertha Berlin), Mertesacker (Werder Bremen), Metzelder (Real Madrid), Lahm (Bayern Munich); Hitzlsperger (Stuttgart), Frings (Werder Bremen); Schweinsteiger (Bayern Munich), Borow-ski (Bayern Munich), Podolski (Bayern Munich); Klose (Bayern Munich).

Spain (probable, 4-1-4-1): Casillas (Real Madrid); Ramos (Real Madrid), Marchena (Valencia), Puyol (Barcelona), Capdevila (Villarreal); Senna (Villarreal); Iniesta (Barcelona), Xavi (Barcelona), Fabregas (Arsenal), Silva (Valencia); Torres (Liverpool).

Referee: R Rosetti (Italy).

See Spain take on Germany in the Euro 2008 final this evening on BBC1, kick-off 7.45

How they got there...



Spain 4-1 Russia (Villa 20, 45, 75, Fabregas 90)

Spain 2-1 Sweden (Torres 15, Villa 90)

Spain 2-1 Greece (De la Red 61, Guiza 88)

Quarter-final: Spain 0-0 Italy (Spain won 4-2 on penalties)

Semi-final: Spain 3-0 Russia (Xavi 50, Guiza 73, Silva 82)



Germany 2-0 Poland (Podolski 20, 72)

Germany 1-2 Croatia (Podolski 78)

Germany 1-0 Austria (Ballack 49)

Quarter-final: Germany 3-2 Portugal (Schweinsteiger 22, Klose 26, Ballack 62)

Semi-final: Germany 3-2 Turkey (Schweinsteiger 27, Klose 79, Lahm 90)

Euro honours

Spain winners, 1964

Germany winners 1972, 1980 (both as West Germany), 1996

Previous Euro meetings

Euro 84, France, Group: West Germany 0-1 Spain (Maceda 90)

Euro 88, West Germany, Group: West Germany 2-0 Spain (Völler 29, 51)

Tom Bateman

Euro Stars: Supersub Fabregas is tournament's finest

Best player?

Amazingly, nobody has been outstanding. It could have been Andrei Arshavin, until he drifted out of the semi-final so disappointingly. So, instead, I will choose Cesc Fabregas as the tournament's best substitute

Biggest disappointment?

Lilian Thuram (France).

Best game?

Germany 3 Turkey 2

Best goal?

Wesley Sneijder, Holland's second against Italy.

Best manager?

Guus Hiddink (Russia).

Best XI of tournament?

(4-4-2): Van der Sar (Holland); Anyukov (Russia), Ujfalusi (Czech Republic), Pepe (Portugal), Jankulovski (Czech Republic); Ronaldo (Portugal), Hamit Altintop (Turkey), Ballack (Germany), Sneijder (Holland, above); Van Nistelrooy (Holland), Arshavin (Russia).

Where would England have finished?

The usual. Quarter-final defeat by Holland.

Which Euro star will light up the Premier League?

Luka Modric (Tottenham).

Whose price tag has dipped alarmingly?

Germany striker Mario Gomez.

Most memorable quote?

"England had a good day. Maybe their only one." Guus Hiddink on losing 3-0 at Wembley.

Any point having co-hosts?

It helps countries like this who could not stage the tournament on their own. But Poland and Ukraine? Really?

Best bet for success at the 2010 World Cup?

Germany. Because they are Germany.

Steve Tongue

Euro Stars: With Capello, England could have won this

Best player?

Michael Ballack (Germany).

Biggest disappointment?

France. Shambolic.

Best game?

Holland 1 Russia 3

Best goal?

Wesley Sneijder v Italy.

Best manager?

Fatih Terim (Turkey).

Best XI of tournament?

(4-1-3-1-1): Boruc (Poland); Corluka (Croatia), Chiellini (Italy), Pepe (Portugal), Zhirkov (Russia); Senna (Spain); Modric (Croatia), Ballack (Germany), Sneijder (Holland); Arshavin (Russia); Van Nistelrooy (Holland).

Where would England have finished?

Depends if we are thinking before Fabio Capello or with him. Before – out in the quarters. With – maybe finalists. Maybe even winners.

Which Euro star will light up the Premier League?

Would or will? Arshavin would but I'm not sure he will.

Whose price tag has dipped alarmingly?

Mario Gomez.

Most memorable quote?

The France coach, Raymond Domenech, after his country's exit from the tournament: "My only thoughts from now on are about getting married to Estelle. I would like to ask for her hand."

Worst press conference?

Andrei Arshavin refusing to speak to the press after his man-of-the-match display v Sweden.

Best/worst TV commentary?

Best – Martin O'Neill. Worst – Where to start? Alan Shearer, Alan Hansen... but surely it must be the perennially boring Mark Lawrenson.

Funniest moment?

Slaven Bilic's celebrations after Croatia beat Germany.

Any point having co-hosts?

No. It takes a place away from a nation that is trying to qualify.

Jason Burt