German ambitions belittle poor expectations

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The Independent Online

Though Germany have rarely travelled to a major tournament with such limited ambitions, one glance at the statistics will warn their opponents in Group E of the folly of underestimating the three times world champions.

Though Germany have rarely travelled to a major tournament with such limited ambitions, one glance at the statistics will warn their opponents in Group E of the folly of underestimating the three times world champions.

The last time the Germans failed to advance beyond the first round of matches in the World Cup was in 1938, when they lost to Switzerland in a replay, and only once have they lost their opening game in a World Cup finals.

The only glimmer of good news for Saudi Arabia, who meet Germany inside the Sapporo Dome today, is that those heroic victors were Algeria, who came to the 1982 finals in Spain with much the same reputation as the Saudis. That 2-1 defeat remains one of the most astonishing results in the history of the tournament, but it is a measure of Germany's decline that a similar result today would only register on the lower end of the Richter Scale.

Germany's preparations have not been helped by a succession of injuries. Jens Novotny and Christian Wörns, two certain starters in defence, were both ruled out before the squad was announced. Mehmet Scholl and Sebastian Deisler joined the casualty list, leaving an already prosaic midfield without two of its more creative thinkers, and thrusting extra responsibility onto the shoulders of Michael Ballack, who tired noticeably during the final, desperate, weeks of Bayer Leverkusen's quest for a trophy earlier this year.

To add to the German coach Rudi Völler's problems, Jens Jeremies, another experienced midfielder, is still not fully fit and unlikely to be considered for selection today. Yet the noises from the German camp have been surprisingly upbeat, as if anonymity has been a blessing after their uncomfortable and, for one memorable night, abject qualifying campaign.

"The spirit feels much the same as before our victory in Euro '96," said Christian Ziege. "We all believe we can get further than most people think." Which, if not quite a ringing endorsement of Germany's prospects, given that their own press expect to be home by mid-June, is an interesting shift of tone. A German side well motivated by Völler would spell danger not just for the Saudi Arabians, but for Ireland and Cameroon as well.

It is hard, though, to recall a German World Cup side so apparently short of class. Oliver Kahn would be the one candidate for a World Cup XI, though Ballack at his best is an elegant passer and a decisive goal-scorer with head or feet. Dietmar Hamann is an effective anchor, and the Polish-born Miroslav Klose has scored two hat-tricks in his last 12 international outings. But the fact that Klose's likely striking partner will be Carsten Jancker, who failed to score a goal in the Bundesliga this season, demonstrates the lack of quality in attack, while a defensive trio of Christoph Metzelder, Carsten Ramelow and Thomas Linke is a far cry from the German fortresses of old.

But the draw has favoured Germany. If they avoid Spain in the last 16, their route to the quarter-finals would be blocked only by either Slovenia, Paraguay or South Africa. However, a cautious Kahn said: "The Saudi game is an absolute priority, it gives the impetus for the tournament. It is our final." The Germans are right to be wary. Saudi Arabia are playing in their third consecutive finals.

In Nasser Al Johar they have a popular and proven coach, and the team have a reputation to uphold after reaching the second round on their debut in 1994. "We are determined not to let down the teams that preceded us," said midfielder Nawaf Al Temyat. Germany, above all, will understand the powerful forces of history.

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