Before 2010, it was the loss of Michael Ballack that shocked Germany. Kevin Prince Boateng’s horror foul in the FA Cup Final brought an end to Ballack’s World Cup dream and, ultimately, his international career. Joachim Löw swiftly drafted in a replacement in the form of a young VfB Stuttgart midfielder by the name of Sami Khedira. No disrespect to him, said Germany, but Ballack he ain’t, and the World Cup he won’t win.
Khedira, at least in the first of those charges, proved them wrong. He shone immediately, and became a key part of the team who only faltered in the final ten minutes of their semi final against Spain. Since then, he has been as irreplaceable as Ballack was then.
Now, history is repeating itself. For a mere seven months before Löw’s side get underway in Brazil, the Real Madrid star has torn the cruciate ligament in his right knee. His club may have seen fit to send two doctors to Augsburg to assist with the operation, but it is his country who will miss him the most keenly should the worst case scenario be realised.
Alongside Phillipp Lahm, Manuel Neuer and Mesut Özil, Khedira is one of only a handful of players whose selection has been absolutely guaranteed in this so talented of Germany sides. His assumption of the Ballack role was made complete at Euro 2012, when Bastian Schweinsteiger’s fitness first came into serious question. Since then, it has been Khedira, not his usual partner in defensive midfield, who has been the heartbeat of Löw’s team.
It is for that reason that Löw identified Khedira’s injury, sustained in the 65 minute of his side’s 1-1 draw with Italy on Friday, as “the worst I have seen since I took over in 2004”. Worse than Ballack’s, worse than Rene Adler’s at the same time, and worse, of course, than Schweinsteiger’s perpetual niggles.
Where Ballack could be replaced – albeit with a certain leap of faith – by Khedira, and Adler’s injury made way for the now unchallengeable Manuel Neuer, Khedira is a problem less easily solved. For all the criticism that Joachim Löw has had to endure in view of his team’s defensive shortcomings, the defensive midfield has generally been the least of his worries. Now that looks set to change.
It is not that he lacks options. If Schweinsteiger – only last week on the operating table – is fit, then he can come in. But the consecutive injuries he has strung together have reduced his aura as a leading player. Toni Kroos, meanwhile, has barely played as a holding player for club or country since making the switch back to attack last season. Ilkay Gündogan has also missed most of this season so far through injury. Yes, there are Sven and Lars Bender, both of whom play in that role for their respective clubs, but there is nobody who offers the security and consistency of Khedira.
The operation in Augsburg was, reportedly, a success, and the Germany team doctor Hans Müller-Wohlfahrt declared at the weekend that “there is some hope of him playing at the World Cup”. Löw was more philosophical, referring to the fact that “Sami has a fighting spirit and always thinks positively. That will help him.”
No one, however, has yet been able or brave enough to put a real estimate on the length of time that Germany will have to do without Khedira. It is, after all, a potentially career ending injury, and in that respect, losing the player for the World Cup is hardly the worst outcome possible. But it is an eventuality for which Germany is now glumly preparing.
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- Stephen Carter