Klinsmann clinging to hope after humiliation

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The Polish journalist working in the bowels of the Stadio Artemio Franchi on Wednesday night wore a broad smile. His readers may not enjoy the match report from Kaiserslautern, where Poland had been beaten by the United States, but they were going to like this one. He had just seen Germany, Poland's main group stage opponents at the World Cup, dismembered by Italy. With Costa Rica and Ecuador also in Group A the Poles believe they have struck lucky. So might England who, if they emerge from Group B, will play a Group A team in the second round.

That might be Germany, if they can get out of their group. Even that modest aim is in doubt after Italy scored four times in the opening hour here, eventually settling for a 4-1 win. Germany's inexperienced and rusty defence was eviscerated by Italy's potent attack and cunning midfield. "Mamma Mia, we're so bad," screamed the populist Bild yesterday morning, adding, "if we play like that at the World Cup we'll be obliterated." "Germany shrinks to a football dwarf," said the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Its city rival Frankfurter Neue Press asked: "Where will it all end?" Probably not in Berlin on 9 July, at the World Cup final, is the answer. While their coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, remained optimistic he is now working under intense media criticism and the strain, admitted Robert Huth, is beginning to tell on the team.

After three World Cup victories, expectation always weighs heavily on Germany and, following a night trying to subdue the effervescent Luca Toni and Albert Gilardino, the Chelsea defender said: "The pressure of being World Cup hosts is massive and it is getting to us. We've got to take this punch on the chin and recover from it."

Germany have an early opportunity when they play the United States on 22 March, but while Michael Ballack promised, "You'll see a different German team then", the Americans' own form suggests further embarrassment looms.

Klinsmann, as ever, was positive. "It was not a pleasant night but that sometimes happens in football," he said. "You have those moments when things go in the wrong direction and they went totally in the wrong direction. The spirit is low at the moment but we have to keep our heads up and go for it anyway."

The former Tottenham striker has much to prove. His appointment as coach was greeted quizzically; hardly surprisingly, given that he lived in California and had not coached at any level. However, he had been a popular and successful player and represented a clean break from a set-up which had turned sour with a dismal display at the 2004 European Championship.

This ensured a honeymoon period that was extended when he put his faith in youth and was rewarded by a series of entertaining performances. In Germany, there was widespread enthusiasm at the prospect of their team confounding the stereotype by playing attractive football.

But Klinsmann operated by his own rules. Unlike his predecessors he does not brief the tabloids. He also alienated the clubs, summoning players for extra training and fitness tests, and ignored requests to go easy on key players' involvement in friendlies.

But even before the latest humiliation, the critics had opened fire. Uli Hoeness, a former World Cup winner and Bayern Munich's general manager, said: "The national team is in a catastrophic situation. With the World Cup around the corner we should have the basic contours in place, but we cannot see them. Klinsmann should be here, not in California."

The tabloids also attacked the "conference call coach" for his commuting arrangements. During a cold snap they ran an old picture of Klinsmann jogging on the beach, suggesting he should be freezing in Germany like everyone else and sorting out his team.

Germany have now gone 17 matches since defeating a traditional football power - their last such win was at Wembley over England in 2000. "Obviously, we'd like to end that run but we can learn from playing these teams," said Klinsmann before the Italian débâcle.

For some in Germany the lesson is that Klinsmann is out of his depth. Ottmar Hitzfeld, a Champions' League winner with Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, is available and waits in the wings.