Vogts opts for caution

Ian Ridley says the Germans will be better for a lesson in preparation

THE mood in the German camp was buoyant. They were growing stronger with the progression of the tournament, as tradition insisted. Jurgen Klinsmann spoke of a resilience, a mentality that enables them to prosper under stress.

That was two years ago in the United States, just before their World Cup quarter-final against Bulgaria. Perhaps it is the memory of that week and that match - a stunning 2-1 defeat after taking the lead then hitting the post - as much as last week's goalless draw against Italy which has subdued the atmosphere at their Cheshire hotel in recent days.

No assumption, it seemed, that destiny was leading them to a titanic struggle of nationalism swollen with footballing history against England in the semi-final. As might be expected, however, flights to London and a Marylebone Road hotel have been booked for tomorrow.

Though the venue switches from New Jersey to Old Trafford, the situation today is similar to two years ago. Croatia, their opponents in the quarter- finals of the European Championship, have a familiar look, despite being exciting newcomers to the international scene; outsiders to win the tournament ("secret favourites," according to the German coach Berti Vogts), full of gifted individuals capable of undermining with one moment all Germany's carefully organised plans on and off the field.

This time, after the bitter Bulgarian experience, there appears to be a humility to the Germans. They have been acutely aware of having performed poorly against the Italians, not only driven back continually by vivacious, desperate opponents but inhibited into a cynical indolence by their own comfortably built position at the top of the group. Displays of their opening performances against the Czech Republic and Russia have been tempered by the manifest insult to the fair play philosophy of the tournament in Andreas Kopke remaining on the field after his felling of Pier Luigi Casiraghi.

Kopke was named man of the match after a series of flamboyant saves; it would not have happened in a club game. Vogts duly acknowledged the shortcomings in the build-up to today's match. One recalls him standing at the touchline in Giants' Stadium, a picture of despair, unable to believe that his durable team was folding.

The sack seemed certain to be his fate but grittily, as he did as a player, he has clung on through the subsequent criticism. And kept a sense of humour, in defiance of those who cite national stereotypes. "If I walked on water, my critics would say it was because I couldn't swim," he has said.

"We have a lot to learn from Italy - that we are far from being a really good team," Vogts said during preparation for today. "If we had given away a goal, I don't think we would have been able to respond physically or mentally. We gave away possession too early and allowed them to counter- attack. We didn't act but reacted instead. We need more action, to revitalise our midfield and give our forwards some ball they can do something with."

There will be many areas of concern to Vogts, not least in the knee injury to Thomas Helmer, a towering presence last Wednesday, with healthy back- up limited. There are weaknesses in at least two positions. Dieter Eilts, the midfield holding player, has looked unambitiously mediocre and Fredi Bobic, brave but guileless, an inadequate partner for Klinsmann.

Fortunately for them there is always Klinsmann, in whose assured hands Vogts has placed the captaincy and jettisoned the disruptive Lothar Matthaus, miffed at his Bayern Munich colleague's influence with the coach. For all Alan Shearer's emergence, Klinsmann remains the at once busy but thoughtful, sure-touched, clinical role model for a striker. With such a threat, organised ordinariness can thrive.

Do the Germans get stronger, as of folk lore? This decade has in fact seen them produce their best football in the qualifying groups of major championships rather than the knock-out stages.

Turin 1990 will remain in English minds as the night that could have been after the Germans had earlier looked certain winners, having put four and five past Yugoslavia and the United Arab Emirates respectively. Then came the unfancied Danes in that final of Sweden 1992. That said, a World Cup win and European Championship final in the last six years is testament to the continuity that has enabled Vogts to retain the reins.

The Italians showed with their pressing game how the Germans' composure can be disturbed. Given time, Matthias Sammer can dictate the tempo and pattern of the game from the libero's position, but Casiraghi's hassling of him to bring the penalty, isolated error though it was by the otherwise immaculate Sammer, illustrated the possibilities. "Even Franz Beckenbauer made mistakes and he was called the Kaiser," said Vogts as mitigation.

As coaches must, Vogts sought silver linings beyond topping the group without conceding a goal. "I saw my team fight like mad with only 10 men," he said. "Our defence was denser and we did not allow Italy any decisive paths through it. Of course, we should have played with more cleverness and sharpness but you will get a different picture against Croatia."

The Croats, too, are likely to present a different picture from the frame without a canvas of midweek that saw them defeated 3-0 by Portugal. Igor Stimac, Zvonimir Boban, Alen Boksic and, for a duel with Sammer that promises much quality, Davor Suker will surely return. Patience, as for the Germans, will be the watchword, but their quickening of pace around the opposition penalty area should ensure an intriguing contest; so too the individualism inherent in the Croats.

The evidence of last Wednesday suggests that the Germans will seek to grind out a result again. Vogts has sought to alter such perceptions of his team but this is a footballing nation imbued with more than 40 years of needs-must attitude towards victory, fuelled by a demanding press to rank with those of Italy, Brazil and England.

"Not at all costs," Vogts has said. "I'm very much into that," adds Sammer. "We don't want to grind our way through the rounds and have people say 'Oh it's the Germans again'." One suspects that they will and people will.

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