A tantalising match is in prospect this afternoon in Berlin as hosts Germany face World Cup 2006 surprise packages Ecuador to decide who will qualify for the next phase as Group A winnerss.
Both teams have sealed their qualification for the second phase with a game to spare after impressive wins against Poland and Costa Rica in their opening two matches. This was expected of the hosts, but Ecuador’s form has surprised most observers and they go into this afternoon’s match in the unlikely position of being in the driving seat. Due to their better goal difference the Ecuadorians only require a draw to finish top of the group and avoid a probable second-round clash against fancied England.
World Cup 2006 has so far been a roaring success for the German nation, both on and off the pitch. Most veteran reporters agree that the tournament has been the best in recent memory in terms of organisation, excitement and hospitality. Even the weather has co-operated, with supporters enjoying one of Germany’s hottest and sunniest Junes of recent times. The players may have been suffering in the heat but, as the competition approaches its crucial phase, cooler weather has arrived just in time to negate any excuses. It seems that German efficiency is able to control everything this summer – the climate included.
One thing that the German administrators are definitely unable to control is the form of the national team, but it appears at this early stage that it is in safe hands. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann has overcome the general antipathy that surrounded his appointment and his well-publicised failure to move back to Germany from California, and has created a team whose performances have raised the morale and hopes of the supporters. The impressive opening wins over Costa Rica and Poland were very different, but media and fans alike are hopeful that a fusion of the better aspects of each performance can result in formidable opposition for any nation that they face.
If the 4-2 opening day win against Costa Rica paraded Germany’s skill and efficiency in attack but also a defensive vulnerability, the subsequent 1-0 over Poland displayed the exact opposite. Wasteful in attack until Oliver Neuville’s dramatic injury-time winner, the Germans were excellent in midfield and in defence – limiting Poland to only a handful of half-chances. If Klinsmann can get both attack and defence performing on the same day then it is not difficult to concur with the optimism that is sweeping the host nation ahead of tonight’s match.
While the optimism is well placed, it is true that neither Costa Rica nor the inexplicably impotent Poles represented much of a challenge for the Germans. The quality of the opposition improves this evening in Berlin in the form of the impressive Ecuadorians, who have sailed through their opening two matches in arguably more impressive style than their hosts.
“They’ve made a strong impression on everybody,” Germany assistant coach Joachim Low told the press on Sunday.
“They’ve yet to concede a goal and have displayed ruthlessness in attack. We’ve taken a good, hard look at our opponents and thoroughly analysed their performances to date. They don’t have many weaknesses.”
Much of the talk in the press ahead of this afternoon’s match has centred on the second round and in particular which team the Germans would prefer to face. The opponents will come from Group B. England have already qualified and are likely winners of the group. They only need to secure a draw against Sweden in their final match this evening to guarantee top spot. This would mean they would play the Group A runners-up in the first knockout phase, and this has led some German journalists to claim that a win this evening is a necessity for Klinsmann’s team.
The coach, however, is unconcerned.
“We really don’t care who we face,” he told the gathered media on Monday morning.
“Once you get to the knock-out phase every match is tough but we shouldn’t even be thinking of the second round yet. We need to concentrate on nothing else but the Ecuador match.”
The former Tottenham and Internazionale striker, a World Cup winner as a player in 1990, was forthright in his praise for today’s opponents.
“Ecuador will be very tough opponents and deserve a lot of respect,” he said.
“They’ve shown why they finished third in the South American qualifying stage, behind only Brazil and Argentina. They’ve proved to the world that they can play anywhere now, not just at altitude as some people have been saying.”
The only injury worry for Klinsmann ahead of Germany’s first-ever meeting with Ecuador surrounds centre-half Christoph Metzelder, who is recovering from a knee injury sustained against Poland. Robert Huth will deputise if Metzelder is ruled out, while captain Michael Ballack will be risked despite being one yellow card away from suspension. Forward Mike Hanke is available again after completing a two-match ban for a red card in last year’s Confederations Cup. He is likely to settle for a place on the bench as Klinsmann sticks with Miroslav Klose and the hitherto disappointing Lukas Podolski in attack.
Ecuador’s fantastic early form has surprised everybody. They have long been considered relative minnows of South American football, only entering its continental championship, the Copa America, at the fifteenth time of asking in 1939. That they went some fifty years without winning a game in that competition and only snapped their 34 match winless run in 1989 illustrates much about the slow development of football in the country.
The reconstruction of the South American World Cup qualifying section in the late 1990s sparked a change in fortune for the Ecuadorians. Now guaranteed to play ten qualifying matches at home at high altitude, the team’s fortunes improved. Hard evidence of this is provided through their qualification for the 2002 World Cup, their first. In that World Cup they finished bottom of their group, prompting many observers from South America and beyond to claim that they were only effective when playing at altitude. However, the identity of their group opponents in Korea and Japan – Italy, Mexico and Croatia – reveals that Ecuador’s performance was not as poor as many had concluded.
Ecuador’s Colombian coach Luis Fernando Suarez is the latest in a long line of foreign coaches to have taken up the challenge of coaching the national team. This is another crucial factor in the improvement of the country’s footballing fortunes, as styles and tactics born in other countries have crept into the Ecuadorian psyche. It has undoubtedly made them a much harder team to beat and made them far more flexible.
Suarez has been typically confident ahead of this afternoon’s match. His prediction that Ecuador can win the World Cup is probably a motivational technique rather than a real conviction, but this afternoon’s match holds no fear for him. Ecuador approach it on top of Group A and only need a draw to top the group. That is not Suarez’s intended result.
“I don’t want to draw,” he told the press on the eve of the match.
“I want to win and so do my players. We want to beat Germany and win the group in style. There definitely won’t be a change of style for us. We have beaten Brazil and Argentina so let’s see if we can do the same against Germany. They are not as good as Brazil or Argentina, but they are at home. This gives them an advantage but we believe we are going to win.”
Suarez singled out Germany captain Michael Ballack for special praise and has warned his team to be wary of the threat he can provide.
“Germany have some very good players in their squad, but Ballack is the best. He is one of the best midfielders in the world and we have to look out for him,” he said.
Despite his claims that Ecuador’s playing style would not change, the personnel employed by Suarez probably will. Star striker Carlos Tenorio, who has scored in each of Ecuador’s opening victories, is likely to be rested and replaced by the experienced Ivan Kaviedes. Ivan Hurtado, Cristian Mora, Edison Mendez, Ulises de la Cruz and Castillo Segundo are all one booking away from missing the next match and it remains to be seen whether any of them will be rested. Suarez has claimed that he is unconcerned by this and that all of them will play this afternoon. England and Sweden, the most probable potential opponents for Ecuador in round two, will be looking out for the Ecuadorian team-sheet with much interest.
Suarez’s confidence in his team’s ability to match the Germans is echoed by the views of his star full-back, Aston Villa’s Ulises de la Cruz, who makes the same comparisons as his coach.
“We are confident of winning tomorrow,” revealed de la Cruz.
“After our results here already we are in good shape. We didn’t fear Brazil or Argentina in qualifying so why should we fear Germany? They are one of the world’s big teams but they are not bigger than Brazil or Argentina. They may be at home but we are sure we will finish the group above them.”
By Mark Robinson
Germany: Lehmann; Friedrich, Metzelder, Mertesacker, Lahm; Schneider, Frings, Ballack, Schweinsteiger; Podolski, Klose
Ecuador: Mora; de la Cruz, Hurtado, Espinoza, Reasco; Mendez, E Tenorio, Castillo, Valencia; Delgado, Kaviedes
Referee: Valentin Ivanov (Russia)