The nationalmannschaft continued their poor form in friendlies with a half-hearted defeat at home to Norway.
By Nick Bidwell in Munich
November 2008: upstaged 2-1 in Berlin by old enemy England. February 2009: mugged 1-0 in Dusseldorf by a Norway side in transition after the glory days of the 1990s. Germany began the new year in the same vein as they finished the old – weary, uninspired and beaten at home in a friendly.
Those of a Nationalmannschaft persuasion will find ample consolation in Germany’s distaste for rehearsal room intensity, preferring to be word-perfect when qualification points or tournament progress are at stake. But don’t think for a moment that “alright on the night“ sentiments will protect Bundestrainer Joachim Low from a media mauling over the next few days and weeks.
Warm-up fixture or not, Low knows there can be no excuses. Reigning European vice-champions are expected to prevail on their own turf and there seemed little chance of Norway springing an upset here. The Scandinavians had made a poor start to World Cup 2010 qualification (two draws and a defeat), had three important players injured – strikers John Carew and Steffen Iversen and left-back John Arne Riise – and a dreadful head-to-head record against the Germans, coming out on top just once in 19 meetings back in 1936.
As honest as ever, Low described his team’s Dusseldorf downfall as “deserved” and in time-honoured coach-speak, stressed the need to learn the lessons arising from defeat. Top of the list should be the need for greater defensive solidity. Schalke centre-back Heiko Westermann looked particularly unsure of himself and on the whole the rearguard lacked cohesion and preparedness. Exhibit A would be Norway’s winner on the hour-mark. Germany’s back-line failed to deal with a long throw and than played statues as Moten Gamst Pedersen’s low cross from the right travelled all the way to the far post, where Heerenveen’s Christian Grindheim tapped in.
Low knew full what to expect from the gameplan of iconic Norway boss Egil Olsen, the highly-successful former national team coach recalled recently as caretaker following the sacking of Age Hareide. Massed defence and a wing and a prayer counter. The trouble is Germany lacked the ideas, speed and ingenuity to unblock the dam. Even when playing badly, the Nationalmannschaft often find a way to build up an attacking head of steam, to keep the opposition pinned down in defence before finally breaking through. This was not one of those nights.
Extensive video reruns of the match will not be required to locate the deficiencies in midfield. Out wide Bastian Schweinsteiger and Piotr Trochowski – so impressive for Hamburg of late – were rarely able to penetrate, while the vastly experienced central duo of skipper Michael Ballack and Torsten Frings had games to forget.
Ballack, making his 90th international appearance, was tremendously busy but imaginatively on short rations. Frings lacked dynamism and regularly gave the ball away.
Bad timing for Michael and Torsten. Late last year both blasted Low for allegedly not paying enough respect to the old-stagers in the side. Such performances will not convince the Bundestrainer to put caps above current form in his selection criteria. Of course captain Ballack is safe for now. Not so in the case of Frings, who is under severe pressure for his place from the likes of Leverkusen’s Simon Rolfes and Thomas Hitzlsperger of Stuttgart.
Another man feeling the heat is striker Mario Gomez. In 12 internationals he has yet to find the net and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he is for domestic consumption only. So prolific in the Bundesliga for Stuttgart. So uncertain and profligate when the nation calls.
Amid all the depression, one player did have something to smile about. In the 78th minute Werder Bremen’s playmaker Mesut Ozil, born in Germany to Turkish parents, appeared for his Nationalmannschaft debut, thus ending a serious tug of war for his services. “I chose Germany because I was brought up and became a pro footballer here,“ says Ozil. “I’m hoping migrants will perhaps now identify more with the German team.“