Titanic-Teutonic willpower and strength of conviction were nowhere to be seen on the eve of the game in Basel. Bierhoff, in a blatant exercise in pre-match damage limitation, even reformulated Germany's aims for this tournament. "We've achieved our minimum goal: getting out of the group," said the 40-year-old. "Before the Euros, reaching the semis had been seen as the bare minimum," remembered FAZ writer Michael Horeni, "but after a disappointing tournament with only one convincing performance, two injured stars [Torsten Frings and Lukas Podolski] and a manager who's gone missing, the am...itions of the team who finished third in the World Cup have shrunk overnight."
Some of the pessimism stems from the sense that the elements have conspired against Michael Ballack's team. Joachim Löw's one-match suspension after getting banished to the stands by an over-zealous fourth official in the match against Austria is seen as a great injustice by the German press. "Football has lost out at this trial," commented Süddeutsche Zeitung. "The punishment seems disproportionate. The judges should have realised that nervous, shouting coaches who pace their coaching zones have been nothing new at these championships."
Podolski's calf problem might well be a blessing in disguise - he scored three goals but destabilised the whole team with his tactical incompetence - but the probable loss of moody spandex rocker Frings is a much more serious problem. Germany's defeat by Italy in the 2006 World Cup semi-final is still routinely blamed on the Werder Bremen captain's suspension for that game and there is a feeling that Ballack simply can't keep the Portuguese at bay on his own. The fact that Hertha Berlin defender Arne Friedrich, a man who can only run in straight lines and is as good going forward as a broken-down lorry stuck in reverse gear, will have to contend with Cristiano Ronaldo, doesn't exactly inspire confidence in the team's chances.
The biggest worry of all, however, pertains to Germany's incredible loss of form, in both individual and collective terms. As one player admitted privately, the squad simply can't work out why they're playing so badly. Apart from a decent first half against Poland, their football suddenly seems to have gone back to the bad old days of what Franz Beckenbauer called "Rumpelfußball", the pre-Jurgen Klinsmann era marred by incoherent, pedestrian displays and the over-reliance on dead-ball situations and crosses. "The German players have shown a type of football that's been totally at odds with the ideals of their manager," wrote Andreas Lesch in FT Deutschland. "They've played in a wholly un-Löwian style. Not out of spite – they simply can't do any better."
Löw's modern system worked brilliantly in the last couple of years but after the "systematic failure" against Croatia, there are severe doubts about the suitability of his sophisticated programmes. They just wouldn't compute. The German machine crashed. And when they re-booted against Austria, they went back to BASIC:
While some papers have found it commendable that the team were able to knuckle down, rediscover their "German virtues" and at least get a result against Austria, Frankfurter Rundschau wondered if the side isn't experiencing a full-blown identity crisis. "This team was supposed to show genteel combination football," they wrote, "but now we're back to 'closing down spaces', 'doubling up', running, fighting, biting and scratching." Few think that will be enough tonight. Maybe the change to a more defensive 4-2-3-1 will help.
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