Germany kick off the defence of their World Cup title on Sunday against Mexico.
It’s a potential banana-skin tie for the champions, although they will back themselves to secure the three points despite recent indifferent form.
Here are three talking points going into Sunday’s game.
GERMANY MUST BEWARE OF COMPLACENCY
Joachim Low was understandably upset after Germany lost a friendly to Austria in the build-up to this tournament, the last failure in a five-match winless run that ended when they defeated Saudi Arabia in their final pre-World Cup friendly.
He knows what his side are capable of; they breezed through European qualifying, won the Confederations Cup last year handsomely despite fielding an untested squad, and the last time they failed to reach at least the semi-finals of a major tournament was Euro 2004. And, of course, they enter the World Cup as the trophy holders.
But Low must worry if complacency has taken a hold of his squad. Saudi Arabia looked hapless against Russia in the World Cup opener on Thursday, but Germany struggled to break them down, with more or less a first-choice XI.
Perhaps it’s just a case of flipping the switch once the real contest begins, but that’s a dangerous mentality to have. Their loss to a flawed France team at Euro 2016 should have been a warning that that they cannot simply turn up and win, and while a group of Mexico, Sweden, and South Korea holds no demons, Low needs to ensure the winning mentality is back.
MEXICO’S STARS NEED TO SHAKE OFF THE PRESSURE
Mexico departed for the World Cup with boos ringing in their ears after their final pre-tournament friendly at home, against Scotland. Their crime? Not winning by more than the solitary goal.
That’s the level of pressure El Tri face, despite not being one of the fancied sides at the tournament. Realistically, they’re headed for a Round of 16 exit for the seventh straight World Cup – they’re likely to finish second in their group at best, with Germany expected to top, and in all probability that means a matchup with Brazil. The fans want more, but it’s highly unlikely they’ll get it in Russia.
Faced with such demanding standards, how do Mexico cope? Merely acquitting themselves well against the world champions may not be enough, even when the most optimistic fans will probably be steeling themselves for a loss, and potentially a heavy one.
Lead striker Chicharito is among those Mexican players who seem to struggle under this pressure. Despite being their all-time leading goalscorer, a return of just three World Cup goals is underwhelming. And if a player who can be a star at Manchester United regularly underperforms for his country, how will a rising star like Hirving Lozano fare?
LOW CAN PLAY IT SAFE WITH OZIL
Mesut Ozil has been declared fit for Germany’s opener, after picking up an injury during their friendly against Austria that kept them out of their final warm-up match last week. But perhaps the smarter option is to leave him on the bench.
Not that they should take Mexico lightly, but the depth in attacking positions that Germany possess means they can ease Ozil back to full fitness. Marco Reus is an excellent backup in the No 10 role, and having him in top form will be a boost for Die Mannschaft even if he does ultimately have to cede his starter status to Ozil.
More importantly, an aggravation to the Arsenal star’s injury will be far more damaging than any effects of leaving him out – again, keeping Germany’s depth in mind. The champions’ second match is against Sweden, the most stubborn defence they will face in the group stages – just the sort of side against which Ozil becomes a necessity rather than a luxury.
Saving him for that game, allowing Reus to find his feet on the biggest stage in world football – he missed Germany’s triumph in 2014 through injury – may serve the side better in the long run.
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