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Germany and Spain move away from false nines as World Cup draws near

With 100 days to go until the FIFA World Cup, Ian Darke joins a group of ESPN writers and experts for a roundtable discussion about what to expect in Russia this summer.

Germany and Spain meet on Friday in a friendly. Ahead of the game, we asked Raphael Honigstein and Sid Lowe to discuss the state of the two teams, with fewer than three months until the World Cup kicks off.

Raf gets the debate going:

Mein lieber Sid,

You'll be pleased to find that Bundestrainer Joachim Low has shown himself a huge Radiohead fan: There are No Surprises in the 26-strong squad he has picked for the Spain and Brazil friendlies. The underlying message of this conservative approach seems to be that the time for experiments is over and the 58-year-old has a pretty good idea who he'll take the Russia; only a couple of spaces are still up for grabs.

Having said that, Low purposefully omitted two World Cup hopefuls -- for two very different reasons -- who have big chances to make the final squad. Marco Reus was left out for his own benefit, to be able to "train and play regularly, to find his rhythm, security and confidence," as Low explained. The 28-year-old has performed well for Borussia Dortmund since returning from injury in November and, if he can stay fit, is destined to feature for Germany in the summer.

The situation is more precarious for Reus' BVB teammate Mario Gotze. Low pointedly refused to explain the attacking midfielder's exclusion, but it can be interpreted as a warning shot and the 25-year-old has to get a move on. Gotze was criticised by BVB coach Peter Stoger after a dismal 45-minute showing in the 0-0 draw in Salzburg last Thursday: "We didn't see anything from him," the Austrian said. But the scorer of a World Cup-winning goal in 2014 had a better game in Sunday's 1-0 win over Hannover and has a lot of credit with Low. I personally believe that Dortmund central midfielder Mahmoud Dahoud might also force his way into the squad by mid-May.

As far as the men who will play in Dusseldorf against Spain are concerned, the main battle is between Bayern Munich's Sandro Wagner and Mario Gomez of Stuttgart for the centre-forward position. Wagner would seem to have the upper hand and a decent match vs. Josep Lopetegui's side, or in Berlin against Brazil four days later, would probably seal the deal. Tell Sergio Ramos to get ready for a physical challenge. The days of Low playing a false nine, in a tribute to the La Roja, are over.

Kind regards.

Look out Raf, Mr. Bad Guy is back.

Julen Lopetegui named his squad on Friday and, after nine months, Diego Costa is in again. Which we probably should have anticipated and which, over the last two months, we all pretty much knew would be the case. And yet, not so long ago, you couldn't help wondering if he would ever play for Spain again.

In the summer, Costa was hanging out in Brazil: He'd fallen out with Chelsea and was refusing to return to London, while holding out for a move to Atletico Madrid that was far from guaranteed. When it did finally happen, he strolled into Barajas Terminal 4 looking a bit, well, podgy: "Profe Ortega will get me in shape," he said. With Atletico banned from signing anyone, he wasn't going to be able to play until after Christmas. In the meantime, Alvaro Morata replaced him at Chelsea and in the national team.

Yeah, Costa scored five times in qualification but he had been absent from the decisive games and Morata was scoring regulalry. But here we are, months later: Costa in and Morata very definitely out. The other strikers in Spain's squad are Iago Aspas and Rodrigo Moreno.

The fact that Lopetegui has thrown Costa straight back in says something about the difference the 29-year-old has made since he started playing (unlike Vitolo, Lopetegui's big discovery, whose awful season split between Las Palmas and the Atletico subs bench means his opportunity has almost certainly gone). Costa has scored six times in 2018; he's also been sent off, of course, growling and fighting and being, well, Diego Costa.

His recall also suggests that Lopetegui was waiting for him. Not least because, in his absence, the coach played Morata, Rodrigo, Aritz Aduriz and even Isco as a false nine. (Did you see Isco against Italy, by the way? Woof!)

But don't expect that this time. Oh no; Costa's here. And if Lopetegui was waiting for him, Diego's waiting for the Germans. Poor sods. You think Sergio Ramos has a physical battle in store against Sandro Wagner? What about your defenders? Ouch.

Much love!

Puyol's goal in 2010 ended Germany's World Cup run but taught them a valuable tactical lesson.
The last time Spain the two sides met in the World Cup, Carles Puyol's goal gave Spain victory.

Hey Sid,

Ah, Diego Costa; I had sort of forgotten about him. I just checked: The first performance of "Beauty and the Beast" musical at Dusseldorf's Capitol Theater won't be staged before April 17 but I guess we'll all get a sneak preview on Friday, when Mats Hummels will make the acquaintance of the Atletico Madrid striker.

Germany will be neatly turned out in the 1990s retro-style green away shirts at the AWD Arena and they have a new logo on their team bus, too: "BEST NEVER REST," with a golden "V" to symbolise the fifth World Cup trophy they'll be aiming to win in Russia. The idea is to ramp up the pressure on the nation's elite players, to ensure that they'll stay "hungry unconditionally," as Low put it.

There seems to be an unspoken fear inside the camp that, as holders, they might be tempted to take things just a couple of percentage points easier this time around. That's why pre-tournament favourites Spain -- and Brazil, their opponents next Tuesday -- have been chosen specifically to dissuade anyone of the notion that Germany will just have turn up in Russia in order to pick up the trophy for the next celebration with really bad music underneath the Brandenburg Gate.

Indeed, in recent days Low and sporting director Oliver Bierhoff have been so busy warning against complacency and bemoaning the Bundesliga's pressing-infused emphasis on playing "against the ball," at the expense of constructive attacking play, that I half-wonder if they wouldn't secretly welcome a defeat or two, just to drum home the message that everyone must try harder.

Your boys might be happy to oblige. But don't rule out the home side just yet. We are likely to play our best XI, which should provide some useful pointers as to how Low intends to squeeze his two dozen very good midfielders into the side and construct a team without a proper defensively-minded specialist in front of the back four. Could we perhaps borrow Javi Martinez? Lopetegui doesn't seem to want him.

Four years ago, a few Nationalmannschaft players admitted that the early exit of Spain -- Germany's bogey team in 2008 and 2010 -- provided a huge psychological boost. A good result in Dusseldorf could have a smaller, but similarly beneficial effect. One way or the other, the match will tell us where Low's men stand, relative to their own expectations with just under three months to go until it really matters.

See you in the semifinal!

Now there's a man that Spain forgot, Raf.

It's curious: There's not much of a campaign for Martinez. And for "campaign for," read "mention of." I'd be tempted to take him if I was Lopetegui but, instead, the midfielders added to the usual suspects this time are QPR "legend" Dani Parejo, who gets a call-up many years after Alfredo Di Stefano insisted that he wouldn't go to the stadium that carries his name if Parejo wasn't playing.

And Rodri, the Villarreal midfielder who has been superb this season and will probably be at Atletico next season, is also included. "I watch [Sergio] Busquets," he said. Saul Niguez looks a guaranteed inclusion in the squad and there's Thiago, who Germany know well. It would not be a huge surprise if neither started, though; expect Busquets, Koke, Andres Iniesta, Isco and David Silva.

The other position Martinez plays, centre-back, is filled by Ramos and Gerard Pique, plus Nacho and Cesar Azpilicueta. That still feels a bit light to me but then, as mentioned, I'm not Lopetegui. Pique has had flu this week and so hasn't traine, but at least his knee is not the problem. Ramos, Costa's best mate when it comes to the national team, despite the fact that he has had reservations about players who may not "feel" Spain quite like he does, will be at the heart of defence. Marcos Alonso will get a game, though maybe not on Friday, when Jordi Alba is likely to start.

Spain have a new shirt -- it's grey-blue, at least to me, but I'm colour-blind; they're calling it light blue with red details -- and they're taking it seriously, like everything else during this international break which sees many of the top teams meet each other. AS noted that Argentina and Germany, Spain's two opponents over the next week, could be opponents in Russia. "Messi in quarters, Ozil in semis," the headline read. The clubs are just desperate that no one gets hurt and as ever, that matters a bit more than the national team; the "FIFA virus," they call it.

Not long ago, it was pretty clear what Spain's line-up would be, but that's be thrown into doubt by the fact that Isco, who seemed set to lead club and country, is no longer a starter at the Bernabeu. Lopetegui seems to have complete faith and has been looking after him the last few days and, who knows, maybe the rest is good for him? But it doesn't feel that way. The coach will give him all the trust he can and that starts with, well, starting him.

Auf Wiedersehen, pet.


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