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May 19, 2014

32 Teams in 32 Days: Germany

Group G | Portugal | Ghana | United States


Team DNA

Joachim Loew's Germany like to play aesthetically pleasing, attacking football, but have a tendency to look a little bit vulnerable at the back. The 54-year-old manager wants his side to dominate possession, circulate the ball quickly and win it back aggressively, with the help of a fairly high defensive line.

"I'm not prepared to play counter-attacking football or to set up the team with a defensive strategy," he angrily insisted after facing criticism in the wake of a 3-3 draw in a friendly against Paraguay last summer.

Loew has taken a cue from the passing game of Barcelona and Bayern Munich, to the point that he might not field an actual striker but an attacking midfielder as a "false 9" up front.

Germany will be intricate and technically brilliant, but the key word will be efficiency. "Possession without an end product is meaningless," Germany sporting director Oliver Bierhoff recently said.

Starting scenario

History

Germany are one of the most prolific countries at the World Cup. They've won three titles (1954, 1974, 1990) and reached four more finals on top of that. Germany have missed out on only two World Cups -- they did not enter in the inaugural event in 1930 and the post-World War II allied occupation banned them from participating in 1950 in Brazil.

How they reached Brazil

Germany were the easy qualification winners of Group C, winning nine of 10 games. The one match they drew, however, felt like a defeat.

In October 2012, the Nationalmannschaft were 4-0 up against Sweden in Berlin after 55 minutes, but somehow managed to be pegged back to a 4-4 draw. The collapse against Zlatan Ibrahimovic & Co. brought back bad memories of the similarly listless 2-1 semifinal defeat against Italy in the Euros three months earlier; Loew's tactics and the team's mental fortitude were called into question.

The rest of the campaign was smooth sailing. Germany won 6-1 against Ireland in Dublin and had little trouble scoring goals against Austria, Kazakhstan and the Faroe Islands. They also netted 36 total goals, a new record for a Germany team in World Cup qualifying. Mesut Özil was the best scorer with eight goals, followed by Marco Reus (five). The 10 goals Germany conceded are testament to a slightly gung-ho style.

The numbers never lie

Calculating a nation's passion for the game based on how well it pays its manager, attends its games and gets out to play:

Key battles

Germany have never beaten Italy in a competitive fixture. Twice in recent tournaments, the Azzurri have knocked them out in semifinals (2006 World Cup and 2012 Euros). The Italians are Germany's fiercest rivals, and the Nationalmannschaft would love to avenge all of those losses in Brazil.

Spain, the reigning champions of Europe and the world, have proved too strong and are still seen as the benchmark. Over the past few years, the German media have constantly speculated whether Loew's team have closed the gap; no one's quite sure.

Looking at the draw, Germany could run into either side in the semifinals or, indeed, the final. A Maracana showdown against Brazil, who beat them in the 2002 World Cup final in the only meeting between the two teams at this level, is a dream no one dares to talk about at the moment.

Most important player

Marco Reus had 16 goals in 30 matches this past season for Borussia Dortmund.
Marco Reus had 16 goals in 30 matches this past season for Borussia Dortmund.

Much will depend on the performance of the back four, as well as the central midfield, where neither Bastian Schweinsteiger (loss of form) nor Sami Khedira (lengthy injury absence) have been able to shine in recent months.

But the key player in terms of impact in the opposition half should be Reus. The Borussia Dortmund midfielder plays with a directness that is lacking in most of his equally gifted compatriots; his pace and eye for goals have made him undroppable. He's the one guaranteed starter in the crowded attacking department, but his exact position is yet to be determined.

Loew could field the 24-year-old in his customary club role on the left, but Reus is equally proficient in the central position behind a striker or even as deep-lying centre-forward himself.

If Germany are to succeed in Brazil, Reus will have to make the tournament his own, the way Özil was able to do in 2010.

Definition of success

"It's our mission to win the World Cup," playmaker Özil recently said.

Loew and his players don't necessarily see themselves as outright favourites; they point to hosts Brazil in that respect. But Germany can't pretend they would be happy with a third straight third-place finish, either.

Progress has been steady, from Jürgen Klinsmann's influence (from 2004-06) to when his former assistant, Loew, took over the team a decade ago; but now the latter is under pressure to deliver Germany's first trophy since the 1996 Euros triumph in England.

Video: Germany odds in World Cup (Australia only)

It's a strange situation. The problems on defence and worries about the fitness of key players like Schweinsteiger and Khedira have toned down expectations in recent months, but anything but a World Cup win will still be seen as a failure. Loew can't win unless he wins the tournament. It's not an easy position to be in.

How far will Germany go?

They should reach the final.

ESPN FC Analysts' take: Michael Ballack

German teams have always been physically strong and focused on defending. But in the past few years, they've developed some real technical standouts in midfield -- Thomas Muller, Toni Kroos and Mario Gotze. It has led to an offensive, attacking style that's different from what we're used to seeing, but it's successful: Germany led UEFA in goals with 36 in qualifying.

They're one of the favorites this year -- and they'll have to make the final for this World Cup to be considered a success.

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