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Jun 17, 2008

Things can only get better?

On Saturday, Bernd Schneider, working as a pundit for 'Der Spiegel', tried to put us all in a halfway confident mood for the Austria game with this backhanded assessment: 'I'm convinced that we've already played our worst game at this tournament.'

That was basically just a nice way of saying things could only get better, but as far as I'm concerned the verdict is still out as to whether Monday's 90 minutes in Vienna haven proven Schneider right or wrong.

If, and it's a big 'if', Germany were better than they had been against Croatia, the difference was marginal. Sure, the side seemed more focused and determined and had only few problems at the back. But you have to take into account that the opponent was worse. A lot worse.

In fact, when I sent a text message to a friend who was in the stands at the Ernst Happel Stadium a few minutes before kick-off, assuring him we should somehow get the point we needed, he indignantly wrote back: 'A point? But this is only a second-division team! It's gonna be 4-0 to us.'

Now, 'second-division' is harsh and impolite. But it's certainly true that Austria never looked like a team that could manufacture a goal from open play. And since Germany were, in the memorable words of our Minister of Finance, Peer Steinbrück, 'reminiscent of the grand coalition - lots of horizontal passing with no ground gained', it made for a game almost as lumbering as France vs Romania and Greece vs Sweden.

Thus the second text message to my friend, sent during the half-time break, read: 'Cheer up! It's not the worst match of the tournament. Merely the third-worst.' This time he only replied: 'Yeah, it's not yet running smoothly.'

Of course you never know what could have been. For instance if Mario Gomez had converted the chance of a lifetime with hardly five minutes gone. As Paul Breitner later pointed out, the most shocking thing about this miss was not that the striker mis-hit the ball after it had taken a funny if small bounce. It was that he then refused to go up for the header.

'You can't do that, that's unforgivable,' Breitner was bitching. 'All you have to do is go up - and it's a goal. Why is he just standing there and watching the defender clear the situation?' Probably because he was in shock. At least that's what he looked like, and what he later played like.

Before the opening match, I said I'd like to see Gomez upfront. But since he's now missed an open goal twice (first against Poland, now against Austria) you don't need a crystal ball to predict he won't start on Thursday when we take on Portugal.

But before we get to the future, a few more words about what is now the past. Perhaps we would have seen a different game if Gomez had knocked, or then headed, the ball in. But perhaps not. Because the game didn't exactly improve once Ballack had brought Germany ahead, or did it? There wasn't another proper chance, at either end, until the final minutes and, worryingly, for the same reasons as against Croatia.

Germany were passive even before the final thirty minutes, when they conceded midfield far too quickly. That was yet again mainly due to a lack of movement, which in turn led to the gaping holes between midfield and attack we've already seen against Croatia.

Breitner later complained that Frings and Ballack are playing too deep, which is something I predicted (in my column before the first game) as a probable consequence of fielding Podolski in midfield. Yet I didn't think it would happen against such an unthreatening opponent.

(Before you accuse me of condescension, let me quote today's edition of the Viennese newspaper 'Der Standard': 'Despite all effort, Austria remained what they had been - harmless.')

Maybe Günter Netzer was right when he explained Germany's reluctance to take risks by saying the team was scared of suffering the ultimate debacle, going out to Austria. If that's true there's some hope things will be different once there is less pressure. Meaning on Thursday, when Portugal will go into the game as favourites.

A user by the nickname of sunnyD0 recently left a comment objecting to my using the word 'hope' too much, and I guess the paragraph above will have given him further ammunition. But it's not as if I'm alone in having to seek resort in faith.

Franz Beckenbauer says: 'The team is inhibited. I don't know how they can get out of that. They'll have to play a lot better against Portugal, otherwise that's the last game. They have to step up a gear - or they get eliminated.' In short, he hopes the team will do better on Thursday but has little more to offer than hope.

Well, at least there are two people who do have more to offer than just hope and instead give solid reasons why it will all turn out well for the Germans after all. The first is national coach Joachim Löw. 'The Portugese will be more adventurous, that makes it easier for us,' he says. 'Which is why our combination game will be more successful than against Croatia and Austria, our play will be more cultured.'

The second person is my friend David Winner, the author of 'Brilliant Orange', the great book about Dutch football. He was on the phone this morning and we talked about how great Holland are playing for a long time. Then, of course, we also talked about all that could still go wrong for the Dutch, as usual. Finally, he said: 'You know, I guess the final will be Germany versus Italy. That's the way it always goes.' Of course he was joking.

Or was he?

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