Germany seek to rule Euro 2016 but Joachim Low's men must focus
On the eve of Germany's first tournament game since the World Cup final victory over Argentina at the Maracana in July 2014, Joachim Low was asked about dealing with pressure.
His Germany side are striving for the double of World Cup and European Championships -- for the second time in history after 1972-74 -- and Low said: "It's not pressure. It's happiness."
It was an interesting response and might hint that the question was the wrong one to ask. Germany have proved they can handle pressure. The problem might actually be the opposite -- that they are not feeling any pressure at all, ahead of Sunday's Group C opener against Ukraine.
There might be a little too much of the "happiness" that Low mentioned. Or, rather, a little too much self-satisfaction. Because, over the last two years, Germany haven't had the bite they used to. Is it possible that victory in the 2014 World Cup has overly sated them, that it might be bringing an end to a cycle, rather than starting one?
There was a telling moment relating to all of this in their penultimate qualifying match away to the Republic of Ireland, a game they still had to win to secure top spot in the group over Poland. At one point in the second half, amid another extended spell of German domination, Thomas Muller crossed for what should have been an easy Mesut Ozil tap-in. The playmaker's usually immaculate touch deserted him, though, and he diverted the ball badly wide.
Rather than look angry about this in the hard-edged way we've associated with so many of the most relentless German medal-winners, Ozil just laughed. It was a curious reaction, type that reflected a complacent belief that another opportunity would come.
It never did. Instead, with 20 minutes left, Ireland exposed more softness in Germany. The most basic of goalkeeping punts by Darren Randolph confounded Manuel Neuer's defence, and Shane Long was left free to finish. Ireland won 1-0.
Germany still ended up winning the group thanks to a surprisingly nervy 2-1 home victory over Georgia three days later, leading to much talk that Low's side need the proper competitiveness of a tournament to fully focus again. Their toils had been written off as a typical German trait, and the word turniermannschaft -- tournament team -- has come up a lot in the last few weeks; that they get serious when it matters.
It's entirely possible that's the case, but a big question still lingers. That tournament focus may have been a typical German trait, but it is not a trait typical of this specific German team. Until now, they have been oppressively brilliant -- to the point of near perfection -- in qualifying.
Since Low took over from Jurgen Klinsmann in 2006, Germany have played 52 qualification matches and lost just three. Two of those came in reaching Euro 2016, as they also suffered defeat to Poland in addition to Ireland. What's more, they dropped more points in that group -- a total of eight -- than they did in all of the previous three qualification campaigns together. Over the 2010, 2012 and 2014 preliminary stages, Germany dropped just six.
It's about more than the end result, though. It's also about some unconvincing displays. Germany only looked anything close to their Brazil 2014 best once, in beating Poland 3-1 at home. Otherwise, they've been flat in attack and oddly easy to get at in defence. This is all relative to the level of being world champions, of course, but it is relevant to whether they can be European champions again.
You could say this is the type of hangover that Spain endured after finally winning the World Cup in 2010 -- conceding four goals to both Argentina and Portugal in friendlies shortly afterward -- except Vicente Del Bosque's side reached Euro 2012 with a 100 percent record before winning the tournament. They clicked back into gear much more quickly.
Can Germany do the same after such an extended period of flatness? For their part, the repeated message around the camp has been one of eagerness to get playing again, to get winning again.
"The atmosphere in the team is very good," Neuer said this week. "We can hardly wait to get on the pitch."
Low echoed those words in his news conference: "All of us are itching to finally get started."
There's also the fact the manager will stop experimenting, as was something of a feature in qualifying, partially explaining the drop-off. That might cause the core team to snap back into life, to get serious again. They need to.
No matter how they play early on, Germany's supreme talent and the structure of the tournament should be enough to see them cruise to the semifinals.
It is there, though, that being more meticulous about little details will tell. Their players won't be able to laugh at missed chances -- or they might miss a big opportunity at making history.
Miguel Delaney covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MiguelDelaney.