World Cup 2014 qualification is just a point away but having not won a tournament since Euro 96, more is expected of Germany
The famous old Gary Lineker quotation has had to be revisited. The former England striker once mused about football being a "simple game," in which "22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes. And at the end, the Germans win". These days, German football is vibrant, multi-layered, beautiful. And at the end, the Germans do not win.
That is stretching things slightly. The Nationalmannschaft still managed to humble England at the last World Cup, for example, not to mention Argentina, and their recent tournament record has been impressive. Yet they have not won a title since Euro 96. What began as an itch has developed into an obsession and you do not have to spend long in the company of German football people to realise that nothing short of bringing home the World Cup from Brazil next summer will do.
The pressure on the manager, Joachim Löw, right, and the senior players such as Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Miroslav Klose is unforgiving. In Germany, legendary status is afforded only to the Welt or Europameister. Franz Beckenbauer, Lothar Matthäus and Jürgen Klinsmann were immortalised as such even before the end of their playing careers whereas Löw's current crop have fallen short. They will not enter the pantheon of the greats, a little like the former captain Michael Ballack, perhaps, unless they can win when it truly matters, and they know it.
Germany will qualify for the World Cup finals with victory over the Republic of Ireland in Cologne on Friday night, although a draw, too, would almost certainly suffice. They battered these opponents 6-1 in Dublin last October and it is easy to fear for the Irish, who have a caretaker manager in Noel King, after the sacking last month of Giovanni Trapattoni, and neither of their most experienced central defenders, Richard Dunne and John O'Shea, because of suspension.
Reaching Brazil, however, would merely be the start for Germany. Under Löw, the nation was pleased to reach the Euro 2008 final and the 2010 World Cup semi-finals; on both occasions, they lost to Spain who, it could be acknowledged, were simply better than everybody else.
But Germany's Euro 2012 semi-final loss to Italy was a crushing disappointment and it was taken extremely badly at home. The criticism of Löw was savage and, in a sense, the defeat has stayed with him and the players. t was effectively the first time since the disaster that was Euro 2004, when the nation exited at the group stage with only two points, that they had taken a backward step. Nobody disputed that Italy, inspired by two goals from Mario Balotelli, deserved to win and that made it worse.
There are some fans in Germany who pine for the days when efficiency and remorselessness were what underpinned the team; when they were unpopular but their intimidating reputation preceded them and they got the job done. This view is countered by the pride that the country has for its current squad, which is studded with lavish talent and plays, quite conceivably, the most attractive football of Germany's history. What is clear is that Löw must find the balance between the aesthetic and the bottom line.
From the outside looking in, Germany have nothing to quibble about. Their squad is formidable, with more than one high-calibre player for every position and the Chelsea manager, José Mourinho, caught the mood last week when he discussed the difference in options between national teams and the leading clubs.
"Normally, the national teams don't have as many options," Mourinho said. "It looks like Brazil and Germany have dozens and dozens and dozens of good players. All the other countries are struggling with quality players and options [are] limited."
Perhaps Mourinho was being mischievous in overlooking Spain, the country in which he spent a turbulent three years at Real Madrid. But, at a stroke, he had anointed Germany as Europe's standard-bearer for the World Cup.
It is the depth of the resources available to Löw that are so enviable. He is without nine players for the Ireland game because of injury but it hardly seems to matter. Germany's second XI would be a match for anybody and their midfield is the focus of the most eye-catching competition.
If Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira are the first choices in the deeper central positions, then Ilkay Gündogan and the Bender twins, Lars and Sven, are in reserve. All three have been linked with big-money moves to the Premier League's top clubs. Further forward, in the line behind the striker, Mesut Özil is established as the No10, with Thomas Müller and Marco Reus arguably Löw's preferences off the flanks. That means that there is no room for Mario Götze, Toni Kroos, André Schürrle, Julian Draxler, Sidney Sam or Lukas Podolski.
Löw named 12 midfielders in his original 22-man squad for the Ireland tie, and the one against Sweden that follows on Tuesday, with a criticism being that he selected just one specialist striker. With Klose and Mario Gomez on the injured list, Löw went for Max Kruse of Borussia Mönchengladbach, the powerful and dynamic 25-year-old, who has five goals in eight Bundesliga appearances this season. Then, there is Stefan Kiessling, who has the same numbers in the league thus far and has spearheaded Bayer Leverkusen's challenge in the Champions League. There is no place for him, essentially as Löw does not like him. He prefers his striker to be a non-stop runner, whereas Kiessling is more of a classic No9, yet the fact that Löw can discard him reinforces Germany's strength.
There are other examples. The central defenders Mats Hummels and Benedikt Höwedes, and the left-back Marcell Jansen would surely make most international starting lineups but are on the fringes when everybody is fit for Germany while Roman Weidenfeller, the Borussia Dortmund goalkeeper, who played in last season's Champions League final, has never played for his country.
One of the biggest talking points this week has concerned whether Schweinsteiger still merits his starting place. Günter Netzer, the Germany great, had criticised him for being too cautious; too safe with his passing. Schweinsteiger, on 98 caps, stands to complete the century against Sweden but Netzer is hardly the sentimental type. In most countries, Schweinsteiger would be feted on the eve of such a landmark but not here. One conclusion to draw is that the Germans are seriously splitting hairs with their criticism. The other is that they mean business.
First-choice XI (4-2-3-1): Neuer; Lahm, Mertesacker, Boateng, Schmelzer; Khedira, Schweinsteiger; Müller, Özil, Reus; Klose.
Second-choice XI (4-2-3-1): Adler; Westermann, Höwedes, Hummels, Jansen; Gündogan, L Bender; Götze, Kroos, Podolski; Gomez.
Reserves: Zieler, Weidenfeller, Badstuber, S Bender, Schürrle, Draxler, Sam, Kruse, Kiessling.