Elimination from the group stage was always little more than an outside possibility for Germany but a professional job still had to be done against Ghana, who themselves were on the verge of being knocked out by Serbia. Group D was arguably the tightest group of them all – Australia were just a couple of goals from pipping Ghana to the runners-up spot. As it transpired, Germany topped Group D and, thanks in large part to Landon Donovan’s late winner for the United States, meet a schizophrenic England side, who finally came close to matching their vaunted reputation in victory over Slovenia. Germany, however, came into the World Cup with little expectation attached to their shoulders and little to weigh them down with the pressure the England players have complained about. The load will not get any easier for the Three Lions on Sunday when the latest edition of a contest between two eternal European rivals plays itself out.
Games between England and Germany usually go down in history, be they from the 1996 World Cup – Geoff Hurts’ hat-trick – the 1970 World Cup and Peter Bonetti’s harsh scape-goating for a 3-2 West Germany win or the 1990 World Cup, with Paul Gascoigne’s tears. Not only in World Cups proper have the two met – two memorable games, the last ever match and a German victory at Wembley in October 2000 and a 5-1 England win in Munich a year later, came in qualifying for the 2002 World Cup. There have been European Championship clashes in both 1996 when football failed to come home and four years later, when Alan Shearer scored the only goal of the tie as both teams crashed out in Belgium and the Netherlands. When the weekend’s game, set for the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein, is over, there is sure to be another memorable moment to rival those that have already gone down in history, but a less celebrated yet more recent game could hold the clues to the pattern of the meeting on Sunday.
England and Germany faced each other in the final of the 2009 UEFA European U-21 Championship in Sweden last June, their second meeting of that tournament. The first, in the group stage that England topped and Germany came second in, ended in a 1-1 draw with goals from Gonzalo Castro and Jack Rodwell, neither of who made the squad for the senior tournament this year, although Castro was a lot closer to his respective country’s 23. The other game, the final was something of a football lesson for England’s youngsters, with Germany running out 4-0 winners and Ozil, the star of Germany’s World Cup so far, controlling the tie. Ozil, now 21, scored one and created two that night as England’s midfield totally failed to get a grip on the Werder Bremen man. About to be thrust into opposition with Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard, this will be the biggest test of Ozil’s short international career but Joachim Low has had, so far at least, no qualms about handing the responsibility for Germany’s play to the youngster. England’s midfield – and Barry in particular – has looked unable to take charge of the game so far, which could leave Ozil the space he needs to weave his magic.
It is interesting to note that of the 23 players who made up each country’s squad in 2009, far more of the German contingent have progressed to the senior side a year later. Six of Germany’s victorious squad – goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, defender Jerome Boateng and midfielders Ozil, Dennis Aogo, Sami Khedira, and Marko Marin were all included by the Low, compared to just two for England – Joe Hart and James Milner. That statistic could go some way towards explaining just why 2010’s Germany team appears so much fresher and vital than their English counterparts. The England 23 are blighted by their own past failures on this stage and scared of adding to them, but for a large percentage of the Germany squad, this is a new experience, one they do not want to end on Sunday in Bloemfontein.