Manchester United – A dissection of 2010

Manchester United still remain unbeaten this season, despite being put through the wringer. Crippling debt, several draws, uninspiring performances and a certain striker allegedly wanting out of the club. Dave Stubbings looks in-depth at United’s problems on the field.

Another match and another draw for Manchester United. Two more goals conceded as questions are asked again about their defence, questions which failed to be answered.

It is worth pointing out that United have not lost yet this season. However they’ve conceded two goals or more in five games already this season, something that happened only six times in the whole of last year.

Wayne Rooney’s form (or lack of) continues to be a hotly debated topic with many wondering what happened to the player who, before Man United’s quarter-final against Bayern Munich appeared to be scoring for fun.

Rooney’s problems though appear to be much more than just a lack of form as he continues to be a shadow of the player he was last season. His ability to control a ball and run with it have deserted him and his shooting has been just awful at times this season. The cliché ‘can’t hit a barn door’ would be a suitable one to use, however after recent performances Rooney would be lucky if he even hit the barn.

Two goals in 21 games and only one this term for his club after 34 in the 09/10 season is a shocking return by any striker’s standards.However the poor performances of United’s number 10 are distracting from other areas which could harm their chances of picking up silverware this season.

Let’s start with the defence.

 

Patrice Evra: now becoming the French national side version for club.

 

Three years ago Patrice Evra was being raved about by the United fans. His tackling, constant running and persistent attacking threat made him an Old Trafford favourite with some claiming he was the best left-back in the world. However since France’s disastrous World Cup he’s lacked most of these qualities as mistakes come thick and fast.

You only have to watch the build up to the West Brom equaliser last weekend to see what I mean, as he failed to clear his lines not once but twice and just ambles back after giving away possession, a far cry from a few years ago. His other habit of 2010, attempted overhead clearances have also failed dismally. Ronaldinho’s goal at the San Siro and Pienaar’s strike last month are two examples of a terrible idea, poorly executed.

On the opposite flank though, things are much worse. John O’Shea’s season has been poor to say the least, both when playing right back and centre midfield.

Whereas Chelsea’s full backs, Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic get forward and provide crosses and even goals, without abandoning any of their defensive responsibilities (usually as the other stays back and helps the centre-backs), it’s a skill O’Shea simply doesn’t have as he timidly passes, match after match. O’Shea’s inability send over a decent cross restricts the winger ahead of him (whether it be Nani or Valencia) and whenever he does decide to venture into the opponents’ penalty area, he turns into a hindrance for his team-mates.

From one extreme to the other though, as Rafael is the opposite. While some of his crossing at times is superb, he appears to forget that he is a defender and constantly wanders off leaving a huge hole on United’s right flank, dragging one of the centre backs out wide.

Rafael is Old Trafford’s version of Glen Johnson. Yes he’s good at crossing and can occasionally score but doesn’t track back enough and rashly dives in for many a tackle; both players play like wing backs in a 4-4-2 formation and it simply doesn’t work. In other European leagues, Rafael would excel but unfortunately the Premier League isn’t a forgiving mistress and you get found out quickly when not in line with the rest of the back four.

What about the other two right backs? Well Wes Brown never appears to be fit enough while Gary Neville is past it and should no longer be considered for most matches.

The centre backs are exactly blameless either. Rio Ferdinand may be fit now but he’s been in and out with injuries so often he struggles to find consistency. However a half-fit Ferdinand is still better than a fully fit Johnny Evans, a man who brings a wonderful air of panic to the United defence the opposition come forward. Also, if anyone can explain the definition of the word ‘mark’ to the Northern Irishman, please write to Carrington Training Ground, Birch Road, Manchester.

This ramble about the defences lets the midfield off however. Owen Hargreaves must surely have a season ticket with Virgin Atlantic now, with his frequent flying to America to see his knee specialist.

 

 

Fletcher and Scholes: dynamic midfield for 70 minutes.

 

Ferguson’s first choice midfield partnership this season of Darren Fletcher and Paul Scholes are solid but perhaps no longer good enough to help United push for the league or European success.

Whilst Fletcher remains as tenacious as ever, he lacks that presence which other top teams have. Chelsea’s Michael Essien is a shining example of the sort of midfielder United need; a tough tackler who can dominate a game. His partner Paul Scholes still has the vision to pick out a fantastic pass, but at 35 is getting on a bit and struggles to play 90 minutes, let alone play week in week out.

Don’t get me wrong, Scholes is a fantastic player and he’s still a joy to watch with his range of passing and shots but he can’t run like he used to, and it’s plain for all to see, especially in the last 15-20 minutes of a game.

However the lack of depth in midfield is apparent as Scholes’ younger team-mates struggle to make a case to be picked. The out of favour Anderson and Michael Carrick, both bought for large amounts of money, continue to frustrate with neither ever given a run of games long enough to force their way into Fergie’s plans.

As for Darron Gibson, one long range shot on target every other match does not constitute a top quality midfielder. He may have scored nine goals in a United shirt but strikes against Southampton, Derby and Scunthorpe make up a third of this tally with two of his league goals coming against Hull and West Ham.

This air of nostalgia around Old Trafford and a misguided belief that the likes of Scholes and fellow midfielder Ryan Giggs can dig United out of a hole whenever the going gets tough.While Giggs and Scholes can still link up wonderfully, as shown by the Welshman’s volley against Newcastle in August, it is worth mentioning that against quicker, more skilful opponents they will not have the time and freedom offered by the Magpies/James Perch.

The lack of outstanding replacements means that they are still being picked regularly, when at other clubs they’d be considered squad players by now. Can United afford the replacements?

The Glazers have always said they can afford any player Sir Alex chooses. However the common consensus appears to be that the Old Trafford coffers are running dry. How true that is remains to be seen. After all Ferguson did splash out £16m on Valencia in 2009 and £7.4m on Bebe this time round (quite why remains to be seen) hints that there is some money there.

Maybe questions should be asked of the manager’s judgement. Shocking as it may sound, he may not be quite the master he once was. Stagnant performances against Rangers and Sunderland as well as a subdued second half against West Brom were a far cry from the United of years gone by.

The decision to replace Fabio da Silva with another defender in the 0-0 draw against Rangers while overlooking Anderson and striker Federico Macheda was a curious one.

While the 1-0 win in Valencia was achieved through the classic counter-attack, it was against the run of play and a type of goal rarely scored by United at the moment; a far cry from the free-flowing football which was common as recently as 2008.

The gap left by Cristiano Ronaldo is evident. If you want an example of the classic counter attacking football United played when he was there, cast your mind back to the 2006/7 season when he and Rooney ripped Bolton to shreds.

A season later United had a strike force of Rooney, Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez  and Nani which was boosted in the summer of 2008 with Berbatov and Macheda (for two matches anyway). Add to the mix an in-form Carrick plus Scholes and Giggs, both two years younger and it was a much more free flowing United side.

However with the loss of Ronaldo and Tevez (officially £105m worth of talent) has made United a much more rigid side. Valencia and Nani are much more orthodox wingers, and as good as they are, do not have that ability to roam which Ronaldo did. There’s no point in asking them to be like Ronaldo but it appears United did not prepare for life after the £80m man and have become too predictable.

This air of nostalgia could hamper United moving forward in the next few years. It’s worth noting that nobody is infallible and as good as the likes of Ferguson, Scholes and Giggs have been for Old Trafford, nothing lasts forever.

Just ask Liverpool.

Follow Dave on Twitter @dstubbings14 and read his brilliant motorsport blog, Hitting the apex, if you are that way inclined.

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6 things you may not know about MSK Zilina

With the Champions League opener drawing near, it seems only fair to cover the team I glossed over in my main Champions League preview piece. After hours of trawling through many Slovakian websites (some not exactly kosher to my eye) and some Champions League highlights, let me attempt to give Chelsea fans the low-down on their unknown away day to the home of the Slovakian League Champions.

1. MSK Zilina make the group stages for the first time in their history, after dispatching Sparta Prague in impressive fashion, with a  3-0 aggregate win. Admittedly Sparta Prague are in the wilderness after a decade of relevant success. The early 2000’s saw Karel Poborsky lead the side to impressive results and the club itself produced several talented Czech players that left for bigger clubs. Now with only former Reading player Marek Matejovsky and ex-Hammer Tomas Repka being recognisable to English fans in that side, it’s maybe understandable why they lost heavily.

But don’t take anything away from Zilina. They won 2-0 away from home, a match which you can see below.

Well, the first goal may well be gifted by some comical goalkeeping, but the finish from Gambian striker Momoudou Ceesay (more on him later) is brilliant although aided by two defenders providing adequate blinding. The second is typical of what we may see Zilina doing against Chelsea; set-piece dangers. A terrific result for Zilina who entered the competition in the second qualifying round.

2. A few facts about the club itself. They’ve won 5 domestic titles, all coming in the last 9 years. Their best European run was 40 years ago where they made the quarter final of the now defunct Cup Winners Cup (a competition I miss). They play in yellow and green, so maybe some Norwich fans cheering them on. Zilina itself is in the North West of the country, about 200km from capital city Bratislava.

The club is curiously nicknamed Sosoni after the Soshone native American Indian tribe. A bizarre nickname for a club several thousand miles away, although the most likely reason is the tribal nature of the fans.

3. Here is a video of said fans. Passionate is a slight understatement. They’ll certainly drown out the Chelsea away support, even in strong voice. Note the modified We All Dream of a Team of Gary Breens chant.

4. One slight problem as highlighted in this fantastic piece, is that many Slovakian fans aren’t content to pay Champions League prices for a one-off game. With the lowest prices being at around 50 euros, the ultras of the club protested against the hike by leaving their weekend game against Presov at 60 mins, leaving the Stadium Pod Dubnam an empty shell, devoid of much atmosphere. Hopefully, they don’t boycott their biggest game in their history.

5. Arguably their most influential player is new signing Momoudou Ceesay. He should be a player familiar to Chelsea diehards, having spent some time there in the Chelsea Academy. He then moved to Belgian club Westerlo, where he found the league’s physicality tough going, only bagging 1 goal in 30 appearances. A move to Zilina has reignited his career with 3 goals in the Champions League qualifying already. The best being this one, a self-set up overhead kick. Special one:

It will be interesting to see if the 21 year old causes John Terry problems. He has pace and some skill as well, nutured by the youth coaches at Chelsea. Theoretically Chelsea should know what to expect, but this is football isn’t it and wouldn’t it make a fairy-tale story.

Captain Marvel?

6. Zilina retook top spot in the league at the weekend. Their league form has been a bit patchy, most probably down to their campaign in Europe, but they have still yet to lose this season (4 wins and 4 draws). Through looking at statistics, it seems as if Zilina like scoring late goals, with 4 coming in the last 10 minutes this season. Other players to watch include battling and industrious captain Robert Jez, who this week said the side are ‘aiming to go down in history‘ on Wednesday. Jozef Piacek is also important at the back having played all 8 games in the league.

So there we have it, the rank outsiders of Group F, but certainly they deserve every success amongst the elite of Europe.

In more important news, according to Chelsea fans on Twitter, an alcohol ban has been introduced for Wednesday’s game in Zilina, maybe as a pre-caution against hooligans. But of course this is ludicrous.

No beer and no win make Chelsea fans go crazy

For the latest Slovakian football news, follow britskibelasi on Twitter. A man clearly in the know.

Champions League group draw thoughts (Group A-D)

Europe’s premier footballing competition once again welcomed the officials of the elite clubs across the continent to the Grimaldi Forum, for what is quickly becoming the most comedic and most drawn out football draw ever . Even I would welcome Jim Rosenthal into the proceedings in an attempt to make it a little bit quicker than Ben Hur. The faux-drama of the event was astounding whilst the Inter players who won the club awards looked uninterested at the format. Meanwhile Gary Lineker was called upon to pick letters, a task he seemed utterly bemused by continually picking out Group C. Conspiracy? No of course not, just coincidence.

Unfortunately UEFA General Secretary David Taylor was replaced by The Hook from Thunderbirds for this year's draw. Also absent, Liverpool FC

But rather than ramble on about how convoluted and tedious the hour was, I shall discuss the group draw in full, looking at player reunions, the obligatory group of death and of course rate the British clubs chances of progressing.


Group A – Internazionale, Werder Bremen, Tottenham Hotspur and FC Twente

Where better to start than with the holders, Inter. Now Mourinho-less, it will be interesting to see what sort of system Rafa Benitez adopts at the club, and obviously we shall get a glimpse tomorrow evening for the Super Cup Final. My theory is if it ain’t broke , don’t fix it. But as we know Rafa surely won’t be keen on adopting the style of a manager he hasn’t exactly seen eye to eye on key issues, though he has managed to keep the bulk of that winning side. He could well strengthen it if he gains the services of Javier Mascherano, although apparently he has no authority. Like at Liverpool.

This isn’t an easy group for them by any stretch of the imagination. Werder Bremen have always promised much over the past few years but ultimately never delivered, and they marginally edged past Sampdoria 5-4on aggregate this week to make the groups.  Thomas Schlaaf may have lost World Cup star Mesut Oezil but in the first leg, Aaron Hunt played well in that ‘trecarista’ role. They have a resolute back-four (although they were poor in mid-week) and some great midfielders in Torsten Frings, Marko Marin and Tim Borowski. Not to mention forwards, Hugo Almeida and Claudio Pizarro (nothing like his Chelsea version). They shouldn’t be underestimated.

Especially by the next team, Tottenham Hotspur. Harry Redknapp’s first Euro-trip outside of a 2004 booze cruise to Dieppe. Spurs were caught cold by Young Boys in the first leg, citing the pitch but it was mainly down to Redknapp’s insistence on 4-4-2 away from home. If Spurs dare use that formation here, they will be ripped to shreds, especially by Bremen. The lack of Champions League experience could also be problematic, with only Heurelho Gomes and Peter Crouch having games at this level.

Finally, FC Twente, the Dutch champions (who were in pot 4, whilst runners up Ajax were in pot 3). Again, a decent side, but question marks remain over whether new manager Michel Preud’homme, with Champions League experience with Standard Liege last year, can replicate Schteve McClaren’s results at the club. They’ve kept top-scorer Bryan Ruiz, but I don’t seem them making it out of the group unfortunately.

Winner: Inter Milan Runners-Up: Werder Bremen

Group B – Lyon, Benfica, Schalke, Hapoel Tel-Aviv

Possibly the weakest group of the eight, but certainly one of the toughest to predict position-wise. Olympique Lyonnais now under the tutelage of Claude Puel, will be hard pressed to improve last year’s semi final appearance but so far things look good for the French side. Some great buys this summer particularly in Yoann Gourcuff and Jimmy Briand replacing the deadwood in Sidney Govou plus the emergence of youth talent from the U19 France squad (the only French national side to do well this summer) such as Alexandre Lacazette. Add to that safehands Hugo Lloris and Lyon look as strong, if not better than last year.

Benfica in contrast have been raided over the summer. Their best players, winger Angel Di Maria and Ramires both have joined Real and Chelsea respectively in big money moves. What’s behind is a shell of that free-flowing attacking side of last year who lit up the Europa League with style although Nicolas Gaitan is a super replacement, signing from Boca Juniors. I think they may be heading to Europa League once again.

Schalke’s big summer signing came in Real Madrid legend Raul, who finally departed from the club after 550 league appearances and becoming their top scorer of all time. Guess he wanted something new. He’ll revitalise this side up front, who finished runners-up in the Bundesliga. Unfortunately for them, they sold Heiko Westermann to Hamburg in the summer, which makes them look a bit weak at the back. But Felix Magath will certainly sort that out. Look out for Ivan Rakitic, who looks a tremendous good midfielder at 22.

Israeli champs Hapoel Tel-Aviv make their Champions League debut after beating Red Bull Salzburg in the qualifier and are relatively based on unknown Israeli players (I won’t claim to know them) but do have stand-out keeper Nigeria’s Vincent Enyeama who single-handedly tamed Lionel Messi at the World Cup.

Winners: Lyon Runners Up: Schalke 04

Group C – Manchester United, Valencia, Rangers, Bursaspor

Sir Alex Ferguson will be licking his lips at this group. Mark my words. United couldn’t have got a better draw really. Over the summer, United have strengthened slightly with the arrival of Javier Hernandez, the other emerging player from the summer tournament. Other signings include Chris Smalling, who probably isn’t at this level yet, and the man who can’t make a reserve squad. Bebe.

Valencia, in serious debt, offloaded their star players David Villa and David Silva. They aren’t as strong as last year but shouldn’t be overlooked in this group. They should still progress though, since Juan Mata and Ever Banega will finally get their chance to shine, you’d hope. Unai Emery is more than capable of producing great things from this side. Sure they aren’t up there with the other Spanish giants, but still a trip to the Mestalla will be tough for United.

But not as tough as the Turkish trip, the pot 4 team I personally wanted to avoid. A mid-week game away in Turkey is never an ideal situation, but in contrast Arsenal and Chelsea have it worse. Bursaspor won the Turkish league last year, (in fact the first time they have finished in the top 3) and are a slightly unknown quantity, although United scouts should find that they are a side with a lot of decent Turkish players such as Ozan Ipek, a tricky winger. Their manager Ertuğrul Sağlam however led Besiktas to an 8-0 defeat at Anfield two years ago.

Rangers, as Charlie Nicholas rightly said on Sky Sports News, should only realistically look at this as a money-spinner. The squad has effectively been the same for 2 years now, and if last year’s campaign is anything to go by this could go awry for them. James Beattie has joined to bolster the attacking options, but I don’t see Rangers making it far.

Winners: Manchester United Runners-Up: Valencia

Group D – Barcelona, Panathinaikos, FC Copenhagen, Rubin Kazan

Just like Sir Alex, Pep Guardiola will be delighted with today’s proceedings. This should be a cake-walk for Barca with lots of goals.

Barca look frightening this year with the addition of David Villa up front. If he doesn’t bag 30 goals with the supporting cast behind him, he’s a failure. Bold claim, but it should happen really. Also, the fact that Pedro should be even better than his debut season and it looks a lock that Barca will go far in this competition. In fact, they are my pick, although I made similar claims last year. There’s also that Lionel Messi lad too.

Panathinaikos qualify as Greek champions, and they really started to adopt a Franco-Greek Connection with the acquisition of Sidney Govou. He could link up well with top scorer Djibril Cisse in the 4-2-3-1 system, especially with influential Greek captain Giorgos Karagounis in the hole. Other Greek nationals to look out for are Giourkas Seitaridis at right-back and Kostas Katsouranis, both very capable players on their day. Not to forget Gilberto Silva of course, in the holding role and I think possibly Panathinaikos could be this year’s surprise package. Maybe

Copenhagen aren’t as good as the side from a few years back, who were in United’s group. But saying that, there are some decent players knocking about particularly young centre-back Mathias Jorgensen who seems destined for a bigger club after scouting from several big clubs. Martin Vingaard is a decent wide midfielder, with a few international caps to his name as well. They also have a few Brazilians, like so many European clubs, such as Cesar Santin who has grabbed 25 goals since his arrival in 2008 and also midfielder Claudemir, signed from Vitessa Arnhem this year, who again looks very good for his age.

Finally, Rubin Kazan who pulled off some astonishing results in last year’s competition, notably that win in the Camp Nou. Can they do the same this year? I highly doubt it is the answer. They aren’t as big a force in Russian football 12 months on although the addition of Obafemi Martins could be pay dividends for them. Turkish journeyman Fatih Tekke, who looks past his best now at 32. Other than that, no real notable names in the squad, and they will be lucky to escape this group

Winners: Barca Runners-up: Panathiniakos

So, after perusing the first 4 groups, I shall return tomorrow to discuss the fates of Arsenal, Chelsea and the scariest group of death I’ve ever seen (weekly hyperbole). I shall leave you with that Rubin Kazan win last year and my new favourite footballer song.



Jon Dahl Tomasson: The Danish Dynamo

This weekend will be remembered as an utter farce from an international perspective. Several English players have retired from international careers, effectively down to said players not being selected for the World Cup. Maybe like some, they thought they weren’t going to be called up. Others effectively threw their toys out of their pram because of a tournament snubbing. At the end of the day, neither Wes Brown or Paul Robinson will be missed from the set-up.

Contrast that to another retirement this weekend. A player who’s contributed so much to his nation and captained his country. That player is Jon Dahl Tomasson.

It’s fair to say that Jon Dahl Tomasson is a journeyman of European football. Having played in Holland, Spain, Italy and England, he’s been recognised as a good front-man in Europe, certainly in the earlier part of the last decade. He’s accumulated several accolades during his career across the continent too, arguably the pinnacle being his Champions League medal with AC Milan in 2003.

But its at international level where the Dane has excelled. He has garnered 112 caps over 11 years with the national side and scored 52 goals.  This makes him the all time cap leader and goal scorer for Denmark. For a man who was often frustrated at club level, frequently left on the bench behind highly rated targetmen (Shevchenko, Vieri, Shearer) he’s done a superb job of flourishing for his country.

In fact, Tomasson’s better position was ‘in the hole’ playing off the front man towards the end of the 90’s but he was forced up front in his time at Newcastle. His finishing and positioning were key aspects of his game. But this proves that Tomasson is very versatile up front and can fit in anywhere. A true team player.

He first came to prominence when Heerenveen bought him from Koge in 1994. He was prolific in Denmark, and helped Koge up the division, scoring 37 in 55.  He was in great form for Heerenveen too, finishing top scorer for them in his 3 years at the club.

Kenny Dalglish decided to bring Tomasson to St James Park in 1997, in hope that he would provide the perfect foil for Alan Shearer. The problems began however when Shearer got injured right at the start of the season, which forced Tomasson to fill his position. But Tomasson failed to adapt to the English game, citing a lack of physicality for this and only scored 3 Premier League goals.

He then returned back to Holland this time at Dutch giant, Feyenoord. It didn’t exactly take long for him to regain his confidence and he led the club to the Eredivisie title, plus a Dutch Super Cup. More was to follow however when he was part of the UEFA Cup winning side of 2002, knocking out Inter Milan and PSV along the way. He scored in the final against Borussia Dortmund as well and was crowned Man of the Match. His link-up with Pierre Van Hooijdonk made them one of the most feared partnerships in Europe at the time.

Summer in 2002 was memorable for Tomasson. He lit up the 2002 World Cup with some fabulous strikes, and finished the tournament on 4 goals. Denmark should have gone further in that tournament but ran into England and capitulated.

This spell was the most fruitful of his career really, but he left on a Bosman to Milan at the end of the season. It’s fair to say Feyenoord have never looked as strong since. At Milan he was a bit-part player in their success after struggling to replace Shevchenko or Rui Costa in Ancelotti’s line-up. But  he still managed 1 in 3 games for the club and was part of a side that won Serie A, a Coppa Italia and a Champions League in Ancelotti’s golden years for the Rossoneri. Not a bad haul shall we say.

Cue the next tournament,Euro 2004 ,where he scored arguably the best goal of his career against bitter Scandinavian rivals Sweden. A powerful half- volley, which is exemplary of Tomasson’s technique and control.

The remainder of his club career has been less glittering with spells at Villarreal and now returning to Feyenoord. This World Cup he failed to live up to the pressure bestowed upon him by passionate Danes and he has faced increasing criticism to step down. He finally did so after the World Cup where Denmark were eliminated at the group stage, with captain Tomasson’s solitary goal against Japan.

But you don’t realise what you’ve got til it’s gone. The Danish manager, Morten Olsen called Tomasson ‘the ultimate team player’.

The man himself said: “It was not an easy decision because the national team was a huge thing in my life and I have always been proud of representing Denmark.” He’s got one year left for Feyenoord, so clearly wants to concentrate on club football, in his last season in football.

You’ve certainly done yourself proud Jon. Here’s a tribute to you:

And don’t worry Danes, there’s always Nicklas Bendtner in waiting…..

Group D – The Germans

Nobody can deny that in international history, Germany are always among the front-runners. The Germans hold an impressive pedigree having won the World Cup three times, finishing runners-up on four occasions and having made the Quarter Finals in 14 of 16 appearances. The reason for this winning mentality: belief and efficiency. Even when critics have written them off, Germany manages to produce the goods.

So what of this year’s injury-ridden squad. Can they live up to their predecessors?

Germany will miss their talismanic captain

The injury to captain Michael Ballack has clearly hit Germany hard. He’s arguably been the best German footballer of the last decade, with almost 100 caps for his country. This season he’s been given more game time at Chelsea, with Michael Essien out injured, and he’s shown the quality that made him one of Europe’s best players.

Seeing him leaving the Wembley pitch at the FA Cup Final, you could see immediately that he knew he was out of the tournament, A real shame for someone who wants to eradicate the memories of previous World Cups, especially in 2002 when Ballack missed the final due to suspension.

The captain’s armband has been given to full-back Philipp Lahm, who’s improved a lot in the past few years. His first responsibility was to calm down the media hysteria over the plague of injuries.

He told reporters at a recent training camp: “‘The team cannot be allowed to be influenced by these injuries. The big aim is the semi-finals but you first have to deal with the group stage. We want to get into the semis and the team does indeed dream of more than that.”

But it isn’t just Ballack that won’t be on the plane to South Africa. Leverkusen’s keeper Rene Adler will miss the tournament after picking up a rib injury last month. His club team-mate, midfielder Simon Rolfes, who hasn’t played since January has lost his fitness battle as well.

Add to that injuries to Schalke’s Heiko Westermann, who was impressive in qualifying, and Stuttgart’s young midfielder Christian Traesch has seen Joachim Low effectively have his squad picked for him.

Although the first-team is largely unaffected, Low clearly has a large gap to fill in the centre of midfield if Germany are to be considered amongst the rest of the favourites. However, over the past year, the Bundesliga has seen a wealth of talented midfielders emerge, and consequently made the rest of Europe take more notice in the league itself.

Several of these players hold dual nationality. Werder Bremen’s young attacking midfielder, Marko Marin for example was born in Yugoslavia and expects Serbia to be their main rivals in Group D. He’s often compared to Joe Cole by scouts, being fairly adept in the attacking midfielder role.

Similarly, his team-mate Mesut Ozil (who’s half Turkish) has received rave reviews, and has been linked with a post World-Cup move to Arsenal. It is clear that if the younger players perform well, their stock in the transfer market will sky-rocket.

Low has several options up front available to him but it seems certain that Lukas Podolski will be on the left and Thomas Muller on the right, with the experienced but out-of-form Miroslav Klose in the centre. Klose tends to be prolific at World Cups, with 5 goals in each of the last two tournaments.

More worryingly for Low seems to be his defence. Only Per Mertesacker and newly appointed captain Philipp Lahm hold experience at international level, although Jerome Boateng is held in high regard at Hamburg. Low’s key problem is finding another full-back to complement the defence.

Just like bears, Germany have grizzly determination

Erratic and now retired goal-keeper, Jens Lehmann spoke out against the lack of experience, especially in the keepers, in the German national team.

He said: ‘You can’t win the title with relatively inexperienced keepers. Neither plays regularly in the Champions League, at the highest level.’

It’s fair to say that they haven’t found an adequate replacement goalkeeper since Oliver Kahn, but with so many great young outfield players coming out of the Bundesliga, the negativity from former players doesn’t exactly help the team.

If German fans finally show some optimism towards the array of youth on show and get behind the side, like on home soil in 2006, then they should do very well. Never count out the Germans, their record speaks for itself.

And failing that, a penalty shootout always serves them well.

I leave you with the first goal from 2006, a peach by new Germany captain, Philipp Lahm