|Germany players warm up during a training session, in Santo Andre. (Reuters)
Salvador: Germany’s World Cup campaign begins with a tough encounter against Portugal on Monday, though they arrive in Brazil with confidence, having won their last three encounters, not to mention every opening match of the tournament since 1990.
A standout first round game, the Group G clash at Salvador’s Forte Nova arena will see Germany’s attractive mix of expert defence and sweeping attacks, led by the likes of Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller, come up against a Portugal side containing goal machine Cristiano Ronaldo.
Portugal’s talismanic forward raised a collective sigh of relief in his home country earlier this week when he returned to the side after a troublesome knee injury to shine in a 5-1 friendly victory over Ireland.
A thumbs up to journalists on Thursday confirmed he is fit. All eyes have been on the world player of the year’s recovery. The Real Madrid forward, whose form and fitness will be vital to Portugal’s chances, has had a heavy strapping on his knee in training.
But as Germany defender Benedikt Hoewedes pointed out: “This isn’t Germany against Ronaldo, but Germany against Portugal”.
Germany midfielder Sami Khedira claims his Real Madrid team-mate has told him this is Portugal’s time to break their German bogey.
Arsenal forward Lukas Podolski says the Germans respect dead-ball specialist Ronaldo, but there is no fear.
“We have prepared ourselves to play Portugal and not just one player,” said Podolski, who is set to win his 115th cap.
“He is certainly extremely dangerous and can decide games, but we also have players capable of doing that. If we produce a good performance, then it doesn't matter what he does.”
Germany, semi-finalists in South Africa four years ago and favourites to top the group which also includes the United States and Ghana, have had fitness boosts too.
Manuel Neuer, Germany’s No.1 goalkeeper for four years, will start after recovering from a shoulder injury sustained last month, while Phillip Lahm has overcome an ankle injury and will feature in a holding midfield role rather than his traditional right back slot.
Bidding to end a 18-year title drought Germany coach Joachim Loew has been slow to offer many other clues as to how his side will line up, but right back Jerome Boateng is expected to play alongside Mats Hummels and Per Mertesacker, with Erik Durm and Hoewedes battling for the left back spot.
Fact is that injuries have depleted Germany’s defence in such a way that its opening match may see four central defenders in the starting line-up, with two of them out of position and two who have rarely played together.
But Loew didn’t seem unduly worried on Friday about the prospect.
Lahm often played as a defensive midfielder for Bayern Munich last season and Loew has indicated that it would happen again on Monday.
“He played in the midfield in the last warm-up match (a 6-1 victory over Armenia) and I am pretty sure he will do the same on Monday as well,” Loew said this week.
Lahm’s presence alongside Khedira in midfield will allow Germany’s exciting attack force of Toni Kroos, Ozil and Podolski to join ranks with Muller — top scorer at the 2010 World Cup — to keep Portugal’s defence busy.
With the heat and humidity a concern, Loew will likely turn to an abundance of talent on his bench including Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mario Goetze early in the second half.
Portugal coach Paulo Bento has a fit squad after defender Pepe and midfielder Raul Meireles also shook off niggles. Rui Patricio will start in goal, with the fiery Pepe and Bruno Alves marshalling energetic fullbacks Joao Pereira and Fabio Coentrao.
Joao Moutinho will provide the craft in a three-man midfield that will look to use Ronaldo’s pace and power at every opportunity. Hugo Almeida and Silvestre Varela will join Ronaldo in attack.
With the Netherlands thumping Spain 5-1 on Friday, goals may well rain down once more in Salvador on Monday, with Germany having scored at least four times in four of their last six opening World Cup matches.