Home is the word

Much of the HOME NATION'S success in 2006 will depend on how they come to terms with the weight of expectations, writes BEN GLADWELL.

France know all about home advantage, winning the 1998 World Cup in Paris against Brazil while England's only World Cup triumph also came on home soil in 1966. Uruguay won the inaugural competition in 1930, beating Argentina 4-2 in front of 100,000 at the Estadio Centenario in Montevideo. Argentina welcomed the world into its back garden for a month but kept hold of the trophy in 1978 and the last time the competition was held in Germany in 1974, the hosts once again prevailed. Therefore, Germany have good reason to believe the World Cup will be locked up in the federation (DFB) headquarters in Frankfurt for the next four years.

Germany have a fine tradition in World Cups, winning the trophy three times and reaching the final four other times, the last time just four years ago in South Korea and Japan. Although their progress to the final in 2002 may be regarded as somewhat fortunate — they did not face an opponent from inside the top 13 of the FIFA rankings until the final itself — Germany is a nation you write off at your peril. But for perhaps the first time in history, a Germany side entered a major tournament bereft of their usual passion and determination at Euro 2004 and the lowest point was reached in being dumped out at the group stage.

Manager Jurgen Klinsmann has come in to breathe new life into the nation and even the critics who initially laughed at his intentions to win the World Cup in 2006 and are still dubious, especially after their 4-1 friendly defeat to Italy in March. Klinsmann has beefed up the Germany attack by getting the best out of Miroslav Klose and introducing the latest revelation Lukas Podolski to the world. Everything seems to be working fine up front, particularly with 2002 World Cup hero Klose leading the line at Werder Bremen.

Scoring is, without a doubt, one of Germany's strengths, but it is at the back where they are susceptible and the defence, or even the goalkeeper, could be the nation's Achilles heel. With Oliver Kahn and Jens Lehmann in the squad, it is hard to see how the goalkeeping position could be a problem for Klinsmann, but he seems to have created a gulf between the two that threatens to spill over onto the field. In delaying the naming of Arsenal's Lehmann as the number one till the last minute, and alternating him with 2002 World Cup hero Kahn, Klinsmann's handling of the situation was not the most healthy one. The German back four has been the target of much criticism and Klinsmann has reacted by cleaning the slate, shipping out the dead wood and bringing in the young. Marcell Jansen, Per Mertesacker and Chelsea reserve Robert Huth are internationally unknown. They will be aided by the Bayer Leverkeusen veteran Jens Nowotny and young impressive Bayern Munich full-back Philipp Lahm.

The midfield, meanwhile, has the right balance of youth and experience and it is here where the games can be won or lost for Germany. Captain Michael Ballack will be keen to prove he is one of the world's best midfielders. Bastian Schweinsteiger brings a touch of youthful exuberance to the side with elder statesman Bernd Schneider nurturing him along.

Much of the home nation's success in 2006 will depend on how they come to terms with the weight of expectations, not just from the home fans but from the millions of viewers throughout the world who expect the newly-built team to replicate the country's high standards in the competition.

The opening game of a World Cup is never easy — just ask France — and how Germany deal with the unpredictable Costa Ricans in Munich on June 9 will have a large bearing on their destiny.

Germany should make it into the second round, but their inability to beat top sides could make that their final step with England a possible opponent in the last 16.

Then again, that would be a mouth-watering clash that could be the platform for Klinsmann to truly prove himself as a manager — and of course you can never write off the Germans especially against England.


Goalkeepers: Jens Lehmann (Arsenal), Oliver Kahn (Bayern Munich), Timo Hildebrand (VFB Stuttgart).

Defenders: Arne Friedrich (Hertha Berlin), Robert Huth (Chelsea), Marcell Jansen (Borussia Monchengladbach), Per Mertesacker (Hannover), Christoph Metzelder (Borussia Dortmund), Philipp Lahm (Bayern Munich), Jens Nowotny (Bayer Leverkusen).

Midfielders: Michael Ballack (Bayern Munich), Bastian Schweinsteiger (Bayern Munich), Tim Borowski (Werder Bremen), Torsten Frings (Werder Bremen), Sebastian Kehl (Borussia Dortmund), Bernd Schneider (Bayer Leverkusen), Thomas Hitzlsperger (VFB Stuttgart), David Odonkor (Borussia Dortmund).

Forwards: Miroslav Klose (Werder Bremen), Lukas Podolski (FC Cologne), Mike Hanke (VFL Wolfsburg), Oliver Neuville (Borussia Monchengladbach), Gerald Asamoah (Schalke 04).

Coach: Juergen Klinsmann.

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