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Keegan: Germany no longer frighten me
By David McDonnell
Kevin Keegan has never shirked from speaking his mind, but his most ardent supporter must have had a sharp intake of breath when he suggested Germany might be an easy touch in Euro 2000.

No England manager since Sir Alf Ramsey in 1966 has triumphed over Germany in a major competition and Keegan's assertion that this summer will provide the best opportunity of redressing the balance could well return to haunt him.

Germany have proved an insurmountable obstacle for England in major competitions over the past 34 years and it is a brave, perhaps foolish, manager who chooses to raise the spectre of their vulnerability.

Despite their less than convincing run of form, which has placed coach Erich Ribbeck under pressure and seen Germany lose their status as the most feared team in Europe, they are still a nation to be respected.

That is why, when England meet Germany in their second Group A match on June 17 in Charleroi, Keegan may well find himself ruing the day he chose to sneer at their current predicament and talk up a potential victory.

Gary Lineker's quote about lots of teams entering tournaments but Germany always ending up winning may no longer hold true, but Keegan would do well to keep his own counsel rather than risk giving Ribbeck's side any form of motivation.

'There has never been a better time to beat Germany because of their current situation and the fact that they're going through a transitional period, ' said Keegan.

'I'll certainly be telling my players that this will be their best chance of beating their old rivals. Whenever you think about it, particularly all the bad luck of the past, we must be due something against them.' Yet, as Keegan began to talk about a potential victory over England's arch rivals, he suddenly checked himself. Three seasons playing for Hamburg gave him a unique insight into the German mentality and taught him never to underestimate them in a major tournament.

With this in mind, the England coach, speaking after a kickaround with the Press to mark the launch of a new football boot, suddenly changed tack. 'But we can't get too carried away,' he warned. 'It would be wrong for me as England manager to underestimate them or write them off and I'd never think of doing that.

'I played over there for three years and I know how they prepare for major tournaments. The more people laugh at them and knock them, the more determined and resilient they become.

'They always prepare well and have a habit of peaking at the right time. But where we are stronger, which could prove decisive, is that we have more younger players coming through. They have an ageing squad but we have youth emerging all over the place.' Even beating Switzerland has become too much for Germany and the defending champions will enter the European Championship with their morale at rock bottom.

'We have reached a point where it's difficult to make plans,' said German Football Federation president Egidius Braun after the dismal 1-1 draw against the Swiss on Wednesday.

The game in Kaiserslautern, to mark the centenary of the DFB, was supposed to be a celebration but it turned out to be the worst in a series of uninspired performances from Ribbeck's side. Germany needed a controversial late goal from substitute Ulf Kirsten to avoid defeat. But the most worrying thing for Ribbeck was that the side's famous fighting spirit seemed absent.

'I don't know if there's some psychological reason or what, but for some reason several players can't at the moment give their best while playing for Germany,' said captain Oliver Bierhoff.

Bierhoff, who hit both Germany goals in their 2-1 win over the Czech Republic in the Euro 96 Final at Wembley, has gone 537 minutes without scoring for his country.

'I have no explanations to offer,' said the Milan striker, now threatened with a place on the bench. 'We didn't play the way we wanted to. We just couldn't.'

The fact that veteran midfielder Lothar Matthaus, who extended his world record of caps to 146 on Wednesday, remains indispensable at 39 speaks volumes about the struggle to rejuvenate the side.

Despite the intense build-up to the Germany game and the rivalry between the nations, Keegan believes England's most important game at Euro 2000 is the opener against Portugal on June 12.

Keegan was in Italy on Wednesday to see Portugal lose 2-0, but insists they remain the major threat in the opening stage of the tournament. 'They were unlucky to lose,' said Keegan. 'Portugal played their strongest team and it was definitely worth going. It was very important I saw them because I hadn't watched them first hand.

'I've always said that the Portugal match will be our most important. If you get a win it puts you in the driving seat, sets the tone and sends a message to the others.'

Keegan identified Luis Figo and Rui Costa as the big dangers, but took heart from Portugal's left-sided problem which has mirrored England's own.

Keegan said: 'Like us, they have a problem on the left side and Figo was forced to play there even though he is right footed. Portugal are a good side but I've seen enough not to be frightened by them. We can beat them.'
 
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