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OPINION Germany about to pay for worst-laid plans

Wednesday 15th May 2002

by Thomas Zeh

Germany legend Gunter Netzer summed up Tuesday's calamitous defeat to Wales better than most. "We have hit rock bottom, things can only get better," he said.

The 1-0 loss brought the stinging pain of Germany's 5-1 thrashing at the hands of England back to the surface.

Germany came through the play-offs to reach the World Cup finals, but confidence in Rudi Voller's side has hit a new low after their once-proud rearguard was torn asunder by a little-known Cardiff City striker on his international debut.

Only the ever dependable Oliver Kahn prevented a bigger margin of defeat against a team which had won just one of their previous 15 games.

In the absence of Michael Ballack, preparing for the Champions' League final with Bayer Leverkusen, Germany were bereft of ideas.

Sebastian Deisler, still on the mend after a lengthy lay-off, pushed and probed manfully, but given his lack of match practice, he is a still a long way from providing the spark Germany so desperately crave following Mehmet Scholl's retirement.

Up front, Germany were as static as ever. Oliver Bierhoff waited in vain for a cross that neither Christian Ziege, back after ankle surgery, or Jorg Heinrich were able to provide.

Miroslav Klose's most notable contribution was a dive and late substitutes Marco Bode and Carsten Jancker puffed and panted but were exposed by poor finishing.

Granted, Voller was not helped by the absence of his Leverkusen contingent and he has also been unlucky with injuries, but most national coaches are in the same position after a long and exhausting season.

Scholl and central defender Jens Nowotny, who tore cruciate ligaments two weeks ago, are sorely missed and on Tuesday's evidence, Voller simply cannot make up for their loss.

Lacking the strength in depth of other nations, Voller has gambled on the fitness of a handful of tried and tested favourites in his squad. Many fear that decision will backfire.

It meant places for Deisler (back after six months), wing-back Ziege (four weeks) and defenders Marko Rehmer (ten weeks) and Christian Worns (who needs surgery this week).

The latter two did not play, while the former pair were understandably not at their best on Tuesday.

Gambling on one or two unfit players to find their form during the World Cup is a calculated risk, taking four out-of-condition expected starters is major gamble.

Voller's problems have not been helped by the absurd timing of his side's past two matches.

Facing Kuwait before the Uefa Cup final deprived Voller of his Borussia Dortmund contingent. Scheduling the game against Wales the night before Leverkusen's Champions' League final further tied the coach's hands.

Is the German FA so blinkered that they didn't realise their clubs might reach European finals? Less than three weeks before the World Cup, Voller was forced to pad out his squad with seven Under-21 players.

The concept of facing Kuwait, similar in style to Group E opponents Saudi Arabia, and Wales, considered not dissimilar to the Republic of Ireland, made sense, but not if you field a team that is unlikely to start in the World Cup.

Other warm-up matches have also only given Voller a partial insight into his side's capabilities.

Israel and Kuwait were no match, both conceding seven goals, then a second-string Germany were dominated by an understrength Argentina side in an ill-tempered home defeat last month.

With only Saturday's game against Austria left before Germany jet off to Asia, Voller has still not been able to field his first-choice side.

The Leverkusen four (Ballack, Carsten Ramelow, Bernd Schneider and Oliver Neuville) have a fine understanding, but do not yet gel with the rest of the national side.

Voller's honeymoon period continues for the time being. He has restored harmony in a squad divided under Berti Vogts and Erich Ribbeck, but his team selection is stuck in the past.

Promising defensive midfielders Sebastian Kehl and Torsten Frings, as well as striker Klose, have been introduced, while flamboyant characters such as Schalke winger Jorg Bohme, to the frustration of the public, have made way for the calming influence of veteran Bode.

A spirit of unity returned to the squad after the play-off win over Ukraine. But the feeling persists that Voller is patching up holes in a ship springing leaks. The real work will not begin until after the World Cup.

What Voller needs now is his stars to stand up and be counted. Captain Kahn's towering ambition and confidence must spread through the squad, Ballack must be freed from all defensive duties to feed Germany's starving front-line.

The coach's willingness to put a brave face on defeat is no longer acceptable. Gunter Netzer has already warned the novice that he must take a tougher stand towards his squad.

"I admire Voller for protecting his players in public, but if he talks behind closed doors he must find stronger words as his team let him down against Wales and he simply can't allow this to happen again," said the former Real Madrid midfielder.

Netzer and Germany are hoping the lessons of Cardiff are heeded and that Voller's side spark to life after a belated wake-up call.

A first-round exit in the Far East would shatter the fragile harmony Voller has forged, while a quarter-final place would be applauded. If the manager can pull that off, he will have done so despite the handicaps inflicted by ill-conceived planning.

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