DURBAN, South Africa, July 6, 2010 (AFP) - Germany's abrupt coming of age at this World Cup has caught almost everyone by surprise -- everyone that is but their coach Joachim Loew.
Written off as too inexperienced in the run-up to the finals, Loew's squad will kick off Wednesday's semi-final against Spain as slight outsiders.
But it is testimony to the vibrancy of the performances Loew has overseen in South Africa that no-one will regard it as a major shock should they end Spain's dream of lifting their first World Cup.
|Germany's team manager Oliver Bierhoff.speaks during a press conference at the DFB (German Football Federation) Media Centre in Pretoria on July 6, 2010. AFP|
While outsiders thought they could see significant weaknesses in a Germany squad rejuvenated by an influx of talent from the under-21 side that won last year's European Championship, Loew always felt he would be leading a competitive group into Africa's first World Cup.
"I've never doubted this team's potential or development," he said. "They've shown a thirst for victory that is worthy of world champions."
Australian, England and Argentina -- all of whom saw their own World Cup dreams shattered by four-goal thrashings at the hands of the Germans -- will testify to that.
As well as coaxing some devastating displays from his players, Loew appears to run a happy camp, something that has not always been the case in the past, even with successful German squads.
"It's a nice team," he said. "They like to learn, they're very motivated and I'm very proud of them. It has been a great experience, on and off the pitch."
While Germany's performances have surpassed what was expected of them, Spain have not yet delivered a collective display equal to the sum of the individual talents in their ranks.
There is intense pressure, too, on a group of players weighed down by the burden of making up for decades of under-achievement on the international stage by a country whose domestic league has long been one of the strongest in the world.
The likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and David Villa will be acutely aware that, in terms of pure footballing ability, the unexepected demise of Brazil has left them head-and-shoulders above the other teams left in the competition.
They know they will have squandered an opportunity that is unlikely to come again should they fail to go on and emulate the West Germany side that followed up their triumph at Euro 72 by becoming world champions on home soil two years later.
The Spanish have only once before been this close to World Cup glory. In 1950, in Brazil, where only 13 countries took part, they made it to the final group stage, where a draw with the eventual champions Uruguay and defeats by Brazil and Sweden resulted in them finishing fourth.
In the Spanish camp however, suggestions that the intensity of expectation surrounding them could represent their Achilles heel are batted away, and their hope is that Germany will give them the opportunity to impose their quick-passing style on the match.
"We've had tough games against opponents who, above all, wanted to stop us playing," said head coach Vicente Del Bosque. "I think the semi-final will be different. Both teams want to reach the final.
"We know we can play better than we have done so far, hopefully it will be an open match and a good advert for football."
Del Bosque has not changed his line-up for the last three matches and is set to keep faith with misfiring Liverpool striker Fernando Torres, who has struggled in a lone striker role while team-mate Villa has plundered five goals from a deeper position on the left.
Germany though will still be wary of the striker who scored the only goal of the match when Spain beat Germany in the Euro 2008 final. "It'd be nice to do it again, but it doesn't matter who scores as long as we win," Torres said.
Spain have no injury concerns while Germany will be significantly weakened by the loss of outstanding midfielder Thomas Mueller, who is suspended.
Loew has to decide between Hamburg attacking midfielder Piotr Trochowski and 20-year-old Toni Kroos as a replacement for a match in which one goal will see striker Miroslav Klose equal Ronaldo's record of 15 in World Cup finals.
KEY TO THE MATCH
Concentration. Germany have thrived by being able to commit men to attacks in numbers and quickly regain their defensive shape when they break down. It worked well against England and Argentina but the precision of Spain's passing narrows the margin for error.