English legend Gary Lineker once famously said: “Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win.” The quote borders on cliche, but only because it rings so true.
Once again, Germany enters the World Cup as the prohibitive favorite. Its current squad might be even more talented than the one that dominated the field on the way to winning the championship in 2014. It is the best team in the world according to FIFA’s rankings. It hasn’t lost an international tournament match since July 2016. In qualifying for Russia it became only the second European team to win all 10 of its group games, joining the Spanish team that went on to win the 2010 World Cup.
The Germans have one of the best goalkeepers in the world, 2014 Golden Glove winner Manuel Neuer. And they are still coached by the indefatigable Joachim Loew, who has managed the team to unmatched international success since replacing Jurgen Klinsmann in 2006.
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Nonetheless, winning back-to-back World Cups is no simple task. It has happened only twice: Italy in 1934 and 1938 and Brazil in 1958 and 1962. While loaded with talent, Germany has no generational star. And despite being defending champion, the roster is surprisingly low on experience. Only nine players return from 2014, and the roster’s average age of 27.1 years old is the sixth youngest in the tournament, barely a year older than Nigeria, the youngest team.
Their chances may depend on their captain, Neuer, whose teammates call him their “most important player.” The unconventional goalkeeper is as comfortable with the ball at his feet as any of the defenders who play in front of him, and can shut down breakaways or start the attack as well as any netminder in the world. His start during a June 2 friendly was his first appearance in nine months, and his experience and leadership — not to mention the significant drop in talent presented by his backups — could be what makes or breaks their chances.
Their most important field player is Thomas Mueller, who is recovering from a slight injury of his own, and will join Neuer by playing in his third World Cup. A goal scorer when he came up — Mueller won the Golden Boot in 2010 as the tournament’s top scorer — he has transitioned to a creator for Bayern Munich in recent years. He led the Bundesliga in expected assists (a metric that measures the value of the shots that come from his passes) during the 2017-18 season, though he is still counted on to score for his national team and tied for the team lead in goals during qualifying. He’ll hope to replicate his 2014 World Cup performance where he finished second in both goals and expected goals (which evaluates the quality of shots). If Germany struggles, it may be because Mueller isn’t able to fill so many roles.
Mueller also scored the first goal of the most memorable game of the 2014 World Cup — Germany’s shocking 7-1 drubbing of Brazil in the semifinals. In a sweet twist of fate, Germany’s biggest obstacle in 2018 may be that same Brazil side. Brazil is the favorite to win the tournament according to most betting agencies and is the world’s No. 1 team according to the Elo rating, which weights teams’ results by a number of factors including game importance, goal difference, location and opponent.
But as is always the case with the knockout stages, scheduling will play a large factor, and Germany’s potential fixtures look favorable for another deep run. Its Group F competition is not on its level (the second-best team, Mexico, is ranked 16th in Elo), so it should win the group with relative ease. If the Germans do, they will likely face Switzerland, Serbia or Costa Rica in the first knockout round — no pushovers, but not the most difficult draw. After that, they’re in line to go against England, Belgium or Colombia — a difficult draw to be sure, but no teams with long histories of World Cup success. With another win after that, they would find themselves in their second straight World Cup final.
As the stakes get bigger, the matches tend to get cagier. This is where teams live and die by their defense, and often the goalkeeper is the difference. Germany is fortunate to have arguably the best of the decade.
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