Vatutinki (Russia) (AFP) – Holders Germany start their World Cup campaign on Sunday against Mexico in Moscow having won just one of their six friendlies since qualifying for Russia 2018 with a perfect 10 wins.
AFP looks at five questions the German team must answer if they are to become the first team for 56 years to successfully defend the World Cup:
Can Ozil, Gundogan shake off scandal?
Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan, who are German-born to Turkish parents, sparked controversy on the eve of the World Cup by posing for photographs with Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Gundogan presented Erdogan with a signed shirt “to my president”.
The Premier League midfielders were slammed in Germany for being “manipulated” by Erdogan as he canvasses support before snap elections on June 24, a suggestion the Turkish FA found “scandalous”.
Gundogan denies the meeting was politically motivated, but Ozil has refused to comment.
The pair were booed in Germany’s final two warm-up games in the last fortnight and Gundogan reportedly wept after being jeered after coming on as a substitute in the 2-1 warmup win over Saudi Arabia in Leverkusen last Friday.
Ozil, who is likely to start against Mexico, has been told by the boss of the German FA that if he insists on staying silent, he must let his play do the talking.
Is Manuel Neuer fit enough?
Germany’s captain and first-choice goalkeeper has played just two games since returning from eight months sidelined by a foot fracture.
The world-class stopper was a key component in their 2014 triumph, letting in just four goals in their seven games in Brazil.
He leaked two goals when Germany’s second-string defence crumbled in their 2-1 defeat to Austria a fortnight ago on his return, but kept a clean sheet in his 45 minutes in the victory over the Saudis.
“It’s fascinating to see his fitness and body language so strong after being out for eight months,” said Germany striker Mario Gomez.
Can the senior players lead?
Germany’s captain in 2014, Philipp Lahm, midfield maestro Bastian Schweinsteiger, defender Per Mertesacker and all-time record World Cup goal-scorer Miroslav Klose have all retired in the last four years.
That means senior figures Mats Hummels, Thomas Mueller, Jerome Boateng, Toni Kroos and Sami Kehedira need to step up and impose their experience if things do not go Germany’s way, particularly in the opening match.
Kroos criticised the team when they lost 1-0 to Brazil in Berlin last March, but can the Real Madrid star encourage and lead when the pressure is on?
Can Werner provide the goals?
Timo Werner left Russia last year with the golden boot when an inexperienced Germany squad won the 2017 Confederations Cup and scored three goals on his breakthrough, but this is a big step up for the 22-year-old.
Klose retired after Brazil 2014 with the all-time record of 16 goals at World Cup finals and Werner is seen as his heir.
With deadly goal predators Mueller and Marco Reus prowling the space behind him, Werner has the team-mates to help him impress, but this is his big test.
“I’m hoping for a good World Cup for him and he’s very important for our game, because of his speed, strength and the way he runs,” said head coach Joachim Loew.
Can Hummels, Boateng shore up the defence?
Bayern’s World Cup winning centre-backs have rarely played together for Germany this season and Loew needs his burly first-choice pairing at their best.
Loew often fielded a second-string defence in the six friendlies building up to Russia and central defenders Hummels and Boateng must be rock solid at the back with Neuer as the last line of defence.
Hummels has looked sharp in training this week, but Boateng is yet to show his best after a groin injury and their Bayern team-mate Niklas Suele could force his way into contention.