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Christian Wuck calls it a ‘Black Monday’ for German football. Yet, he isn’t losing sleep over it. European heavyweights have historically held an edge over their Asian counterparts. Defeats are few; heavy ones are rarer still. Exactly a week ago, in their second group stage match, Germany were mowed down 4-0 by Iran. It was an unusual result but hardly an upset. But it did reinforce the Under-17 World Cup’s unique nature: no Goliaths are safe here.
Although the tournament has stuck to its script so far, the usual suspects to win the title will be put under more pressure during the knockout rounds, which begin on Monday, by the less accomplished teams for whom this is the only chance to win something big globally. And Germany are the first ones to face the music.
Among the sport’s traditional superpowers, Germany have looked the most vulnerable so far. France have impressed with their attacking prowess; the Brazilian boys have inherited the flamboyance from previous generations; Spain continue to improve with every match; and England continue to shine at the youth level, unlike their senior teams who notoriously struggle on a big stage.
Germany, on the other hand, laboured to a win over minnows Guinea after the loss to Iran and will now take on Colombia in their Round of 16 match today. But the colts are not put under pressure to replicate the senior team’s success at the World Cup. Instead, this is used more as an exposure tournament to give the players a chance to experience the feeling of playing a big tournament.
“Our first aim is to develop players. I think it’s very important for them to reach such tournaments (like a World Cup), to have impressions with fans and other teams and if we are strong enough to win these games, I think it’s very good for players. (But) there is no pressure to win titles,” Wuck says.
Yet, they are meticulous in their approach and are leaving nothing to chance. The team arrived on Saturday and got the first sighting of the JLN Stadium on Sunday afternoon. A few members of their support staff noted the tiniest of details — including the type of grass. The team wasn’t entirely satisfied with the ground condition in Goa.
“It was a bit hard and the grass was standing upright,” a team official said, suggesting that the ball moved slowly because of that. They looked satisfied with the conditions in Kochi and Delhi, where the blades of grass are bent in different directions, making the ball roll smoothly, and the surface is relatively softer.
The players tweeted pictures of the ‘largest stadium in India’ before getting down to business. Their captain Jann-Fiete Arp, Leipzig midfielder Elias Abouchabaka and centre-forward Nicholas Kuehn looked sharp. Germany have come to India with the most potent attack. But the strikers are yet to come to the party. Arp, for instance, was the top-scorer at this year’s Under-17 Euros, but has not been as sharp in front of goal in India.
You’d imagine his task will only get tougher against Colombia, who unlike Germany are taking the tournament so seriously that they were the first ones to arrive in Delhi — a week before the tournament began — to get acclimatised to conditions.
“We prepare our teams seriously to play and win international tournaments. We believe that they can go through the age groups and gain fame by playing well or winning the tournaments,” Colombia’s coach Orlando Restrepo says.
Like Germany, the South American side too has been inconsistent but impressive defensively. That, however, does not mean they have been defensive. Far from it, in fact. In Leandro Campaz, Juan Penaloza and Yadir Meneses, Colombia have creative forwards who are also strong physically.
They have also approached every game with an open mind, making it easier for them to adapt to match situations and switch formations. Colombia began its campaign against Ghana with just one man up front before shifting to virtually a four-man frontline against India.
Against USA, they made a smooth transition from a 4-2-1-3 formation to 3-4-1-2 during the match. “This allowed us to recover the ball quickly, we had better possession, we played with assuredness and we had greater intensity,” says Restrepo.
There should be some tasty match-ups on offer but most of all, it would be a test of Germany’s mental strength against Colombia’s physical prowess. Wuck hinted at the high humidity levels in Goa and Kochi as possible reasons for his team’s under-performance so far. Restrepo, meanwhile, admitted his team has a ‘small advantage’ because of being based in New Delhi all along.
Whether that advantage translates into something substantial on field remains to be seen. For Wuck, though, the pre-quarters will be a chance to turn their ‘Black Monday’ into ‘Redemption Monday.’
Germany vs Colombia: Live on Sony Ten 2 — 1700 hrs onwards