Tuesday, August 21, 2007

England-Germany Preview

On its face, tomorrow's friendly between England and Germany (5:00 PM Eastern, FSC) means nothing. The game will be played at the new Wembley Stadium in London, whose former namesake hosted the England-Germany World Cup Final in 1966 and their Euro 1996 semi-final match, with Germany winning the most recent affair. The 2007 edition of this rivalry will be played without some of both countries' biggest stars. Owen Hargreaves, John Terry, Steven Gerrard, Gary Neville, Wayne Rooney (and others) won't play for the Three Lions and Michael Ballack, Lukas Podolski, and Miroslav Klose won't suit up for Germany.

When you look deeper however, this game really is important. Embattled England manager Steve McLaren and his team are in serious danger of not qualifying for Euro 2008, cohosted by Austria and Switzerland. They have four home games remaining out of their last five qualifying matches and currently sit in 4th place (they need to finish 2nd or 1st) in Group E, 3 points behind the cutoff line. Tomorrow's friendly provides an excellent chance for McLaren to see some backups and 3rd-stringers play in the hopes that some of them will step up and make a case to contribute in the more meaningful games. It's the guys like Micah Richards, David James, Shaun Wright-Philips, Stewart Downing, and Jermain Defoe who will be given an opportunity to prove that they can provide a spark to a team that's been stagnant since McLaren took over after the 2006 World Cup.

The major problem for England right now is a lack of competition for spots. There's a sense of complacency hovering around the team. Players who haven't done anything for their clubs in the past few seasons are still being handed starting spots on the national team (Michael Owen, Jonathan Woodgate, and Ledley King, I'm talking about you) over the players who have accomplished more and stayed healthy. It's an outrage that a quality, quality center back like Jamie Carragher can't get a game for England over King, Woodgate, and Michael Dawson and it was right for him to quit international soccer for the time being. Holdovers like Alan Smith and Owen still play more often than Darren Bent, Andy Johnson, or David Nugent. It seems like places are being given based on reputation and past performances than current form, and that's not right; it's why England are just a "quarterfinal" team at the World Cup.

Obviously neither side wants to lose this game and that goes without saying. Germany leads their group and are unbeaten so far in Euro 2008 qualifying so tomorrow will simply be a tune-up match for their two qualifiers in September. England would be wise to put a higher value on the game though because if they continue to play the way they have been recently, the only part of Euro 2008 they'll play is spectator.

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