Does get any better than England vs. Germany at the World Cup? Of all the great match-ups in the round of 16 at the World Cup, none offer the intrigue and excitement of England against Germany. It's a huge game, not just because there is a spot in the quarterfinals awaiting the winner, or that it's yet another installment of one of soccer's great international rivalries. Sunday's match represents a last chance for England's aged nucleus of superstars to make good with their fans and live up to the high expectations bestowed upon them some years ago.
Once upon a time, about a decade ago, Steven Gerrard, David Beckham, Michael Owen, Frank Lampard, John Terry and Ashley Cole were amongst a group of players touted to be England's "Golden Generation." Hopes were high that this new bumper crop of footballers would grow up to carry England back to the pinnacle of a game invented on English soil.
Much can change in a decade. Flash forward ten years and England's young talents have suddenly become old men by soccer standards. Beckham and Owen are out injured and likely finished on the national team, while most of the other old guard are either on the wrong side of thirty or will be there by year's end. Time is running out for the golden boys and behind them are only years of failure. England's best performance during this supposed Belle Epoque has been a few quarterfinal appearances at The World Cup. In 2008 the Three Lions hit a new low when they failed to qualify for the European Championship.
Disappointing though Gerrard, Terry et al have been, there is a reason they're still around -- England has nobody to replace them with. To exasperate England's feelings of inadequacy, Germany -- their biggest rival -- has successfully integrated several talented youngsters to their team at this World Cup, all of whom look poised to carry the banner for Die Mannschaft for many years to come.
For England, the cupboard is bare. With the exception of Wayne Rooney, there isn't a world-class English soccer player younger than 25-years-old. So you can't blame England if they prepare for this game as if it's World War III (after all, their record against the Germans wasn't so bad in the first two). Not only is this a last chance for generation of English footballers, it might the last chance for England to beat Germany for a few generations.
The German-England rivalry goes back to the early days of the World Cup and blossomed in the aftermath of World War II. England drew first blood back in 1966, when the Three Lions beat Germany in the finals to win their first (and only) World Cup trophy. The future looked bright for England, but Germany quickly avenged that defeat by knocking England out of the 1970 World Cup. The Germans have dominated the proceedings ever since and have three World Cup championships to England's one. Sadly, the old Empire's only salvation is the invention one of the great chants in international football, which you can listen to here.
There is some hope for England, however, as Germany is facing a bit of fitness crisis, with midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger and full-back Jerome Boatang both expected to miss the game with injuries. But a Schweinsteiger-less midfield will still be a challenge for England, who have been lining up in a predictable four-man midfield for most of the World Cup. Germany operates with five midfielders, and their control of the midfield area might force England to chase the game a bit.
While England will suffer from a tactical disadvantage, they will have a clear advantage in one area: experience. Germany has one of the youngest teams at the World Cup, and they've replaced most of the players that carried them to the finals of Euro 2008 and to third place at the 2006 World Cup without missing a beat. England is as old as Germany is young; their squad is chalk-full of players born in the early days of the Thatcher administration.
The young Germans have looked good so far, but the team has quieted down since their 4-0 drubbing of Australia in their World Cup opener. The young guns are also unfamiliar with the pressure of playing in tense World Cup elimination games. In this regard, England has the clear upper hand. Most of their starters are holdovers from previous tournament squads, although it is worth mentioning that to be an experienced English footballer is to be well acquainted with disappointment and failure.
If Gerrard and company want to make amends for years of heartbreak, they would do well to beat Germany. Nothing less than their legacy is at stake.
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