LILLE: Missing inspirational World Cup-winning captain Philipp Lahm, Germany begin Euro 2016 against Ukraine on Sunday with major doubts over whether they can reach the heights of Brazil two years ago.
The versatile Lahm retired from international football after the World Cup leaving a gap that coach Joachim Loew has found difficult to fill, whilst a series of injuries have further disrupted Germany’s preparation.
Moreover, erratic form in qualifying and in the build-up to the Euros has eroded confidence in the world champions.
Ger many suf fered away defeats to both Ireland and Poland in qualifying and threw away a two-goal lead to lose 3-2 at home to England in March.
An inexperienced side including several debutants lost to Slovakia last month before a full-strength side struggled to see off Hungary last Saturday.
“We saw that we’ve needed to turn one or two screws to make improvements,” Loew said.
“In a few situations (in the warm-up games) we weren’t particularly dynamic or fresh.”
Indeed, Loew has picked the youngest squad present in France with Borussia Dortmund star Marco Reus and Roma defender Antonio Ruediger missing out through injury.
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Captain Bastian Schweinsteiger is set to only start on the bench in Lille on Sunday, having played just 23 minutes of football since the end of March after tearing a knee ligament.
The Manchester United star came off the bench at the end of Germany’s warm-up friendly win over Hungary last Saturday.
However, German assistant boss Thomas Schneider insisted Schweinsteiger is fit and highlighted the importance of his leadership to such a young squad.
“In any case, Basti is fit,” added Schneider. “As a bloke, he is extremely important for us and is on a very good path.”
If Hummels is not fit to start, Valencia’s Shkodran Mustafi or the experienced Benedikt Howedes will partner Jerome Boateng in central defence.
Bayer n Munich’s Joshua Kimmich is set to complete a meteoric rise this season in Lahm’s old position at right-back with Jonas Hector at left-back.
Up front, the scorer of the winning goal in the World Cup final two years ago, Mario Goetze, looks set to continue despite a lack of form and fitness restricting him to just seven league starts for Bayern all season.
“Goetze has rediscovered his playing rhythm even though he hasn’t played so much recently for his club,” added Loew. “He can play at the front of or just behind the forward line, which is a great advantage for him.”
Ukraine could expose Germany’s inexperience at the back with their major threat coming from talented wingers Yevhen Konoplyanka of Sevilla and Dynamo Kiev’s Andriy Yarmolenko.
However, their preparations have been affected by a public bust-up between Yarmolenko and teammate Taras Stepanenko.
Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder Stepanenko was blatantly kicked by Yarmolenko for a provocative goal celebration in front of the Dynamo fans in a clash between the two giants of Ukranian club football last month.