748 days after Mario Götze scored the goal that won Germany its first FIFA World Cup title as a unified nation, the pursuit of football’s greatest trophy begins again for Die Mannschaft.
They begin their qualification campaign in Oslo against Norway, and will be looking to move on from their semi-final defeat against France at UEFA Euro 2016.
Norway, on the other hand, missed out on to Hungary in the play-offs, and are still looking to reach a major tournament for the first time since Euro 2000, and their first World Cup since 1998.
Germany will be expected to win Group C and take their place in Russia in two years’ time, but Norway face a tough task to finish second ahead of both the Czech Republic and Northern Ireland.
Norway in Oslo: a good omen for Germany?
The last meeting between these two sides was in Düsseldorf in February 2009, with Christian Grindheim’s goal earning Norway a surprise win.
Mesut Özil, who made his debut that evening, is the only survivor from the Germany team (although Mario Gomez only misses out here through injury), with now-Hertha BSC duo Rune Jarstein and Per Skjelbred still around for Norway.
There have been plenty of friendly meetings between the two sides over yet, but incredibly, if excluding a couple of qualifiers for the 1980 Olympics (Norway won both against Germany’s amateur side), they have only ever met twice in a competitive fixtures, and both of those games were 57 years ago!
West Germany and Norway were drawn in the same qualifying group for the 1954 World Cup, along with Saarland (yes that was a country, of sorts, then). West Germany started their campaign away in Norway, like this coming Sunday at the Ullevaal in Oslo, and drew 1-1 with Fritz Walter scoring for them.
Why is this significant? Well, West Germany would go on to win the tournament itself, culminating in the ‘Miracle of Bern’ final against Hungary. Could this campaign end in similar fashion?
New era for Germany; concerns for Norway
Germany just finished top of their Euro 2016 qualifying group, despite defeats to Poland and the Republic of Ireland, and their performances in the two years since the World Cup have flattered to decisive at times.
Their one warm-up game for this match was against Finland, a game they won 2-0 thanks to Max Meyer and Özil goals. It was an experimental line-up however, with Joshua Kimmich, Jonas Hector and Götze the only regulars at the Euros in the starting line-up.
The game was also a chance to say farewell to Bastian Schweinsteiger, who hung up his international boots after the game. He has been replaced as captain by Manuel Neuer.
Since losing to Hungary in both legs of their Euro 2016 play-off in November, Norway have played six friendlies with mixed results. Two victories came against Finland and Iceland, the latter just before the Icelandics’ heroic campaign in France.
They have also lost three times though. Defeats to Portugal and Belgium before the summer were respectable enough, but the 1-0 loss to Belarus on Wednesday was cause for much concern in the country.
"That was embarrassing, that was weak," said midfielder Stefan Johansen after the game, summing up the general mood amongst commentators about the performance. "Against Germany we must improve by 100% if we are to have a chance.”
Norway hoping to catch Germany on the counter
Despite that defeat, Joachim Löw is not underestimating Norway, and believes they will be up for one of their biggest games in recent years. “Norway are stronger than Finland and will provide a stern test for us,” he said at his press conference on Saturday. “We will have more possession overall but Norway are always solid defensively and good at counter attacking as well as attacking set-pieces.”
As mentioned earlier, Germany pushed their luck a little in qualifying for the Euros, and Löw says he does not want a “streaky qualification” this time round. “Therefore it's important that we enter the game with our full concentration and take three points home with us,” he said.
Norway manager Per-Mathias Høgmo believes it could be a good time to play Germany though, as there has only been one matchday in the Bundesliga and comes just two months after the end of the Euros, although he is under no illusions as to the scale of the task.
“There are not many weak points of the team,” he admits. “They will have most of the ball, but I think that it is possible to punish them on the counter attack. We have a lot of speed up front, which enables us to create chances.”
“It's important to get a good start,” says West Ham United midfielder Håvard Nordtveit, who left Borussia Mönchengladbach after five years in the summer. He added that Germany “did not come here for a ‘walkover’, they're going to take [the game] very seriously.”
Regulars back in the starting line-up for Germany
Seven of Germany’s Euro 2016 are missing. Along with Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski, who would also have retired against Finland if he hadn’t been injured, André Schürrle, Emre Can, Jérôme Boateng, Leroy Sané and Gomez are all injured. Kevin Volland meanwhile broke his against Finland, whilst Niklas Süle returns to his club after starting that game.
Löw didn’t give much away about who the starting line-up or even formation, with a 3-4-3 being tried in midweek. “The team is good enough to play both systems - with three or four players at the back,” he said, before tantalising adding “we could even see both formations within one game.”
He said he wouldn’t be afraid to start either Julian Brandt or Meyer, as he did against Finland, although suggested the efforts at the Olympics, helping Germany to win the silver medal, meant that he might not risk over exerting them early in the season.
Julian Draxler, who had been ill, is available to play, and it’s likely that the line-up will not be dissimilar to the ones fielded in France. With no recognised striker available, Löw may have to resort to using Götze as a false nine, despite the tactic’s lack of success in the past.
Six players in the Norway squad are based in Germany. FC Ingolstadt 04's Ørjan Nyland is likely to get the nod ahead of Jarnstein in goal, whilst Even Hovland (1. FC Nürnberg), Stefan Strandberg (Hannover 96) and Veton Berisha (SpVgg Greuther Fürth) all started as well against Belarus. Skjelbred missed out on Wednesday through injury, and is a doubt for the Germany game, along with Nordtveit and Markus Henriksen.
There are also six English-based players in their squad, and AFC Bournemouth striker Joshua King was one of the few bright sparks for them the other night, despite a lack of service, so should be assured of his place at least.
Notable absentees will include Valon Berisha, Veton’s brother, who made a last minute decision to represent Kosovo, and Real Madrid’s teenage prodigy Marin Ødegaard is only in the under-21 squad.
Norway: (4-3-2-1) Ørjan Nyland; Jonas Svensson, Even Hovland, Martin Linnes, Haitam Aleesami; Per Ciljan Skjelbred, Stefan Johansen, Markus Henriksen; Veton Berisha, Adama Diomandé, Joshua King.
Germany: (4-2-3-1) Manuel Neuer; Joshua Kimmich, Mats Hummels, Benedikt Höwedes, Jonas Hector; Sami Khedira, Toni Kroos; Thomas Müller, Meust Özil, Julian Draxler; Mario Götze.
Quotes via DFB, Kicker, Aftenposten and NRK.