Defending FIFA World Cup champions Germany continue their attempts to reach the 2018 tournament in Russia with their first home qualifier in Hamburg against the Czech Republic on Saturday night.
It is the first meeting between the neighbouring countries in nine years, and die Mannschaft will be overwhelming favourites against a Czech side that are a far cry from the great teams of previous years.
The Germans began their Group C with a win, and boss Joachim Löw is expecting nothing less again in their second qualifying match.
The German machine keeps moving but Czechs in transition
Germany are of course looking to defend the World Cup after their glorious success in Brazil in 2014. They started the campaign comfortably enough, with a 3-0 victory against Norway five weeks ago. After failing to score at UEFA Euro 2016, when Germany reached the semi-finals, Thomas Müller returned to scoring ways with two goals in that game.
As for the Czechs, they began their campaign with a goalless draw against Northern Ireland. It was a first competitive game in charge for new manager Karel Jarolím¸ who replaced Pavel Vrba following a poor showing at Euro 2016, with just a draw against Croatia to show for their efforts.
They are not only having to cope with a change of manager, but also the loss of several key players to international retirement. The most notable of these are goalkeeper Petr Čech and playmaker Tomáš Rosický, who between them had played over 200 internationals.
By contrast, Germany have a much more settled side, leaving them better equipped to move on from the retirements of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski, who on the field at least had been only peripheral figures in France.
Memories of a famous win in Munich
This will be the seventh meeting between the two countries since the breakup of Czechoslovakia, but the first since October 2007.
On that occasion the Czechs surprisingly came away from the game at the Allianz Arena in Munich with a 3-0 win, a result vital in helping them to eventually finish top of the UEFA Euro 2008 qualifying group, although Germany also went through as runners-up. They have not lost a competitive home game since.
Despite being only nine years ago, none of the 28 players who appeared in that match will play on Saturday, although Mario Gómez, who came off the bench in Munich, was named in the initial squad before pulling out due to injury. Daniel Pudil also missed out through injury for the Czechs.
Overall, Germany have won four of the six matches, most famously the UEFA Euro 1996 final at Wembley when Oliver Bierhoff, now Germany’s general manager, scored his famous golden goal. When including meetings involving West Germany and Czechoslovakia, (West) Germany have 14 wins in 25 meetings.
Löw expecting maximum points
Löw is clear on what he wants from his players against the Czech Republic, as well as Northern Ireland on Tuesday. “I expect us to come away with three points in both games,” he said at his press conference on Friday. “The team appear to be very fresh and concentrated.”
He feels that Saturday’s opposition are the next strongest side in the group. “The Czechs always have well-trained players,” he said. “They can defend well and counter very quickly.” However he feels his side are well-prepare for the test they will offer.
Jarolím, who is the father of former Hamburger SV player David Jarolím, expects a tough task in his son’s former home ground. “It’s good that we are in the spotlight,” he said. “But on the other hand, we are coming up against a team who are very rarely beaten.”
"The boys see the particular challenges. We will certainly fight, need courage and must always remember the side we play are the world champions," he added. He also said it would be “wonderful” to get something from the game.
Boateng returns but Gündoğan will have to wait turn
Löw has confirmed that Joshua Kimmich will remain at right-back, despite playing mostly in midfield for Bayern Munich, with Sami Khedira and Toni Kroos taking the pivot roles in the centre of the field. İlkay Gündoğan, back in the side after his long injury lay-off, will be on the bench, although Löw hinted he could start against Northern Ireland.
Indeed the only likely change is the expected return of Jérôme Boateng to the centre of defence, after missing the Norway game. Benedikt Höwedes would make way for him. With Gómez having been ruled out, Mario Götze will likely stay as a false nine, although Kevin Volland is available if Löw is feeling uncharacteristically adventurous.
The Czechs have plenty of injury concerns. They are without two German-based players in Werder Bremen’s Jaroslav Drobný and Hertha BSC’s Vladimír Darida, whilst Martin Frydek has also had to pull out of the squad.
Two Bundesliga players are available to them though – Bremen’s Theodor Gebre Selassie and Pavel Kadeřábek of TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, although they are competing for the one spot at right-back. They will also be able to recall Tomáš Sivok, who missed the Northern Ireland match through injury. He could replace Michal Kadlec, who also isn’t in the squad.
Germany: (4-2-3-1) Neuer; Kimmich, Höwedes, Hummels, Hector; Kroos, Khedira; Müller, Özil, Draxler; Götze.
Czech Republic: (4-5-1) Vaclík; Kadeřábek, Suchý, Sivok, Novák; Skalák, Horava, Dočkal, Pavelka, Krejčí; Kadlec.
Quotes via DFB and Sport1.