Published June 17, 2012
WARSAW, POLAND – Was it only a month ago that Bastian Schweinsteiger was left in tears while Mario Gomez was trying to find a place to hide?
The frenetic pace of top-level football can be draining, but also redemptive. These two Bayern stars have embraced the opportunity to erase Champions League sorrow with European success and as a result, Germany takes on Denmark Sunday with an eye on a first place finish in the Euros "group of death." Should they pull it off, Germany will be on a straight-forward path that should take them to the final.
In May, Schweinsteiger missed a critical, tie-breaking penalty kick against Chelsea and immediately looked a broken man. The pictures of him in tears were beamed around the world and he became the symbol of Bayern's grief and impotence. Credit him with the resilience of a champion: the non-stop midfielder has recovered from the failure and once again looks like the engine that drives his country.
Schweinsteiger spent a significant part of this past season injured. It's hard not to equate the time he spent sidelined with a gimpy ankle with Bayern's decline in the Bundesliga. The German midfielder probably came back too soon for his club as Bayern tried to save both its Bundesliga and Champions League dreams. A month later, he's back to the player he always was.
Gomez left the Allianz Arena as the Champions League goat, perhaps a bit harshly treated for his misses in front of goal on a night when Arjen Robben's failure to convert a penalty kick in extra time was the true reason Bayern failed to celebrate in front of its home fans.
Gomez is a streaky character; he's unstoppable for a string of games, then goes AWOL or off target. Most frustrating of all is his capacity to miss the net when it would seem easier to score. He's criticized for not "working" all over the field but celebrates too much when the goals go in. In many respects, he's a modern version of the late Giorgio Chinaglia - a man who also was all about scoring goals but far from a complete player.
In this European Championship, Schweinsteiger has been the creator and Gomez the finisher as Germany put Portugal and Holland aside. They are not doing it alone, however, with Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller lending plenty of midfield support, especially wide, and both Holger Badstuber and Mats Hummels coming good in a defense that was once considered questionable.
Philipp Lahm has accepted the role of left back so that Jerome Boateng can work on the right and Sami Khedira seems his untiring self in a supporting central role so that Ozil or Schweinsteiger can forage forward without fear of leaving gaps in defense. Boateng is suspended for the final game (accumulated cards), so Lars Bender is likely to get the nod in his slot.
And then there's Lukas Podolski, whom some are considering a no-show in the first two matches. He hasn't scored and that's easy to notice. What's not so easy to recognize though is that Podolski's running very well, pulling defenders off of Gomez and opening alleys for his midfielders to pass through. In short, he's sacrificed his own scoring chances to set up others. Podolski is set to earn his 100th cap on Sunday.
How Denmark handles all of this will be interesting. The Danes announced their own intentions by defeating Holland on opening day and were within a whisker of getting a draw with Portugal despite going down 2-0 early. They are hardly a polished defensive bunch but they play to their strengths.
Nicklas Bendtner is the Danes' Gomez. The self-proclaimed "best striker" may be a figure of fun in England, but has had to make no apologies for his performance in front of the net this tournament; his choice of underwear, well, that's another story.
The fact is that Germany cannot ignore Bendtner's threat and his demanding presence of that keeps Denmark alive in any match thanks to their long-ball style of play. Bendtner's also good at ghosting behind defenders to the far post because he is far quicker than he appears. In this tournament, at least, Bendtner seems to know where the goal is, something he occasionally forgets while playing in the Premier League.
Germany will start clear favorites, needing only one point to advance. However, this Group B finale may be more about how the Germans continue to develop. Traditionally, German sides have grown with every game in a major tournament. A win Sunday and first place in the group, would earn them a favorable matchup against Greece.
Having arrived in Ukraine as one of the pre-tournament favorites, but with noticeable question marks, the Germans seem primed to head to phase-two in Poland in full control of their destiny.