WORLD CUP: Germany faces reality check before title defense
By CIARAN FAHEY
BERLIN (AP) Defending World Cup champion Germany coasted through qualifying with a perfect 10-0 mark and a European record 43 goals.
Then came a reality check.
Germany drew friendlies against England, France and Spain, and Joachim Loew's team lost 1-0 to Brazil to end a 22-game unbeaten run, and then came a defeat to Austria. The Germans didn't win a game this year until last week's 2-1 victory over Saudi Arabia in Leverkusen.
Now trying to become the first time since Brazil in 1962 to defend their World Cup title looks tricky for the Germans.
"We're not as good as we're made out to be, or as some think we are," midfielder Toni Kroos said. "There's huge room for improvement."
The recent slump in friendly matches could snap any complacency among the Germans going into the World Cup, which needs to top Group F to avoid a likely second-round clash against Brazil.
Here's a closer look at the Germany team:
Loew, assistant coach to Juergen Klinsmann during Germany's "summer fairytale" hosting of the 2006 World Cup, was promoted to the top job after its third-place finish. He favors a fast-paced possession-based game, pressing opponents to recover the ball and switching quickly from defense to attack.
Loew has taken Germany to the final of the 2008 European Championship, a third-place finish at the 2010 World Cup, then the semifinals at Euro 2012 before the 2014 World Cup title in Brazil.
Germany followed with a disappointing semifinal exit to France at Euro 2016, but Loew laid the groundwork for a successful World Cup title defense by winning the Confederations Cup last year in Russia with a young team of promising talent.
Loew hasn't been afraid to test the younger players and Germany's depth made for one his hardest tasks - which players to leave off the final 23-man squad.
Leroy Sane, the Premier League's young player of the year, was cut. Mario Goetze, who scored the tournament-winning goal in 2014, wasn't even called up for the preliminary squad.
Loew also has the unfortunate tendency to become an internet sensation among fans because the 58-year-old coach has been caught on camera picking his nose and in other compromising positions during games.
Captain Manuel Neuer has proved his fitness just in time. The Bayern Munich goalkeeper missed most of the season with a second hairline fracture in his left foot, but he played the full game Saturday against Austria.
"I feel very good," said Neuer, who isn't worried about injuring his foot a third time. "The risk is exactly the same as with any other player."
Marc-Andre ter Stegen is the reserve goalkeeper despite an excellent season with Barcelona.
Kevin Trapp of Paris Saint-Germain got the nod over Bernd Leno of Bayer Leverkusen as Germany's third-choice keeper.
Bayern defender Jerome Boateng appears to have recovered from a thigh injury suffered April in the Champions League semifinals against Real Madrid. Bayern teammate Niklas Suele can also step in to partner Mats Hummels in the center. Joshua Kimmich, another Bayern player, has emerged to soften the blow of Philipp Lahm's retirement at right back. The modest Jonas Hector will likely keep his place on the left despite Cologne's relegation.
Toni Kroos will be among the first names on Loew's team sheet. The Real Madrid midfielder is the driving force behind the side. He will likely be partnered by Juventus' Sami Khedira, who provides more of a defensive presence, with Mesut Ozil in front, flanked on either side by Thomas Mueller and Marco Reus.
Germany has a wealth of options in midfield, with Ilkay Gundogan, Leon Goretzka, Julian Draxler and Julian Brandt all providing ample backup options.
Timo Werner seems assured of his starting place after another good season for Leipzig, albeit with most of his goals in the first half of the campaign. The 22-year-old Werner forward has seven goals in 12 international appearances, but it's his runs into space and the problems he causes defenders that benefit the team.
Loew also has Mario Gomez as a more experienced option. The 32-year-old Stuttgart striker has played in big tournaments before - at the World Cup in 2010 and three European Championships - and will hope to add to his 31 goals. Loew also has the option of playing Mueller or Reus up front.
Germany kicks off its title defense near its tournament base in Moscow at the Luzhniki Stadium against Mexico on June 17. The side then faces a long trip south to Sochi for its second game against Sweden on June 23, before wrapping up Group F against South Korea in Kazan four days later.
Goalkeepers: Marc-Andre ter Stegen (Barcelona), Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich), Kevin Trapp (Paris Saint-Germain)
Defenders: Mats Hummels (Bayern Munich), Jerome Boateng (Bayern Munich), Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich), Jonas Hector (Cologne), Antonio Ruediger (Chelsea), Niklas Suele (Bayern Munich), Marvin Plattenhardt (Hertha Berlin), Matthias Ginter (Borussia Moenchengladbach)
Midfielders: Toni Kroos (Real Madrid), Thomas Mueller (Bayern Munich), Marco Reus (Borussia Dortmund), Sami Khedira (Juventus), Mesut Ozil (Arsenal), Julian Draxler (Paris Saint-Germain), Ilkay Gundogan (Manchester City), Leon Goretzka (Schalke), Sebastian Rudy (Bayern Munich), Julian Brandt (Bayer Leverkusen)
Forwards: Mario Gomez (Stuttgart), Timo Werner (Leipzig)
More AP World Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup
Updated June 12, 2018