Germany-South Korea Preview
KAZAN, Russia (AP) This Mannschaft is by no means perfect, but at least it can fight, and that's an essential asset to win a World Cup.
Germany's 2-1 win over Sweden could turn out to be the cornerstone in the defending champions' Russian campaign, a memorable event that brought players together following their disastrous start.
After its opening loss to Mexico, Germany got back on track with a stoppage-time winner from Toni Kroos against Sweden, and now needs to finish the job against South Korea to avoid being eliminated in the first round of the World Cup for the first time since 1938.
In a wide-open Group F topped by Mexico with six points, the Germans have their fate in their own hands again. They will qualify if they beat South Korea at Kazan Arena by at least two goals.
"Now it's all about beating South Korea," Kroos said, urging his teammates not to get carried away by the euphoria and excitement that enveloped the German squad after the Sweden game.
Despite the turnaround, there are many inadequacies that need to be addressed by Germany coach Joachim Loew ahead of the final game. Julian Draxler and Thomas Mueller were mediocre up front against Sweden, and the pairing of Jerome Boateng and Antonio Ruediger was shaky during a nerve-racking contest that took an emotional toll on Germany.
The improbable win, however, boosted the players' confidence ahead of a third World Cup encounter with 57th-ranked South Korea. Germany won their previous two matches at the tournament, in 1994 and 2002.
"We came through against the odds. This could be a turning point for us in this tournament," Mueller said.
Germany's comeback also gave more leeway to Loew, who was slammed for being too conservative in his choices and relying too much on his old guard of world champions.
Loew made four changes that paid off against Sweden - notably dropping playmaker Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira to make room for Marco Reus, Jonas Hector, Sebastian Rudy and Ruediger. Although Germany remained too vulnerable to counterattacks, the changes allowed for a better-balanced team that fought hard until the end and overcame Boateng being sent off with eight minutes left.
Rudy suffered a broken nose against Sweden, while Boateng is suspended for the South Korea game, meaning Loew will be forced to make more changes. But he has a deep bench, another trump card at the month-long tournament.
Center back Mats Hummels could return after missing the previous match with a neck injury and partner with Ruediger in the heart of the defense.
Having recovered from the left foot fracture that threatened to rule him out of the tournament, Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer has been a leader off and on the pitch.
Neuer was at his best against Sweden, making a decisive save to deny an effort from Marcus Bergen just before halftime and, as usual, igniting quick attacking moves from the back with his long throws and pinpoint kicks. Neuer was also one of the main speakers during the crisis meeting that followed the loss against Mexico.
Julian Brandt, the 22-year-old Bayer Leverkusen winger, is one of the most talented young German players and was included on Loew's World Cup squad at the expense of Leroy Sane. He has been living up to expectations in Russia with two solid appearances as a substitute. He came on late against Sweden and hit the woodwork. It would be surprising if he does not get another chance against South Korea.
With its chances of qualification already slim, South Korea took a blow when captain Ki Sung-yueng was ruled out with a left calf injury.
The Swansea midfielder is South Korea's most experienced player, with 104 appearances with the national team.
South Korea has lost its past four World Cup matches, but there is still a glimmer of hope. The team could advance if it beats the four-time world champions and Sweden loses to Mexico.
More AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/WorldCup
Updated June 25, 2018