Germany ponder unleashing Füllkrug for stormy night against Denmark

First, the insects. There has been an infestation of mosquitoes at Germany’s training camp in Herzogenaurach in Bavaria, one that has claimed numerous victims, with a fortnight of humid weather rendering the squad’s outdoor viewing garden – which sits right next to a forest – almost unusable in the evenings. “I have already been bitten two or three times,” the striker Maximilian Beier admitted. “But if that’s the biggest problem, then fine …”

Then, the thunder. The DWD, Germany’s equivalent of the Met Office, is warning of severe thunderstorms, torrential rain, large hailstones, hurricane-force winds and perhaps even tornadoes across the west of the country on Saturday: perfectly timed to coincide with the crunch last-16 clash against Denmark in Dortmund.

If Germany’s Euro 2024 campaign is beginning to take the appearance of a biblical ordeal, then rest assured: there are still plenty of potential plagues to come. The 1-1 draw against Switzerland in their final group game – salvaged only by an injury-time equaliser from Niclas Füllkrug – has served a timely reproof to the illusion that any of this was going to be easy.

And Germany’s struggles in Frankfurt on Sunday night certainly seem to have focused minds, perhaps even reawakened a few old sprites. “We need to improve the rest of our defence,” Lothar Matthäus wrote in his newspaper column. “I have always said I’d be happy with the quarter-finals,” the former national team midfielder Mario Basler said. “If we are attacked one-on-one, we have problems,” ZDF’s Christoph Kramer warned.

Outside the commentariat, the main point of contention appears to be over Füllkrug, Germany’s big stallion striker, who plays his club football in Dortmund and who now boasts an enviable record of a goal every 58 minutes for the national team. Füllkrug’s international tournament record – four goals in six games, despite never having played more than 35 minutes in any of them – has generated a groundswell of public support for the idea that he should probably start.

Niclas Füllkrug profile

One problem: there isn’t an immediate vacancy for him. Kai Havertz, the starting centre-forward, has begun the tournament well and his versatility and movement are crucial to the way Germany want to attack. Instead, according to a report by Bild newspaper, it is the attacking playmaker Florian Wirtz who may end up making way, with Füllkrug playing up front in recent training sessions and Havertz and Jamal Musiala playing just off him.

And so perhaps this game can be summarised as a tale of two strikers: an in-form striker who Germany can’t bring themselves to select, and an out-of-form striker who Denmark can’t bring themselves to drop. There are plentiful options for their manager, Kasper Hjulmand, should he decide to leave out Rasmus Højlund on Saturday night: the burly Jonas Wind, the elegant Kasper Dolberg, the clever Yussuf Poulsen. And yet, for better or worse, there is a sense that the fates of Højlund and Hjulmand are yoked together: a formula whose potential ceiling is spectacular, and yet which remains, thus far, almost entirely potential.

The Manchester United striker was prolific for Denmark in qualifying, scoring seven goals in eight games, but is now on a drought of none in seven, and over the course of a winless group stage his confidence occasionally appeared to be visibly draining. He sits 91st on the list of players with most shots, behind Fabian Schär, N’Golo Kanté and Ayoze Pérez, who has only played 12 minutes in the tournament.

Rasmus Højlund has gone seven games without a goal for Denmark. Photograph: Sven Beyrich/SPP/Shutterstock

Twist or stick? “We lacked the ability to service Rasmus better,” Hjulmand said after the 0-0 draw against Serbia. “When you play the way we do, our wing-backs must be able to apply pressure. We have had four or five situations where we were able to hit a flat ball behind or in front of the defence. It is the combinations in the centre, as well as the breakthrough on the wings, that are missing. Rasmus is where he needs to be.”

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The knives are being sharpened for Hjulmand after a dispiriting and inconsistent group stage campaign that – according to the Danish tabloid BT – was “less exciting that the general meeting of the local antenna association”. His contract runs until 2026, and another tournament failure after the group-stage exit in Qatar would make the case for change irresistible. And so his future rests on being able to get a tune out of that front line, which the same article described as “more harmless than an unsalted potato meal”.

For all this, there is a feeling that the occasion and opposition will raise them. This is a Denmark team that worships at the altar of German football, containing 13 players with Bundesliga experience and a coach fluent in the language from his time coaching Mainz a decade ago. On the other side, Germany’s set-piece coach Mads Buttgereit is a Dane, poached by Hansi Flick after studying his work at Euro 2020.

Kim Vilfort is mobbed by his Denmark teammates after scoring the second goal in the 1992 final. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Herein lies the danger for Germany: an opposition they are comfortably expected to beat, and yet one never happier than as unfancied underdogs, written off and given ample space to run into. There are Germans of a certain age who come out in a cold sweat at the very memory of the 1992 European Championship final, when Berti Vogts’s team were shocked 2-0 in Gothenburg.

The ferries and trains have been pouring over the border for days. Dortmund is set for a deluge, and in more ways than one. Win this, and Germany will have another six days to nurse their bruises and treat their insect bites before a probable quarter-final against Spain in Stuttgart. It doesn’t get any easier from here. A storm is brewing, but somehow the promised land has never felt closer.

The Guardian