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July 3, 2006 8:51 pm

Germany’s odd couple find their wavelength

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Miroslav Klose looked puzzled. He had just been named man of the match in Germany’s 2-0 win against Sweden in the second round and the first question in the press conference was about how his understanding with fellow striker Lukas Podolski had improved.

Bemused, Klose turned to his press officer to have the question explained to him as the horde of hacks snickered. Klose hesitated again before answering robotically: “At last the World Cup has begun for Lukas Podolski. He showed just how important he is for the team.”

That moment in Munich was one of the rare occasions that the Klose-Podolski partnership has stumbled in this World Cup. In common with much of the German team, they were written off before the competition.

Klose was a has-been whose World Cup tally was inflated by a hat-trick against a desperately poor Saudi Arabian team, while Podolski was too young and lacked any big game experience to perform.

How the wisdom that hindsight affords allows one to mock those judgments now. The Klose-Podolski strike force is by a long distance the deadliest in the World Cup.

Backed by ever more boisterous German crowds, Klose is favourite to win the Golden Boot for top scorer with five goals, two ahead of his nearest rivals – who are led by Podolski. Indeed Podolski’s only current rival for second left in the competition is France’s Thierry Henry.

In the semi-final on Tuesday night against Italy in Dortmund, where Germany have never lost, the two will face perhaps their stiffest task as they come up against perhaps the best defence in the tournament. The Azzurri have let in one goal so far.

Italy’s best trick may be to follow Argentina’s example and starve the German strikers of the ball. Klose complained after the quarter-final: “We allowed Argentina to impose themselves on us and it meant we had to run a lot more just to get the ball.”

Klose, with his angular jawline and Slavic looks, is the senior member of the partnership, both in experience and skill. The 28-year-old is a centre forward in the classical goal poacher style often scoring by just being in the right place. But this World Cup has shown he is more than that.

Against Sweden he turned playmaker, unselfishly setting up both goals for Podolski in a performance that helped add several million euros to his price tag. Klose is difficult for defenders to pin down, writhing and squirming away and while not the quickest player what he lacks in pace he makes up for in hunger.

Klose’s desire to perform has left his home strewn with broken vases and pictures. As part of coach’s Jürgen Klinsmann’s introduction of unorthodox training methods, Klose was given a homework task of trying to hit light switches in his house with a ball. “I only broke a couple of things,” he says.

Klose has also been important to Podolski. The 21-year-old has only played club football for Cologne, a weak side who were relegated this year.

In the early games of the World Cup, Podolski – who signed for Bayern Munich in early June – struggled, looking overwhelmed by the occasion. Klose aimed a few well-aimed words – “he needs to move more” and “he looks too tense” – and while the media talked of a rift in the camp, Podolski showed it was the opposite with three goals in two games against Ecuador and Sweden.

Still, the younger of Germany’s two Polish-born strikers can at times seem immature. He was booked after only three minutes in the quarter-final against Argentina after two rather brash fouls and while every other member of the team has been talking down the impact of March’s 4-1 loss to Italy, Podolski says: “Now we want revenge for the 1-4.”

But Klinsmann stuck with the almost entirely left-footed striker, showing him the sort of faith many other managers fail to give. Klose has also benefited from Klinsmann as he reached this World Cup in full fitness following a wretched 2004 European Championship.

With a goal tonight Klose could even overtake Klinsmann’s German World Cup scoring record.

The manager says: “It is fun to watch the Klose-Podolski partnership. They understand each other so well and they have played so fantastically.”

In fact the only game in which they both fired a dud was, ironically, the one against the country they were born in.

Still, neither striker was too worried. Klose says: “It is important that we work together. We see ourselves as united and I think we have really found ourselves in this tournament.”

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