Joachim’s Low’s management of Sami Khedira’s return from injury has been a delicate process.
When he was carried off the field on a stretcher in Milan last November, the signs were ominous. Germany were already missing Borussia Dortmund’s Ilkay Gundogan since August through injury and Low was facing up to the prospect of a midfield reshuffle ahead of the World Cup. That was despite Oliver Bierhoff’s stubborn claims that, even on contrary advice from the doctors, they were expecting Khedira to be fit for Brazil.
Perhaps naturally, Low fell back on Philipp Lahm as an emergency midfielder. Not so much an emergency as it has fast become his main position under Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich, but Germany are not blessed with the same abundant options at full-back as Bayern Munich, so any decision to move the world's best right back into the middle was always at a higher risk.
Low and Bierhoff were in weekly contact with Khedira from the time he limped off at the San Siro to when he was declared fit six months later. Their micro-management of the situation appeared to have paid off with Khedira showing promising signs of an early return to action and, when he was passed fit by Real Madrid a couple of weeks before the end of the season, hopes were high within the camp that he could yet play some part at the World Cup.
Khedira played in the Champions League final against Atletico Madrid but, despite Real Madrid clinching the decima, his performance in Lisbon didn’t fill anyone with confidence. He was seriously short of pace and lacked his usual cutting edge. Surprising? No, given the long absence. But had Low, Bierhoff and Real Madrid rushed him back too soon?
The pressure was growing on Low back in Germany. There were accusations he’d put too much focus on Khedira returning from injury and that the team would suffer as a result of the pair putting all their eggs into one basket. But given Gundogan’s continuing struggle with injury, Low knew he needed Khedira to fill the combative midfield berth.
Khedira made it to Brazil and was training well but as yet unable to put in a convincing performance for Germany. His value in the opening game rout of Portugal was tenuous and he didn’t play the full 90 minutes of any game after that. But Low was ready to unleash Khedira when it really mattered, and returned him to the starting line-up for the quarter-final against France. Khedira was sensational that night, commanding the midfield and limiting the impact of Paul Pogba.
While it’s difficult to analyse his true impact against Brazil, who self-destructed in such emphatic fashion, Khedira enjoyed another comfortable game and any anxiety about his serious injury seems well behind him.
The form of Thomas Muller and Manuel Neuer has been vital to their run to the final in Brazil. But the Germans couldn’t have gone as far as they have in this tournament without Khedira, whose understated qualities have brought Germany stability and an extra dimension in attack; qualities they'll be relying on as he takes to the Maracana pitch this evening for the biggest game of his life. Should he help them lift the trophy, it would represent a fairytale turnaround since the knee damage he suffered in Milan in November.
Whatever happens, Low and Bierhoff deserve credit for giving Khedira's delicate process of recovery the attention it deserved.
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