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Sat Apr 19 01:20:33 SAST 2014

Ozil has the dirt on Spain

Carlos Amato | 12 June, 2012 06:200 Comments

"OLD MAN, look at my life. Twenty-four and there's so much more," whimpered Neil Young back in 1972, at age 24.

He was right - four decades of acclaimed whimpering and caterwauling lay ahead of him, but he never wrote another song quite as perfectly crafted as Old Man. Sometimes greatness arrives early and can't be relied on to stick around.

It seems greatness is arriving earlier than ever in the football business - the precocity of elite players is becoming ridiculous. The conventional wisdom was once that 27 or 28 is the game's optimal age, when physical and mental strength converge. This would imply that Leo Messi, now 24, is still three years off his peak. OMG, as the kids are fond of saying.

It seems the world's best players are getting smarter sooner, perhaps because ever-improving youth coaching methods are "pre-programming" all the decision-making skills that used to take a decade of professional experience to master. Another theory is that older players are so exhausted by fixture congestion that they're unable to bring their experience to bear. When you're eating the dust of a quicker opponent, hard-earned wisdom is of limited use.

The early evidence at Euro 2012 is mixed. Andrea Pirlo, 33, and Antonio di Natale, 34, looked a bit lively against the Spanish, and this relatively gnarled Italian squad (average age 28) could stick it to the theory of the youth revolution.

But second favourites Germany are the youngest squad ever fielded at a European Championship, with an average age of just 24 - and over the next four years they could develop into the finest Germany side of all. A hardened edition of the brilliant cohort that finished third at the 2010 World Cup, they already have the goods to reign over Spain.

The oldest starters in Der Mannschaft's opening victory over Portugal were Philip Lahm, 28, who has 87 caps, and Bastian Schweinsteiger, 27, who has 91 caps. Almost all the other "senior" players are in their early 20s. If the Germans do conquer in Kiev on July 1, it will have everything to do with the prodigious intelligence of Lionel Mesut Ozil, 23.

As with Messi, it's hard to imagine "Der Rabe" (The Crow) getting any better, but it may happen this month.

"Ozil is unique. There is no copy of him - not even a bad copy," says Jose Mourinho.

Some haters would argue that Ozil is in fact a "bad copy" of Messi. While he's just as creative as the Argentinian (he compiled 17 assists for Real Madrid in La Liga last season, pipping Messi's total of 15), he is slower and hopelessly inferior when it comes to goalscoring (Ozil managed only four league strikes last season, compared to Messi's 50).

But Ozil plays deeper than Messi, and his genius is more generous. Lacking the rare acceleration of Messi, he is obliged to play with his head up at all times, regally surveying the battlefield through those deceptively sleepy peepers, his mind a swirling chalkboard of cunning passes.

He and his teammates were passed to death by the Spanish in Durban two years ago. But since that dispiriting night, Ozil has spent two years embedded in Spain, repeatedly confronting the brutal machine of the Barcelona midfield and finding ways to jam it. The same goes for his Real teammate Sami Khedira, 25.

That possible showdown is way down the track, of course. Before Ozil and company can get another crack at the Spanish, they must deal with the desperate Dutch tomorrow night in Kharkiv. But they have no reason to fear Holland, having crushed them 3-0 in a recent friendly.

This time is now for Germany. They're 24, and there's so much more. But why wait? When they're 28, they might be yesterday's men.

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Ozil has the dirt on Spain

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Sat Apr 19 01:20:33 SAST 2014 ::