Thomas Müller has a very special gift. And Hansi Flick also appreciates that very much about his offensive leader.
The most experienced national soccer player in the national coach's World Cup squad with Bayern colleague Manuel Neuer is still available for a casual saying if things don't go according to plan for him, as before the tournament in Qatar.
"That's all said, we train on Saturday," said the 33-year-old Müller to the reporters when they asked him about his fitness after his continued spectator role at the last World Cup test in Muscat against Oman (1-0). And then Müller amazed again and, like Antonio Rüdiger, who was just as ailing recently, was already on the training ground in the red fortress of the Al Shamal Stadium with a small training group on Friday, which was actually a free day.
This development certainly gave Hansi Flick hope. But even after the move to the World Cup base in the desert sands of Qatar, one can continue to speculate: Will Müller be fit in time for the national team's opening game against Japan on Wednesday? And what role will he play in his fourth (and probably last) World Cup?
In the case of Müller's companion Neuer, this has long been clarified in advance after a shoulder injury. The 36-year-old captain is back in goal. And the "eternal Manu" should even become the record goalkeeper in World Cup history in Qatar. The three group games against Japan, Spain and Costa Rica are enough for Neuer to overtake DFB legend Sepp Maier and Brazilian Cláudio Taffarel, who each make 18 appearances. Then he would have 19.
"Goalkeeping taken to another level"
Flick praised Neuer in advance. "Manuel has taken goalkeeping to another level. For me, he's still number one in the world. We're absolutely happy that he played again before the World Cup and this also shows the quality he has," said the national coach. Neuer speaks for the team - and Flick a lot with him. "I've known Manuel for a long time. He's always been an important contact for me, whether it was at Bayern or with the national team. He has a lot of experience."
Neuer wants to be world champion again. "We're really ramping up now," he said after the unedifying Oman game. Müller's ambition is also well known. Neuer and Müller - their paths have mostly run parallel in the past twelve years. At the first World Cup in 2010 in South Africa, the then 24-year-old Neuer benefited from the absence of the injured René Adler, whom national coach Joachim Löw had actually proclaimed number one. Müller, then just 20, shot up to become the top scorer (5 goals) in his spectacular tournament debut. With 118 caps, he leads the list of appearances in the 26-man DFB squad for Qatar, just ahead of Neuer (114).
Three times together in the World Cup starting formation
Both were in the starting line-up in the opening game of the World Cup in 2010, 2014 and 2018. The start was successful twice: in 2010 Müller scored in the 4-0 win against Australia, in 2014 even three times in the 4-0 win against Portugal. Only four years ago it didn't mulch in the first game when the DFB selection lost 0-1 to Mexico at the start. And this time, at World Cup number four, Müller's use from the start is anything but certain. In Bayern's 4-0 win against Leverkusen on September 30, Müller was last on the pitch for 90 minutes. Three more partial assignments followed, otherwise his body slowed him down, sometimes because of Corona, sometimes because of an infection, most recently because of back, hip and muscular problems. Müller spoke annoyed about "stop and go".
Stop and Go also in Qatar? Flick appeased. "Of course Thomas has now had a long break. But he is well prepared." And Müller will "train fully with the team" for the first time on Saturday, just like the recently injured defender Antonio Rüdiger. But Flick didn't like the veteran to put him in the starting eleven against Japan. There's a lot of competition, not just in the person of young Bayern star Jamal Musiala.
Flick keeps all options open
"Ultimately we have very good quality in the front positions. We also need that for a successful tournament," said Flick. He is keeping all options open before the final days of training: "It's all about what the players offer us. If they show us their top performance, it will be very difficult for us coaches to use the right players up front." Without game practice, Müller could start a World Cup on the bench for the first time.
For Flick, the communicator and full-blooded soccer player Müller always provides added value for the team. "If a coach could carve a player: Thomas Müller would be the result," says the national coach in the new DFB-Journal. "The overall package that he offers is outstanding. Everyone can take an example from him and his attitude, Thomas is exceptional in every respect and very special. For the team he has value beyond his sporting ability."
Müller brings with him what Amazon founder Jeff Bezos described as a “day 1 mentality”, says Flick. "The first day of falling in love, the first day of a new job, the first day of school. The trick is to keep the magic of the beginning. And Thomas lives this every day. He's one of every player in our squad one of the longest, he's experienced a lot, and yet you always feel that he's burning as much as if it were the first day."
On the first day of the German World Cup against Japan, however, Müller would also like to be on the pitch in the Khalifa International Stadium, just like Neuer.