By Karolos Grohmann
BERLIN, June 7 (Reuters) - After coming agonisingly close to victory at the big tournaments in recent years, Germany are now under pressure to finally deliver at the World Cup and end a frustrating 18-year title drought.
While holders Spain and hosts Brazil start as the pre-tournament favourites, Germany can never be discounted in a major competition and are driven by an ambition to be the first non-South American team to lift the trophy on the continent.
Drawn with Ghana, who they beat in the group stage four years ago, the United States, led by former Germany coach Juergen Klinsmann, and Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal, the Germans are expected to advance from Group G with few problems.
As success-starved German fans pile pressure on the team, coach Joachim Loew backed up his claim that only players at the peak of their game would make the trip across the Atlantic when he finalised his 23-man squad at the start of the month.
"I expect everyone to lead a fully professional life. We have a big target," he said previously. "I need adaptable players. I need players who are physically fit and can handle the conditions in Brazil. Heat, long travel times, time difference and different kickoff times."
Loew has created one of the most exciting teams to watch since taking over in 2006 with fast-paced passing and an attacking game capable of shattering any defence in a split second.
He has led the side to two semi-finals and one final in his three tournaments in charge but will be desperate to make it fourth-time lucky in Brazil.
The side's strength is built upon a world class midfield, with Mesut Ozil, Thomas Mueller, Marco Reus, Mario Goetze, Andre Schuerrle and Toni Kroos among the massed ranks of a power-packed and supremely talented unit.
With captain Philipp Lahm looking for a permanent switch to a holding midfield role alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger, who is gradually hitting top form after a long injury break, there is even more experience there.
However, there are doubts over the fitness of fellow holding midfielder Sami Khedira, who suffered a ligament tear and battled back to recover just in time for the tournament.
The absence of injured playmaker Ilkay Guendogan, nursing a back injury since August, is another blow for Loew, who also has injury concerns regarding his only striker Miroslav Klose.
Klose, equal on 68 goals for his country alongside Gerd Mueller and set to pass that record soon, has only recently returned from injury but Loew opted to stick with just him, dropping Kevin Volland from his final World Cup squad.
Loew has now got to solve that puzzle and has opted at times to play Goetze in a lone striker role, emulating Spain, who often do not deploy an out-and-out forward but rather an offensive midfielder in that position, although the move has had limited success.
Loew's biggest concern, however, is the backline which has lost its stability.
Mats Hummels, a long way from top form after missing several months through injury, and Per Mertesacker have yet to impress as a central partnership.
With left-back Marcel Schmelzer ruled out through injury and Lahm leaving his right-back position, the Germany defence could prove their Achilles heel.
If the 1-0 win over Chile in a March friendly highlighted the challenges Germany could face against strong South American teams, a 2-2 draw against a feisty Cameroon on June 1 confirmed that no match would be easy.
The Chileans outran the Germans at home and were unlucky not to leave with a win. Their opponents left the field to jeers and whistles from their own demanding fans.
"Those who still carry problems or are not professional enough will have to accept the consequences," Loew warned after the game as he secretly eyes the title. (Editing by John O'Brien)