BERLIN (AP) — Germany's biggest concern three months ahead of its World Cup defense is whether captain Manuel Neuer will be fit enough to lead the side in Russia.
The Bayern Munich goalkeeper hasn't played since September after suffering a repeat of the hairline fracture of the metatarsal in his left foot while training. He was expected to return in January but the rehabilitation program is proving longer than expected - no doubt to minimize the risk of another relapse. Another setback could have far-reaching consequences.
"It's really important nothing else happens to the foot now - because then it could really be about the career," Neuer said last Friday.
Neuer, who celebrates his 32nd birthday when Germany hosts Brazil in a friendly on Tuesday, hopes to return for Bayern first.
"My target is not to return to the national team without having played a game," Neuer said.
Despite being considered the world's best goalkeeper, Neuer would be a gamble for Joachim Loew, but the Germany coach has indicated he is prepared to take the risk.
"The doctors have reaffirmed that the condition of the scar and bone fusion is absolutely fine," Loew said before the side's 1-1 friendly draw with Spain on Friday.
"I assume and am very optimistic that Manuel will be at the World Cup."
Though many German fans feel the presence of Neuer is a prerequisite for a successful title defense, his backups are well capable of filling in.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen has overcome a shaky start to his Germany career to establish himself as the No. 1 in Neuer's absence. The former Borussia Moenchengladbach goalkeeper is thriving at Barcelona and showed his quality in helping Germany win the Confederations Cup last year.
"He exudes calmness and has a good overview of the game," Loew said. "He has made a huge jump forward in the last two years."
It could well be that Neuer returns and will have to make do with a place on the bench with the 25-year-old ter Stegen keeping his spot.
Germany also has reserve goalkeepers Bernd Leno of Bayer Leverkusen and Kevin Trapp of Paris Saint-Germain, while Sven Ulreich has been pushing for a call-up after filling in impressively for Neuer at Bayern.
REUS AND GOETZE
Neither Marco Reus nor Borussia Dortmund teammate Mario Goetze - who scored Germany's World Cup-winning goal in 2014 - were selected for the games against Spain and Brazil, and both face pressure to up their performances if order to book their spots in Russia.
Reus, who missed Euro 2016 and the 2014 World Cup with injuries sustained shortly before both tournaments, has only recently returned to action after missing most of the season with a serious knee injury.
"It's important for us that Marco is guided to the top level gently and without additional pressure and that he gets stability," Loew said.
Goetze has not yet returned to his previous level after missing much of last season with a metabolic health issue.
"He's not quite reached the form we would like to see. He is very eager to learn and very ambitious so he is by no means written off," Loew said.
Germany was chasing shadows for much of the first half hour on Friday, when the home side failed to find an answer to the technical brilliance of Andres Iniesta, Isco and Thiago Alcantara in Spain's midfield. The visitors should have increased their lead before Thomas Mueller equalized with a fine strike from distance.
But Germany's brittleness in those opening stages will have troubled Loew.
Defender Jerome Boateng didn't hold back in outlining what needs to improve: "Everything! In every way. Taking chances, passing. We have to be more single-minded toward goal and work to better together."
Manchester City midfielders Ilkay Gundogan and Leroy Sane will get a chance to show they can provide some of that missing magic when they start against Brazil.
Timo Werner showed his inexperience in being held in check by Spain's defenders and Loew will likely bring in either Mario Gomez or Sandro Wagner as a more experienced option for the 22-year-old Leipzig forward.
The 32-year-old Gomez has enjoyed something of a renaissance on his return to Stuttgart, where he has six goals and two assists in 10 Bundesliga games, while Wagner (30) hasn't featured as much since his winter switch to Bayern, where he has four goals in eight league appearances.
Wagner is something of a late bloomer, making his Germany debut with a hat trick in qualifying against San Marino last year, while Gomez has 31 goals in 72 games for the national team.
Both players will be playing for their places over the remainder of the Bundesliga season.