By Karolos Grohmann
BERLIN (Reuters) - After coming close in big tournaments in recent years, Germany are now under pressure to finally deliver at the World Cup and end a 16-year title drought.
While holders Spain and hosts Brazil start as the pre-tournament favorites, Germany can never be discounted in a major competition and are driven by an ambition to be the first non-South American team to clinch the trophy on the continent.
Drawn with Ghana, who they beat in the group stage four years ago, United States led by former Germany coach Juergen Klinsmann and Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal, the Germans are expected to finish in the top two with few problems.
As success-starved German fans pile pressure on the team, coach Joachim Loew has said only those players at the peak of their game will make the trip across the Atlantic.
"I expect everyone to lead a fully professional life. We have a big target," he said.
"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 them to two semi-finals and one final in his three tournaments in charge since 2006.
Their midfield is among the best in the world, oozing talent with Mesut Ozil, Thomas Mueller, Marco Reus, Mario Goetze, Andre Schuerrle and Toni Kroos to name a few.
With captain Philipp Lahm looking set for a permanent switch to a holding midfield position alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger, who is hitting top form after a long injury break, there is even more experience there.
However, there are doubts about fellow holding midfielder Sami Khedira, who suffered a ligament tear and is battling to be fit in time for the tournament.
The absence of playmaker Ilkay Guendogan, nursing a back injury since August, could be another blow for Loew who has also injury concerns regarding strikers Miroslav Klose and Mario Gomez.
Klose, equal on 68 goals for his country alongside Gerd Mueller and set to pass that record soon, has only recently returned from injury. Gomez is expected to return in May, having missed most of the season with a string of injuries.
With striker Max Kruse, seen as a possible addition to their attack in Brazil, well below form at Borussia Moenchengladbach this year, Loew has another puzzle to solve.
He has opted at times to play with 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 for several months, and Per Mertesacker have yet to impress as the central partnership.
With left-back Marcel Schmelzer also out injured and Lahm leaving his right-back position, the Germany defence could prove their Achilles heel.
A 1-0 win over Chile in a friendly in March highlighted the challenges Germany will face against strong South American teams.
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.
(Reporting by Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Julien Pretot and Mike Collett)