The stakes are raised a level this evening in Basle as the knockout stage of Euro 2008 gets underway, with pre-tournament fancies Germany and Portugal squaring up at St Jakob-Park in the first quarter-final.
The politicking, hard luck stories and endless possible permutations of the group phase are over, with the simple drama of sudden death ready for its heroes and villains to take centre stage.
The last time these two giants met in competitive action was the 3rd place playoff for the 2006 World Cup. Home advantage and two Bastian Schweinsteiger goals made the difference on that occasion, with the Germans claiming a 3-1 victory – but Portugal were victorious the last time they met at the Euros, celebrating a 3-0 group stage win in Rotterdam during Euro 2000.
Bookmakers were expecting the two teams to meet at the semi-final stage, but neutral fans across Europe will be delighted that Germany’s failure top Group B has resulted in this mouth-watering confrontation in the competition’s second week. Both teams have an impressive European Championship history. Portugal, runners-up in 1984 and 2004, are aiming to reach their third consecutive semi-final, while three-time winners Germany have only ever lost two knockout stage matches. With question marks hanging over each of them, it should make for an intriguing and tense affair. The prize of a semi-final against either Croatia or Turkey is on offer to the victor.
There are two major selection headaches facing Germany boss Joachim Low ahead of this evening’s game, with midfield anchor Torsten Frings (fractured ribs) and top scorer Lukas Podolski (calf strain) both struggling with injuries. Both men are rated as only slightly better than 50/50 to make this evening’s crucial clash. The last few hours of the build up will be an anxious one for the Germany coach, who will serve a touchline ban tonight after being sent to the stands for clashing with Austria coach Josef Hickersberger on Monday.
“Our medical staff will do everything possible to get them fit,” he said on Wednesday.
“The decision on both players will come as late as possible on Thursday. Torsten is a very important player for us and so is Lukas, as they have both proved throughout this tournament and during the World Cup.”
The absence of either man would be a big blow to German hopes of progression to the semi-finals. The energetic Frings, who was sorely missed by Germany in the 2006 World Cup semi-final defeat to Italy, outshone his more illustrious midfield partner, captain Michael Ballack, in the opening two matches. Bayern Munich forward Podolski has been responsible for three quarters of his team’s goals in the competition thus far.
There have been times during the tournament when Germany have looked extremely fluid going forward, and they have created numerous chances in all their games. But for the wastefulness of Stuttgart’s Mario Gomez, arguably the biggest disappointment of the finals so far, and the usually prolific Miroslav Klose, Germany might have topped Group A.
However, despite his forwards wasting numerous chances, it is Low’s defenders that will have disrupted his sleeping patterns most in the run up to tonight’s encounter. The centre half pairing of Per Mertesacker and Christoph Metzelder are positionally sound and physically imposing, but both lack genuine pace. Low must decide whether to recall Bayern Munich full back Marcell Jansen after dropping him in favour of Hertha Berlin captain Arne Freidrich for the 1-0 win over Austria on Monday.
The attacking prowess of the Portuguese could make for an uncomfortable night for the German back four – especially if the industrious Frings is absent and unable to offer them protection. Portugal will be going into the game as favourites, a fact acknowledged by Schweinsteiger, scorer of two goals the last encounter between the two sides. The Bayern Munich midfielder is available for selection again after serving a ban incurred for his dismissal in the 2-1 defeat against group winners Croatia last week.
“Of course I have good memories of Portugal,” he said.
“But the Portuguese have become much stronger and mature since then. For me they are the strongest team in the tournament and this is the most difficult match we could have faced at this stage of the competition.”
“We have proved in the past that we can play better than we did against Croatia and Poland, but we are in the quarter-finals now so we can’t have been that bad. We know there is more to come and it’s always good to know that you haven’t reached your peak too early.”
Portugal have also shown signs of fallibility, albeit in different circumstances, courtesy of their poor 2-0 defeat against co-hosts Switzerland in their final group match. It is true that Portugal had already been confirmed as group winners and coach Luiz Felipe Scolari made eight changes to his side, but it remains to be seen whether defeat will have an adverse effect on the confidence of the players and their customary swagger.
While the British press have been preoccupied with Scolari’s appointment as the next Chelsea manager and Cristiano Ronaldo’s will-he-won’t-he move to Real Madrid, the Portuguese media have been fairly critical of the team since the defeat to the Swiss. Belief in the collective power of squad has been knocked, and Portugal have been compared unfavourably with the other group winners – Spain, Croatia and Holland – who all rested several stars for their final group games but maintained their 100% records.
The Portuguese have the perfect opportunity to get their campaign back on track tonight at the venue of their Swiss aberration on Sunday. It is hard to argue with the view that on balance their first choice XI is as strong as any in the tournament, and there isn’t a coach at the finals that can rival Scolari’s record. The 2002 World Cup winner already holds the record for most consecutive victories at the World Cup Finals, and should Portugal emerge victorious tonight then he will join Bertie Vogts and Rinus Michels as the only coaches to have won six matches at the European Championship.
The one blot on his copybook is Portugal’s surprise defeat to Greece in the Euro 2004 final. With Scolari leaving for his new job on the King’s Road immediately after the finals he will see tonight’s game as the next step on the final road to the redemption of that loss. However, as Portugal enter the knockout phase, they must hope that an old shortcoming does not handicap them once again.
With world class players available in every other position throughout his six-year term as Portugal boss, how Scolari must wish he could call upon a prolific, match-winning striker. Once again this patently isn’t the case, with none of Nuno Gomes, Helder Postiga and Hugo Almeida entirely convincing in the crucial role of lone striker that is so important in a 4-2-3-1 system.
The flip side of this is that Portugal’s five goals so far at the finals have been spread among five different players, but the lack of a constant threat and reliable source of goals is an undeniable hindrance to this otherwise dazzling squad of players. The centre back pairing of Pepe and Ricardo Carvalho is as strong as any in the competition, while no country can boast three wingers of the ability of Ronaldo, Ricardo Quaresma and Simao Sabrosa.
For all the worries in the media about his own team’s shortcomings, Scolari preferred to talk about the threat posed by the Germans when he faced the press on Wednesday.
“I have to find someway of dealing with Germany’s free kicks,” the Brazilian said.
“They are a very tall team and my players are not so big as everyone knows. But Germany are also technically very sound and Ballack is a great player with a lot of technical ability. He is one of the great players of this tournament.”
But Scolari, who has no injury or suspension worries and is likely to revert to the team that beat the Czechs 3-1 last week, also had a word of warning for his opponents – Ronaldo.
“Ronaldo has a very strong will to win that I have not seen in any other player,” he revealed.
“It rubs off well on the rest of the squad. I believe we can win. Let’s see if we can improve our finishing – if we do then we can progress.”
So, we are faced with a match this evening that will quicken the pulse and liven the senses. Is German football really back at the world’s top table, or did it simply enjoy a temporary renaissance fuelled at the 2006 World Cup by passionate home support and the infectious enthusiasm of former boss Jurgen Klinsmann? Defeating the Portuguese tonight would go some way towards proving themselves as the real deal. Or can Scolari’s Portugal survive this test and keep alive their dream of claiming a prize that eluded their grasp so frustratingly on home soil four years ago?
By Mark Robinson
Germany: Lehmann; Lahm, Mertesacker, Metzelder, Friedrich; Schweinsteiger, Frings, Ballack; Podolski, Klose, Gomez
Portugal: Ricardo; Bosingwa, Carvalho, Pepe, Ferreira; Petit, Moutinho; Simao, Deco, Ronaldo; Nuno Gomes
Referee: Peter Frojdfeldt (Swe)