German fans have fond memories of the last time their national
team faced Portugal. Two fulminating long-range strikes by Bastian
Schweinsteiger and a gargantuan farewell party with fireworks
bursting in the Stuttgart night sky were the abiding images of 8
July 2006, when the host nation downed Luiz Felipe Scolari's
men 3-1 in the match for third-place to round off the 2006 FIFA
World Cup™ on home soil in fitting style. How
Schweini and his current team-mates would love a repeat of
that gala evening when the sides meet again in Basel on Thursday.
However, much water has flowed under the bridge since then, and when the teams cross swords in the UEFA EURO 2008 quarter-finals, Portugal start as favourites. The star ensemble headed by Cristiano Ronaldo and Deco have swiftly established themselves as genuine contenders for the continental crown in Austria and Switzerland, but the Germans are struggling for consistency and form. The three-time European champions huffed and puffed their way through Group B, edging to victory by the only goal of the game against co-hosts Austria in Vienna to claim a place in the last eight. They had earlier opened their campaign with a routine 2-0 win over Poland, looking anything but potential trophy winners as slick Croatia laid Germany's limits bare in a deserved 2-1 victory.
There may be more similarities with the Portuguese here than are immediately apparent, in that Scolari's troops never appeared to exploit their full potential in a 2-0 win against Turkey and a 3-1 success against the Czech Republic, sealing their quarter-final berth with a game to spare. Neutrals will certainly feel the Portuguese have yet to flex their muscles to the full extent. And despite a 'B' team falling 2-0 to co-hosts Switzerland in their meaningless third Group A fixture, Germany midfielder Schweinsteiger is full of respect for Thursday's opponents. "They're certainly a very, very good team, and definitely a great deal stronger than at the 2006 World Cup," he exclusively told FIFA.com.
Schweini calls for improvement
The tournament has now reached the all-or-nothing knockout stages, where Europe's big guns begin the daily process of mutual elimination until only one is left standing. Germany, the bookmakers' favourites before the event, know they will have to raise their game considerably to have any chance against Portugal. "We battled well enough against Austria, but I think we'll definitely need to play much better football," the Bayern Munich star reflected.
The 23-year-old, who sat out a one-match ban against the Austrians, is only too aware that the burden of providing an urgently needed spark of creativity largely falls on his shoulders. Asked by FIFA.com whether he is indeed the man to restore a touch of footballing class to the Germany side, Schweinsteiger responded with nothing more than a trademark wink.
Portugal patently possess their own master of the unpredictable in Cristiano Ronaldo, widely viewed as the Iberians' main threat on Thursday. German left-back Marcell Jansen is not inclined to disagree. "He's the best attacking player in the world at the moment. Just look at the stats, they're not lying," Jansen told FIFA.com. "But that's one of the good things about this quarter-final pairing. There's not much to think about before facing someone like him. You're utterly motivated in any case."
New phase, new start
Schweinsteiger and Jansen are unanimous in reporting a new mood of elation and confidence in the German camp after the emotionally-charged victory over Austria.
Consciously or not, the young Munich-based stars are happy to
fuel Germany's formidable reputation as a tournament team.
"Clearly, it won't be easy against Portugal,"
repeated Schweinsteiger. "It doesn't matter what happened
in the group. We all start again from the beginning now," was
Jansen's parting shot.
The Portuguese will surely be asking themselves one fundamental question: how good are the Germans in reality? For all Cristiano Ronaldo's inspirational moments, behind that question looms the spectre, indeed the myth, of menacing German unpredictability.
All the ingredients are there for a fascinating and potentially thrilling evening which may well end in fireworks - in Basel, a city not a million miles away from Stuttgart.