Predator Popp going for goals
© Foto-net

Every FIFA tournament has its surprises and, for Germany, their first here in New Zealand came off the field. "Sensational" and "absolutely amazing" were just two of the adjectives used by the European champions to describe an unexpected whale-watching trip in Kaikoura that brought the squad up close and personal with the ocean's most majestic inhabitants.

On the pitch, shocks have been in less plentiful supply as the Germans, living up to their pre-tournament billing, coasted through to the quarter-finals. Yet if there was a solitary surprise in their group campaign, it was that not one of the eight goals in their opening two matches came from the usually prolific Alexandra Popp.

The Duisburg striker had, after all, scored no fewer than 11 times during the UEFA preliminaries to finish as the tournament's top markswoman, and touched down in New Zealand fully expected to spearhead the German charge. As it was, it took until her side's third match for normal service to be resumed, although the clinical, instinctive manner in which Popp dispatched her duck-breaking strike reminded everyone of why she arrived so highly rated.

The question now: will it prove the first of many? Popp, a confident, self-assured character, seems in little doubt. "That was just the start," she told "But it was a good start! I was really disappointed not to score in my first two matches, that's why I was so happy to finally get off the mark against North Korea. And now that I've broken my duck, I'm sure more goals will follow."

I'm confident that this will not be our last match at these finals,
Alexandra Popp on the quarter-final against Canada.

Canada, Germany's forthcoming opponents, certainly seem wary of a player singled out by the Canucks' midfielder Shelina Zadorsky as "very, very skilled" ahead of Saturday's quarter-final in Wellington. The North Americans, for their part, performed well in qualifying ahead of the hosts and Colombia from Group A, although it is clear that Popp believes their campaign will end in the last eight. "" was her candid prediction.

While self-belief is clearly coursing through German veins, with coach Ralf Peter declaring his side "have the ability to beat any opponent at this tournament," such confidence should not be mistake for arrogance or complacency. Indeed, despite qualifying from Group A unbeaten and with a game to spare, Peter's side have proved to be their own harshest critics at New Zealand 2008.

"This team can definitely play better than it has so far," insisted Popp. "The level of performance hasn't been what I expected. But I'm confident that in the quarter-finals we will start showing what we're capable of."

This knowledge that they have only displayed a fraction of their potential during the group matches has also encouraged Peter to believe that a place in the last four should be attainable. He said: "I'm happy because we're through and also happy because I know that my team can improve. We definitely have more potential than we have shown here."

No-one, least of all themselves, doubts the European champions will be strong contenders for this inaugural title. But who do the Germans see as their principal rivals for the crown?

"Japan have impressed me," said Popp. "I'm surprised how strong they are because I saw their national team play ours and they didn't look so good. I also think that although the US lost to Japan, they must still be in the circle of favourites."

If their star striker can return to her free-scoring best, do not bet against Germany remaining at the centre of that particular circle.