Germany went into the 2010 World Cup as dark horses and a young team with promise. Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski were out of form for their clubs, but the trio of Mesut Özil, Thomas Müller, and Sami Khedira was mostly unknown and untested at the international level. They made a fantastic run to the semifinals, where they were outclassed by Spain. Two years later, they're deeper and more experienced.
They bulldozed their way through qualifying in a tough group, against Turkey and Belgium. For their efforts, they've been rewarded a place in the group of death. Their opponents on Saturday are the least accomplished team in the group over the last two major tournament qualifying cycles, Portugal. Cristiano Ronaldo's side, one of the best in the world over the last 12 years, is the 'worst' team in their European Championship group. Yes, this is a bit absurd.
Ronaldo isn't the only great player on Portugal's team, and they more than have the goods to pull an upset on any team in the world, but they enter Saturday's game as big underdogs. Portugal might actually have the more in-form players on the pitch -- Jogi Löw might stay loyal to Klose, Müller and Mertesacker despite injuries and bad club form -- but they should struggle to find an answer for Germany's fantastic chemistry and cohesion.
Portugal has required a playoff to get to both the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. Life under Carlos Queiroz wasn't great, and life under new manager Paulo Bento is getting better slowly. Under his guidance, they faltered in their final qualifying group match against Denmark, which forced them to qualify via a playoff against Bosnia-Herzegovia. If it sounds like the nation of Luis Figo, Manuel Rui Costa and Ronaldo is underachieving, it's because they are, but it's not really Bento's fault.
See, Rui Costa was the last great Portuguese playmaker. They naturalized Deco to replace him, but by that point, Deco wasn't exactly young anymore and he's been out of the picture for a while. Danny surprisingly emerged to take his place, but a terrible injury took him out of the Euros. Someone has to help set up Ronaldo. He can't do everything himself.
Germany don't have Portugal's issues. There's no one superstar who carries the weight of a country on their shoulders, and there are plenty of guys who know how to pass a ball and play in an advanced central role. Marko Marin and Julian Draxler aren't in the team, while Mario Götze might never get off the bench. This is probably the biggest fundamental difference between the two sides.
Who needs defensive midfielders anyway?
Germany's double pivot will probably feature Bastian Schweinsteiger and Khedira, which is a pretty ridiculous pairing on paper. Both players are generally considered to be 'box-to-box' guys and both of them play with a midfielder who sits deeper than them at club level. Portugal play three central midfielders, and none of them are true defensive midfielders. Miguel Veloso will act as one, but he doesn't exactly have a knack for great positioning or muscling people off the ball. This could be a problem, because Germany have Özil. And speaking of him...
Expect a Real Madrid player to be the man of the match
If Portugal win, it'll probably be because Ronaldo willed them to victory. If Germany win, their best player is probably going to be Özil, Ronaldo's partner in crime at Real Madrid. Because Veloso isn't actually a defensive midfielder, there isn't actually going to be anyone doing a good job of preventing Özil from doing whatever he damn well pleases.
Name-drop Andre Schürrle to your unsuspecting friends
Andre Schürrle won't start for Germany, but you can expect to see him make an appearance off the bench. The young Bayer Leverkusen winger/forward has seven goals in 14 appearances for Germany and he looked fantastic in their pre-Euro friendlies. It wouldn't be stunning to see him come off the bench to either change the game in Germany's favor or help them to extend their lead. There's a legitimate argument for him starting over Müller.
Projected Germay Lineup (4-2-3-1): Manuel Neuer; Philipp Lahm, Holger Badstuber, Per Mertesacker, Jerome Boateng; Sami Khedira, Bastian Schweinsteiger; Lukas Podolski, Mesut Özil, Thomas Müller; Miroslav Klose
Monty the Psychic Metal Disk says: Ronaldo will make Boateng and Mertesacker look silly at least once, but the rest of his team isn't up to the task of containing the Germans. Özil looks like a magician in a 3-1 Germany win.
Game Date/Time: Saturday, 2:45 p.m. ET, 8:45 p.m. local
Venue: Arena Lviv, Lviv, Ukraine
TV: ESPN (U.S. - English), ESPN Deportes (U.S. - Spanish), BBC One (U.K.), TSN (Canada)