Germans and Dutch looking strongest
Most eyes will be on what is considered a marquee game of the group stage, with the three-time German winners taking on Cristiano Ronaldo’s bunch. Expected to be a slugfest, it is a must-win game for both sides. Winning would confer a needed a fast start to survive what is clearly the tournament’s most stacked group.
The biggest question entering the game is: which German will mark the red-hot Real Madrid striker? No one’s quite sure of the answer.
Yesterday at a press conference in Gdansk, German captain Philipp Lahm let slip that he will be deployed wide left -- meaning he will not have to contain one of the game’s most dangerous players. This would imply that Jerome Boateng gets the nod, but he has had a falling-out with manager Joachim Low after some late-night extracurricular activities involving a “model.”
Low has not bothered to conceal his outrage, and the word is that Lars Bender may be deployed out of position to contain the Ronaldo threat. Bender – a holding midfielder with only six caps – is an unusual choice, but he has reportedly impressed in training. Yet the move would mean added pressure for Arsenal centerback Per Mertesacker, who has shown signs of rust after the ankle injury that sidelined him for the end of the Premier League season.
The Germans also have to shake off the disappointment of Bayern Munich’s bitter loss in the Champions League final in May. As many as eight players from that losing squad could start for the national team: Bayern are the spine of the German side, meaning that Bastian Schweinsteiger, Manuel Neuer, Lahm and Mario Gomez will all have to exorcise those demons of defeat.
It’s fair to say that Portugal are riding Ronaldo, but they do have some talent at other positions. Pepe and Fabio Coentrao have shown their quality at Real Madrid, and both Nani and Raul Meireles can be dangerous on the gallop. Nani will run across from Ronaldo with Heider Postiga up top. Make no mistake, this trio can create goals.
Where Portugal have issues is midfield. Zenit’s Danny would have been a brilliant addition to this squad, but he shredded his ACL during that team’s stellar Champions League run. Miguel Veloso is more of a water-carrier and, while the elegant Joao Moutinho can pass the ball, there is a concern of how quickly they can spring up against a very locked-down German squad.
Portugal also enter the game on a low note: they have yet to win a game this year, including losing 3-1 to Turkey in their final friendly. This is indeed inauspicious for a side that should boast some creative riches.
The day’s other game pits tournament contenders Holland against a nasty Danish side that could prove surprising. But the game opens under some controversy: the Dutch side were subjected to racist taunts in Krakow yesterday at training camp. Adding to the woes was UEFA’s reaction: they downplayed the matter and will not investigate it, much to the fury of Mark van Bommel. “You need to open your ears,” the captain told the media. “If you did hear it, and don't want to hear it, that is even worse.”
The Danes lost keeper Thomas Sorensen to injury before the tournament got underway, so they will use Kasper Schmeichel (son of the great keeper Peter) in his stead. The performances of Liverpool’s Daniel Agger in the back, and the sometimes-erratic Nicklas Bendtner up top are key to the Danish game. Bendtner, the tall and famously confident striker, seemed to find his way back at Sunderland after a series of gaffes at Arsenal and has been potent for the national team.
Holland should have the nod in terms of talent alone: up top, Robin van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar can rip defenses apart; Arjen Robben is one of the best wide men in the game; and if Wesley Sneijder is in form, his movement can pull apart even the tightest midfields. This Dutch team does zip the ball around nicely, and they balance it with some steel in Nigel de Jong and excellent keeping from Marten Stekelenburg.
But the X-factor might by Rafael van der Vaart. He can create, he can score – or he can vanish, as fans of Tottenham know all too well. He also cannot go a full 90 and he’s useless coming off the bench, so the question is how often he plays, and against whom.
The Germans and Dutch should each see their ties out Saturday. If they do, it would set up a group-defining clash on the 13th that will guarantee the victors a slot in the quarterfinals.