Group B

Statement game

Despite the tension in Group B, Portugal and Germany seek a strong start

Every tournament has a Group of Death but Euro 2012’s Group B is Tom Hardy-tough. Hailed as the toughest group ever to have been drawn together since FIFA rankings began, the cliché "there are no easy games" has never rung truer. Germany, ranked 3rd in the world, take on Portugal, ranked 10.  There has not been a group of Death like this assembled outside of Jonestown.  

What's on the line:

Germany arrives as the Euro’s second favorites behind Spain but no team has appeared more confident in the run-up to the tournament. Organized, fluid, and fearsome, they reached the semi-finals of the last two World Cups and the final of Euro 2008, full of belieft that they are peaking at the right time.

Portugal finds itself in the Group of Death for the second straight tournament. Much of the preparatory talk has centered around Cristiano Ronaldo and his ability to reproduce his scintillating form for Real Madrid (46 goals in 38 appearances) whilst wearing a Portuguese jersey. The global star has scored just once for the Seleção in their past three major tournaments.   

Neither team can afford to lose. Both would secretly settle for a draw.

Style and tactics:

Few teams have aspired to play more attractive football than Jogi Loew’s Germany. Confident in possession and fluid moving forward, the German midfielders and attackers will switch positions to open crevices of space and create shooting opportunities. Meanwhile, the composition of its defense has been a concern. Per Mertesacker’s sudden decline at Arsenal mean Mats Hummels and Holger Badstuber are expected to hold down the backline. Jerome Boateng may start out of position at right back -- he hasn't played much there since washing out at Manchester City -- a move that could prove to be a liability.

Portugal are a side rich with in individual brilliance that can be robust in the tackle -- yet only qualified via the playoffs. The perpetual lack of a serviceable finisher means that much of what is good will occur down the wings. Ronaldo floundered in the last World Cup as he was played out of position as a lone striker, so coach Paulo Bento has restored his captain to a free role of his prefered left flank and has been rewarded. Ronaldo has scored 9 goals in the last 14 games and will be looking to make an instant statement against Germany.

Players to watch:

Germany: Bayern Munich's Bastian Schweinsteiger will seek to drive the midfield and demonstrate he has shaken off the injuries that dogged his play all season. Ahead of him, Real Madrid’s Mesut Ozil will attempt to provide an avant-garde creative force. Coveted young talent, Mario Götze may make an impact appearance off the bench.

Portugal: Ronaldo and Nani are the team’s two superstars, eager to hurt opponents from either flank but João Moutinho will be expected to act as the team’s brain, using his quick feet and intelligent passing to shuttle the ball forward from midfield.

What we can expect:

A technically probing Germany will move the ball at will. Portugal will seek to spring a fast-paced counter. If Ronaldo does not impose himself on the game early, he could cut an increasingly frustrated figure.

Intangibles:

Head-to-head history gives Germany the edge. It has won 8, drawn 5 and lost 3 of the two sides' previous encounters; however, Portugal has advanced out of the group stage in each of the last four European Championships and it will be no surprise if they do the same in Ukraine.

On another level, Germany’s performance could be seen as a litmus test of Coach Loew’s lenient policy on sex, alcohol and cigarettes during the tournament. The German coach has even organized “love-days” to help the team relax.

Who'll win:

Two football truisms will clash. English pundit Gary Lineker’s proclamation that "Soccer is a game for 22 people that run around, play the ball... and in the end, Germany always wins" will confront the folk wisdom that the first games in the group stage tend to be conservative affairs. However, we'll side with Lineker and pick Germany to win 2-1.


Roger Bennett is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.

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