The knockout rounds are finally here, and per usual, some interlopers are mixed in with the perennial favorites.
That is precisely the kind of matchup we'll see in Friday's quarterfinal in Gdansk, Poland, when three-time European champions Germany square off against prototypical uninvited guests Greece, which won the title in 2004.
What's on the line?
Obviously a trip to the semifinals, but for Germany it goes deeper than that. This generation of players is perhaps as talented as any in its illustrious history, but the pressure is on the Mannschaft to bring home the title.
By contrast, Greece is a team never weighed down by expectations. While some may scoff at the team's emergence out of the Group of Life, the fact that it managed to oust outside favorite Russia along the way speaks to Greece's ability to punch above its weight. The Greeks will delight in getting the opportunity to burnish their giant-killing reputation.
Style and tactics
The stylistic differences between the two sides could not be more striking. Lining up in a 4-2-3-1, Germany plays some of the most aesthetically pleasing soccer in the world. While the team has yet to hit top gear in this tournament, some contend that the Germans play more like the Dutch than the Dutch do. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira anchor the German midfield, while Mesut Ozil, Thomas Mueller and Lukas Podolski do the heavy lifting in attack, the better to feed red-hot striker Mario Gomez. Outside back Philipp Lahm can also be counted on to get forward and contribute to the offense.
Greece, on the other hand, is not easy on the eyes. Fernando Santos' side plays a seemingly aggressive 4-3-3, but its implementation results in a pure defend-and-counter game that is intent on breaking up the match's rhythm. In attack, the goal is to hit opponents on the break, punish mistakes in the opposition half and make the most of set pieces. It's as effective as it is ugly, and while the Greeks are a tad more adventurous under Santos than they were under predecessor Otto Rehhagel, the approach will win them few friends among neutral fans.
Players to watch
For Germany: Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mesut Ozil, Mario Gomez
Schweinsteiger's steady play in midfield was the glue that enabled Germany to not only escape the Group of Death but to do so with the maximum nine points. His two assists against the Netherlands showed off his ability to deliver the killer pass. Even though Ozil has yet to have a big impact in the tournament, he remains dangerous further upfield, capable of finishing off plays and setting them up. Gomez had long been one of those good-for-club/bad-for-country enigmas, but Euro 2012 has been his breakout tournament, with three goals that have showed off his razor-sharp finishing.
For Greece: Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Kostas Katsouranis, Fanis Gekas
Greece suffered against the Czech Republic when Papastathopoulos was suspended, and with Avraam Papadopoulos out for the tournament with a knee injury, the latter defender's return was most welcome in the win against Russia. With captain Giorgos Karagounis suspended, the leadership burden will fall on Katsouranis, who will be expected to increase his contribution to the attack. After having spent parts of six seasons in the Bundesliga, Gekas will know as well as anyone what's required to pierce the German defense, and on a team that struggles to score goals in the best of times, his predatory instincts will be vital.
What we can expect
Germany is at its best in transition, but given Greece's penchant to sit back, those kind of opportunities will be scarce. Instead, the Mannschaft will own the ball and attempt to break down the Greek defense through the creativity of Ozil, Muller and Podolski. Germany will also need to be wary of Greece's counterattacking strength, not to mention its ability to punish mistakes. The German defense has performed well so far in this tournament, and it'll need to remain error free at the back. That said, the Germans have looked suspect on set plays, an area in which Greece excels.
Greece's economic problems -- and Germany's relationship to it as the country's biggest creditor -- makes this a grudge match of sorts, even as players and coaches tried to play down the angle. As for the game itself, Greece comes into the game with absolutely zero pressure. Just getting to the knockout rounds is an achievement. Anything beyond that will be bonus.
Germany comes into the match burdened by the fact that it has been 16 years since it last won a major trophy, with several near-misses along the way. So far, Germany has ably dealt with that pressure, but this feeling tends to build as a tournament progresses. It will be important for the team to make this tension its ally rather than its enemy.
For Greece, the suspension of Karagounis is brutal. Granted, the team's mentality is rock solid, and it has overcome some massive obstacles in this tournament, not the least of which was losing Papadopoulos. But being forced to play without the team's inspirational leader, set-piece taker and attacking linchpin is a massive blow.
For all the talk about Germany's eye-catching style, discipline remains one the team's hallmarks, and that is ultimately what will carry it through. Look for Germany to prevail 2-0.