Europe's footballing wheat has been sorted from the chaff and the current eight best teams on the Old Continent will do battle from Thursday for the right to claim semi-final berths at Euro 2008.
After some tumultuous first-phase action – not least Holland putting seven goals past world champions Italy and vice-world champions France for just one in reply and Turkey coming back from the dead to beat the Czechs – the business end of the tournament is at hand.
Five of the survivors – the Germans, the Italians, the Russians (as the Soviet Union) and the Spaniards – have won the event before whereas the upcoming match-ups feature three countries yet to claim either a continental crown or a World Cup.
The shifting sands of European politics have markedly shaped the Championships since France hosted the first tournament in 1960, that tournament being won by a Soviet Union which would disappear from the map 30 years later, while the former Yugoslavia were twice runners-up.
Germany have won the title three times – twice as West Germany and then as the united version in 1996 for what remains the Fatherland's last major title to date.
Now Joachim Loew's men are looking hungry for more and 2004 finalists Portugal will beware the danger of a premature exit on Thursday in Basel.
Portugal, with their injection of native Brazilian nous from the sergeant-majorish coaching manual of Luiz Felipe Scolari, have huge talent – but Germany have the sheer athleticism and stamina to halt them in their tracks.
In a tasty sub-plot Scolari will take over at English Premiership outfit Chelsea after the event – where he will meet up with none other than the Blues' German dynamo Michael Ballack.
'Big Phil' expects to put one over his future club colleague.
“I don't expect it to be my last game with Portugal,” he insisted.
Saturday sees a Holland side which cruised through their “Group of Death” in the opening round, slaughtering Italy and France before their reserves showed they can play too by sending Romania packing, take on a Russia ironically coached by mercurial Dutchman Guus Hiddink in Basel on Saturday.
“This is a huge win (victory over Sweden in their final group match) for a side still under construction, with lots of young players and some experienced players,” said Hiddink.
“It gives me real pleasure to work with them.
“In the course of the past three weeks these youngsters have learnt a lot.
“However, there is still work to be done and the Dutch will give us some thinking to do.”
Sunday's all-Latin meeting in Vienna of old rivals Italy and Spain will have them salivating from Rome to Rioja, Cagliari to Compostela and back again.
The Italians, always the tortoise, never the hare at these events, have thrown off the psychological trauma of going under the Dutch steamroller.
With their traditional slow start out of the way Roberto Donadoni's men know they almost always beat the Spanish – including in the 1934 and 1994 World Cup quarters.
The Squadra Azzurra have not lost to La Furia Roja in a major competition in 88 years.
“It is not the team that I would have most liked for the quarter-final, it's a very complicated team,” said Spanish coach Luis Aragones.
The Spanish media are already feeling queasy.
“Oh Mamma Mia!”, headlined El Mundo newspaper on Wednesday.
“They are an invincible enemy,” added Publico.
The match will be played on June 22 – a date which has seen Spain suffer three previous quarter-finals exits – at the World Cup in 1986 to Belgium, against England at Euro '96 and against South Korea at the 2002 World Cup.
Donadoni does not doubt his side's capabilities.
“We have a team which can beat anyone,” he insists – even if World Cup-winning midfield duo Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso are suspended.
Nine countries have lifted the trophy to date – and the Croatians and the Turks will seek to take their inspiration from recent surprise winners Greece (2004) and Denmark (1992) when they meet Friday in Vienna.
Slaven Bilic's Croatians won Group B with maximum points after besting the Germans whereas the Turks lost to Portugal before beating the Swiss and, most memorably, against the Czechs courtesy of Nihat Kahveci's last ditch double.
“We'll be cautious and we'll be prepared because they've come back twice, but of course I'd like us to score first,” smiled Bilic.
For Turkey counterpart Fatih Terim, “Croatia are a good side, they beat Germany. But we are a good team too.”
Thursday, June 19, at Basel, Switzerland: Portugal v Germany.
Friday, June 20, at Vienna: Croatia v Turkey
Saturday, June 21, at Basel: Holland v Russia
Sunday, June 22, at Vienna: Spain v Italy
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