The Euro 2012 quarterfinals kick off tomorrow morning (NZT), with both host nations already AWOL and just three of the world's top-10 ranked teams featuring at all.
Top seeds and world champions Spain remain on course to become the first nation to ever defend the title, while, of the eight remaining teams, only England and Portugal have never won the event.
My predictions (with current FIFA rankings in brackets):
QF1: Czech Republic (27) v Portugal (10), Friday, June 22
Perhaps the two least-fancied sides still left in the draw, the winner of this match will face either Spain or France in the semis. Both have had a blip already, losing their opening games to Russia and Germany respectively.
Portugal, on paper, look the more impressive, having escaped the (so-called) group-of-death by beating Denmark 3-2 and Holland 2-1. Plus, at long last, talisman captain Cristiano Ronaldo has found form, his goals essential to any further progress Portugal may make.
After a disastrous start (thrashed by Russia 4-1), the Czechs bounced back to beat Greece 2-1 & Poland 1-0. The lowest ranked amongst the last eight, Czech Republic's best hope would be to score first and attempt to create early anxiety among the emotionally vulnerable Portugese. With CR oozing confidence though, I'm picking the 'Geezers in a tight one.
Czech Republic 1 Portugal 2
QF2: Germany (3) v Greece (15), Saturday, June 23
Only Germany and Spain have perfect records at these
championships, and the Krauts are sure to continue that run against
a Greek side, adequate
in defence, but lacking any sort of cutting edge up front. Germany are playing even better than they were at the 2010 WC and, with lunk-foot striker Mario Gomez breaking his international duck, look nigh-impregnable from No. 1 through No. 11.
Experienced, determined and with that legendary teutonic refuse-to-lose attitude, Germany, for me, remain the team to beat. Sorry Greece, but you've got more chance of winning back full economic confidence from the EU than taking this out.
Germany 3 Greece 0
QF3: Spain (1) v France (14), Sunday, June 24
Sacrilege, I know, but the prettiest, most technically perfect football side to ever grace grass is about to become horribly unstuck at the hands of a rejuvenated French outfit. Either that, or je prends a travers un trou dans mon bas (translated: "I'm talking through a hole in my nether regions").
Spain, I believe, are almost too clever for their own good, at times. This Barcelona-bred style of passing the opposition to death has led to coach Vincent del Bosque sacrificing the traditional striker's role in favour of adding yet another attacking midfielder to his starting XI - a tactical weakness easily exposed by an average Italian side in pool play.
Yes, the Spaniards dealt to Ireland (proving nothing) and further emphasised the proof in this conspiratorial pudding of mine with their laborious 1-nil struggle over Croatia.
It's not like the French have set the tournament on fire either, but this event, notorious for huge upsets (Denmark '92 and Greece '04), is certain to throw a curveball at some stage and with Torres still awesomely capable of missing the most open of goals, I'm picking France à bouleverse l'applecart Espagnol.
Spain 0 France 0
(The French to win 6-5 on penalties)
QF4: Hing-er-lind (6) v Italy (12), Monday, June 25
I won't even pretend to argue sensibly about this game. Our
beloved editor, proud Geordie that he is, refuses to publicly admit
that he (like the rest of
Olde Blighty) truly believe this is their time to finally bury the ghosts of many lost contests past and WIN just their second international tournament - and first since Wembley '66.
So, dutifully, I will shamelessly endorse the expectations of he-who-writes-the-cheque and predict the Poms to put the pasta to the sauce, setting up another classic England/German encounter in the second semifinal.
England 1 Italy 1
(England 3-2 on pens after a shootout that shreds nerves to the core).