Urbane and affable type that he is, Joachim Loew spoke very highly of Roy Hodgson's England when it was put to him that they might be Germany's opponents in the Euro 2012 semi-final. The German coach said Hodgson seemed to have achieved a lot in a short time, has managed to get his side organised very quickly and the improvement is there for all to see.
All true, yet only what anyone in his position would say. A manager in charge of a team playing as smoothly as Germany are can afford to be generous towards others still striving to reach that level. He will be equally complimentary towards Italy, should they come through tonight's quarter-final, though Miroslav Klose, now just four goals from Gerd Muller's German scoring record of 68, probably reflected the spirit in the German camp more accurately when he said he did not mind who came up next.
"England and Italy are two very good teams," Klose said. "We have played them both recently and know them both well. It doesn't matter which one wins through because we feel we are playing well enough to meet anybody. We can be relaxed about playing either England or Italy."
Relaxed. The word has been used a lot in connection with Hodgson's friendly schoolmaster approach with England -- you can be trusted and treated like grown-ups as long as you recognise and respect the person in charge. After the tense, twitchy final years under Fabio Capello, England seem to be enjoying themselves again and are making a positive impression on the tournament. Yet to watch the Germans swallow-diving on to the Gdansk turf in front of their fans after a fourth successive victory was to appreciate that England are only at the foothills of relaxed.
Germany are close to another summit, looking nervelessly down. Those four wins included defeats of highly respectable opponents in Portugal and Holland -- better than anyone England have beaten so far -- not to mention a four-goal rout of the team that effectively shut Russia out of the tournament. The idea being put around last week that whatever happens from now on England could go home fairly pleased with themselves is struggling to survive intact as the competition moves into its final week.
When you see the standards being set by the first sides stretching towards the semis you realise that the bar for tournament success is being set higher all the time. Last week England were still congratulating themselves on the vast improvement made on their performance in their last tournament, a valid achievement though scarcely a staggering one, so low was the base for comparison. This week they are in the last eight, with arguably better teams already back home, and so they will be judged against last-eight standards. Just being relaxed, in other words, might not cut it.
It is possibly England's good fortune that Italy are not particularly relaxed at the moment. They have fitness issues, with Cesare Prandelli admitting more than once that his side seem to fade after an hour, and are uncertain which of their three main strikers to use to make the most effective link with Andrea Pirlo's promptings. Germany have no such worries, as would have been emphasised had they managed to put five or six goals past Greece, instead of just the four. It could easily have happened.
With better finishing Loew's team could have been three up at half-time, and although they took their foot off the pedal towards the end, it was obvious they had the strength and freshness to continue at a high level for a full 90 minutes, and more if necessary.
It was also obvious that Loew has more useful players at his disposal than most coaches out here, and in bringing in three new players against Greece -- two of whom scored -- he was able to demonstrate there is unity as well as strength within his squad.
It might be stretching the definition to describe Klose as new, though the Greece game was his first start of Euro 2012. Marco Reus is definitely new to the tournament, and he celebrated his seventh cap with an exuberant goal. Loew will presumably revert to Mario Gomez and Lukas Podolski for the challenges ahead, though he may not. As long as his driving midfield of Sami Khedira, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mesut Ozil continues to exert such confident control, Loew is free to choose from up to half a dozen attacking options, all of whom would be willing and effective.
Spain came to Poland and Ukraine as the team to beat; as defending champions they deserve that billing and are not making a bad fist of living up to it. But there is little doubt about who has been the team of the tournament so far. Germany made the so-called Group of Death look easy, now they are in the process of making the tournament look easy.
Even when resting strikers they are scoring for fun, and though they have not been quite as watertight at the back as Loew might like and could still be caught by a side carrying a genuine goal threat, they get players quickly forward in support of their own attacks, pass with great panache and create more clear-cut chances than most teams. In short, they seem capable of outplaying and outscoring almost anyone. The challenge for England or Italy is to find a way to be relaxed about that. Observer
Sunday Indo Sport