The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Short of air near peak
- Last eight betray sign of lack of oxygen

A strange malaise is afflicting the World Cup. Now that the peak of achievement is in sight so the surviving teams are running short of oxygen.

Brazil, Italy and England have all won without putting in coherent performances; Portugal capitalised on its opponents’ inexperience; Argentina needed extra-time; and Ukraine needed penalties.

Germany is not short of breath. But then, it faces a different challenge. A team dismissed as comical no-hopers only three weeks ago by the local populace now risks being buried under the weight of over-hyped expectation.

This is one of the fascinations of its quarter-final against Argentina. The fans expect victory and so does trainer Juergen Klinsmann. The man reviled as a semi-traitor for living in California and commuting to matches is now considered the Great Guru of not only German football but German society.

Commentators on politics, business and culture fall over themselves to explore how Klinsmann’s methodology can be applied to the great issues of society.

Yet Germany has not beaten one of football’s heavyweights since its victory over England in the old Wembley’s last game in October 2001.

Costa Rica, Ecuador and Sweden were beaten on the platform of early goals. Only Poland resisted the initial assault of Miro Klose and Lukas Podolski (ironically, since both were born in Poland) before losing at the death.

The thought of any Argentine team being intimidated or unprepared is laughable. It is as physically tough as the Germans and superior technically. Can home advantage make up the difference for Klose and Co'

The old rivalry between Europe and South America is repeated in Brazil’s clash with France, a repeat of the 1998 World Cup final which the French won 3-0 in Saint-Denis. That game, for Brazil, was marred by the controversial inclusion of Ronaldo despite illness ahead of the game.

Ronaldo remains the centre of attention. He came into these finals off the back of a poor season with Real Madrid but has gradually played himself into form and duly overtaken Gerd Muller’s 14-goal record aggregate in the second-round win over Ghana.

Plainly, both he and Brazil have a score to settle with a French side whose old stagers surprised even themselves with the eventual clarity of their 3-1 win over Spain.

Whether the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Lilian Thuram can raise their game yet again may, however, be open to question.

Game-raising must be England’s priority against Portugal. So far, England have played some of the poorest, dullest, most grudging football of the finals, leavened only by David Beckham’s ability to break the deadlock and the increasing re-assertion of fit-again Wayne Rooney.

England also has revenge on its mind after its quarter-final defeat on penalties by Portugal in Euro 2004. This time, Portugal will lack both home advantage and suspended playmaker Deco. Those factors could tip the balance.

At least the game offers more than Italy-Ukraine, which, on the evidence from both sides thus far, promises the second penalty shootout of the finals.

Finally, going back to Germany v Argentina, omens for the hosts are mixed.

The last time Argentina confronted its World Cup hosts it beat Italy in 1990 (albeit on penalties) and went on to the final.

On the other hand, it did lose to England in England in 1966, also in the quarter-finals. And ... with a German referee.

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