Thursday 19 June ~
If the British TV networks could control the coverage of tonight's Portugal v Germany quarter-final they'd have one camera trained permanently on the Portuguese bench, monitoring every movement of Chelsea's new manager. As it is, we will be reminded of Big Phil Scolari's new job whenever he appears on screen while gesturing, bellowing or scribbling notes, for tonight may be his last appearance as Portugal coach.
Scolari's side are one of three, along with Holland and Spain, to have played consistently well so far. But in football tournament lore, the most positive, exciting teams in the early matches nearly always come unstuck in the knockout stage. Spain, pitted against their bête noire, Italy, seem the most vulnerable while Portugal, if they can get close to their best form, would appear to be too good for the current Germany side.
Germany have significant weaknesses in the centre of their defence and at the point of attack where the lumbering Mario Gomez has been a disaster so far – the relative lack of options is underlined by the inclusion in the squad of the 35-year-old Oliver Neuville who was playing in the German second division last season. There are also injury doubts about their most important player, midfielder Torsten Frings. Coach Joachim Loew will be missing too having been sent off during the last match with Austria, when he and his counterpart Josef Hickersberger were treated like schoolboys misbehaving in assembly by a fussy Spanish referee.
Absurdly, Loew will be banned from the dressing too for the last 30 minutes before kick-off and during half-time – UEFA stewards will be roaming the corridors on the lookout for a middle-man with suspiciously dark hair clutching a sheaf of tactical diagrams. But he will get a better view of proceedings from a seat in the stand, so it could yet work to Germany's benefit. Should the players seek reassurance during the game, they have several other coaches in matching short-sleeved shirts to do the requisite clapping and shouting from the touchline.
There is no doubt about who will be in charge on the other bench. Scolari made a joke about his thoroughness at a press conference yesterday, by laboriously reading out the height of each German player from a list produced from his pocket. During the match we will hear plenty about how he will be working with Michael Ballack next season, and possibly with Deco too who is expected to join the Russian travelling circus at Stamford Bridge. The Portuguese players were shown applauding Scolari at the meeting where he announced that he was leaving for Chelsea but they are said to have been taken aback by the timing of the announcement, while the Portuguese media were infuriated at having been kept in the dark by their own FA. Should Portugal bow out tonight, post mortems on the defeat are likely to dwell on Scolari's recent job discussions with the small army of fixers who do the bidding of Roman Abramovich. But all that is likely to have to wait for at least one more match.