WARSAW, POLAND – Fans are braced for a "dream team" set of semifinals at the European Championships this week. Three of the world's great powers face off and one of the world's best players takes center stage.
Defending champions Spain are aching for a shot at an unprecedented triple crown, with back-to-back Euro titles and a World Cup in between. Italy wants redemption in a tournament that has not often been kind to them, while Portugal may get a chance to grasp its first major trophy and erase the sting of their loss on home soil in 2004. And finally, the Germans are trying to add to their string of titles and remain the most successful team in this tournament.
That great player aforementioned earlier is none other than Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo will lead Portugal out against defending champions Spain while three-time champs Germany try to handle a resurgent Italy that is looking to win their first European crown in 44 years.
Portugal are the odd ducks out at this stage - sorry, fans but the fact is they have never won a major title - but they boast one of the era's greatest scorers and playmakers in Real Madrid's Ronaldo.
The former Manchester United man is better known in the States for his flopping, his gelled hair and his cocky attitude - a somewhat out of date picture that he is working hard to erase. Ronaldo led Madrid to the La Liga crown this year in Spain, scoring sixty goals for the club across all competitions and is displaying both the maturity and drive to finally lead his team to the promise land.
Ronaldo's biggest problem is actually off the field. The world media delights in flogging him with comparisons to his rival Lionel Messi and he has grown increasingly impatient with the questions. But after years of suffering from the reputation as a choker, 'CR7' has shown up in big games for his nation this tournament and will have to score the big goals if Portugal are to continue to the finals.
Portugal will have to deal with a Spanish side that looks ripe for the taking. Coach Vincent del Bosque admits his side is tired out but it's hard to discount a team stocked with Real Madrid and Barcelona talent. Their midfield - Xavi, Xabi Alonso and Andres Iniesta - is the world's best at playing keep-away and they have some proven scoring talent in Cesc Fabregas and Pedro.
The enigma is Fernando Torres. Chelsea's expensive striker is fighting a very public battle to return to form. He's not winning, and as a result, Spain have used him sparingly, even fielding teams without a recognized forward. The results have been successful but boring, and the critics are starting to round.
The Germans remain the odds-on favorites to win the whole thing. The other teams look a bit weary. Die Mannschaft on the other hand, look like a freight train. Mario Gomez has shrugged off his awful showing in the Champions League final against Chelsea this past May and seems to be scoring goals at will. Philipp Lahm has been brilliant box-to-box, making the big tackles and sparking one of the tournament's most seamless attacks. Real Madrid's duo of Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira continue to prosper in midfield.
What the Germans have is depth. Miroslav Klose and Marco Reus have been fantastic in supporting roles, while Mats Hummels has to be the defender of the tournament. The only question mark is over the fitness of Bastian Schweinsteiger who is fighting an ankle injury. When Schweinsteiger plays, Germany rolls its competition. Without him, they are a far more ordinary side.
Italy endured 120 minutes of scoreless soccer to down England on penalty kicks and set up their meeting with Germany in Warsaw. Give them credit thought. Italy were the far better team on the night and Andrea Pirlo turned in a master class in midfield. But this is not a vintage Italian team, and how they recover from that brutal night in Kyiv is anyone's guess.
Their key player remains the mercurial Mario Balotelli, the Manchester City man-child who can be magical and frustrating in the space of a single minute. When he keeps his wits about him, he can score gorgeous goals and rip defenses to shreds. But he seems have a hair-trigger switch; he can turn petulant without warning and his penchant for collecting red cards reflects his immature behavior.
No matter what happens Wednesday and Thursday, fans are guaranteed of seeing a star-studded in Ukraine to cap what has been a classic tournament. Everything is on the line this week in a can't-miss week of soccer.