With the group stages almost at an end, the 2010 World Cup is about to begin its nerve-wracking knock-out rounds. What better way to get the blood pumping than one of the biggest clashes possible: Germany versus England.
You can expect plenty of drama when Germany meet England
Batten down the hatches. The English press has already begun drumming up the hype - and in some quarters xenophobia - for the England team's last 16 clash with bitter rivals Germany in Bloemfontein on Sunday. As anyone who has lived through a countdown to previous matches will know, it'll get a lot worse before it gets any better.
As ever when these two nations meet in sporting competition, the English get far more worked up than the Germans. For England, playing Germany is always a final. Beating the old geopolitical foe – when it happens – is sweeter than lifting any trophy, which, of course, you have to go back 44 years for the last time England did so. What makes it more mouth-watering is that the country they beat back in 1966 was Germany.
The English obsession with beating the Germans is met with bemusement in Germany. Germans get far more animated when drawn against the Dutch - the team they consider to be their real rivals and bitterest opponents. While the English tabloids will be working themselves into a frothy-mouthed, patriotic frenzy over the next few days, the German press will be more concerned about whether Joachim Loew's side has the tools to progress to the quarter-finals and whether the influential Bastian Schweinsteiger will be fit for Sunday's game.
That is not to say that the Germans are dismissive of the English.
"I've watched their matches so far - they were struggling in the first two games but that is quite normal, sometimes you only pick up speed as you go through the tournament," Loew told reporters after Germany had secured qualification from Group D by beating Ghana 1-0 on Wednesday night.
"They have excellent players and a lot of experience. Wayne Rooney can explode any time - we'll have a tough job," he added. "It's going to be special; there is so much history between us."
Tough final group games leave their mark
Both teams had tough final group games to negotiate before qualification was assured. Germany had a number of scares and some worrying moments of erratic form - specifically from an uncharacteristically shaky Per Mertesacker in defense - as they overcame a stubborn and physical Ghana side. Mesut Oezil's stunning second half winner could have been no more than a parting gift to the 2010 World Cup if Ghana had put away the host of easier chances they'd had earlier - and Serbia hadn't lost to Australia.
Bastian Schweinsteiger has been at the heart of the Germany team's qualification from Group D
The test was such a tough one that the excellent Schweinsteiger - a rock in his new role as the fulcrum of the Germany team in central midfield – pushed his body to the limit for the cause, straining a thigh muscle in the process. The Bayern Munich star was substituted with 10 minutes remaining and was treated immediately on the sidelines.
"I hope that his injury clears up in the coming days," said Loew. "If Schweinsteiger can't play, which I hope isn't the case, it would be a serious blow for us."
The Germany coach also hauled off defender Jerome Boateng, who was struggling with a back problem while Mesut Oezil also looked to be in discomfort towards the end, hobbling after the ball in the dying minutes. The Germany camp later revealed that Oezil has sustained just a minor knock and should be fit to face England.
Germany can take some consolation that they can welcome striker Miroslav Klose back into the team after serving a one-match suspension after being sent off against Serbia.
Has the real England finally stood up?
England, meanwhile, will be sweating on the fitness of star striker Wayne Rooney ahead of the game after the Manchester United player was withdrawn from the must-win Group C decider against Slovenia.
Rooney, who has been struggling for form and fitness at this World Cup, seemed to have damaged the ankle which he injured in the Champions League quarter-final against Bayern Munich towards the end of the season and was substituted by coach Fabio Capello in the 72nd minute.
Jermain Defoe scored the game's only goal but it was enough to send England through to face Germany
In a display that was more workmanlike than exhilarating, England scored early and then hung on and put to the two previous abject performances behind them to qualify as group runners-up behind the United States, who snatched a dramatic injury time winner against Serbia.
Whether this result means that England are now finally in the right frame of mind for this World Cup remains to be seen. What was encouraging to England fans was the spirit shown by the team, the number of chances they created and much-improved performances from a number of their stars.
Ashley Cole in particular had a great game as an attacking wing back, both offensively and defensively while James Milner overcame a shaky start to excel on the right of midfield. The disinterest and cluelessness exhibited by a host of other players in the previous matches was also thankfully missing.
Considering the history between the two teams, as well as the hype that it sure to surround them as Sunday afternoon's kick-off draws near, England will not be lacking motivation when facing Germany.
However, they will have to be at their best to beat them. Germany's path to knock-out stage qualification had not been nearly as fraught with soul-searching as England's, but they too were put to the test in a must-win match and came out victorious.
With Germany now free of the nerves that had threatened to undo their blistering work against Australia in their first game, and England playing with the swagger that comes with proving millions of doubters wrong, Sunday's match could be a classic.
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Matt Hermann