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Germany kick off Euro 2012 campaign against Belgium

Joachim Loew's team is on a high after a solid World Cup, but it faces a tricky qualifying group for the European Championship in Poland and Ukraine. DW breaks down Germany's group rivals.

A Germany fan looking through his fingers

Germany may have pulled the toughest group of any top seed in the UEFA tournament

Having finished a surprising third in the World Cup in South Africa, winning plaudits along the way with energetic play and high-scoring victories, most believe Germany's national team is entering a promising phase.

None other than Real Madrid, under new coach Jose Mourinho, have made "buying German" the centerpiece of their strategy for a renewed domination of Spain and Europe. Nationalelf stalwarts Sami Khedira and Mesut Oezil cost the club nearly 30 million euros and should anchor the super-club's midfield for years to come.

With players of that caliber - not to mention the world-class Bayern trio of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm and Thomas Mueller - Germany ought to stroll through their qualification group for the Euro 2012 tournament, right? Not so fast.

Germany have been handed a tough draw in Group A - perhaps the toughest of any top seed in UEFA. Sure, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan are poor sides, but in Belgium, Austria and Turkey, Germany will face three teams with enough quality to give them trouble. Add in the rivalry factor - at play for different reasons in each of those match-ups - and getting a win could become even trickier.

Belgium

Considering Belgium has not appeared in a World Cup since 2002, and missed the last two European championships as well, Germany ought to win their Group A opener on Friday in Brussels with ease. But Belgium is a young team on the rise, and it would not be much of a surprise to see the Red Devils hang on for a draw.

Marouane Fellaini

Surprisingly, Fellaini's play has overshadowed his haircut

In 22-year-old Marouane Fellaini of Everton and Anderlecht's Romelu Lukaku - just 17 - Belgium has a dangerous young duo up front. And not only are these two youngsters spry, they're big. Fellaini is 6'4" (194 cm), Lukaku 6'3" (191 cm). Germany's Per Mertesacker, so used to towering over opposing strikers, will only have a couple of inches on these two - and if you count Fellaini's hair, it's a close call.

Belgium's side is young - aside from Daniel van Buyten (32) and Timmy Simons (33), no projected starter is older than 24, and most play at top clubs abroad. Captain Thomas Vermaelen has become the heart of Arsenal's central defense, while Vincent Kompany holds down a place at star-studded Manchester City. And remember, most of them were part of the 2008 Olympic side that made it all the way to the semis.

The Red Devils will also have plenty of pride at stake when they take on Germany. Not only are they playing against a next-door neighbor, they are playing against history. Belgium has just four wins and a draw in 23 matches against Germany. In addition, three key players (van Buyten, Simons, and goalkeeper Logan Bailly) ply their trade in the Bundesliga, while Kompany played two seasons at Hamburg before his move to England. Each would gain some major bragging rights with teammates past and present should they manage to stymie the Germans.

Austria

Germany's neighbor to the south, like Belgium, is another national team program that's been stuck in a holding pattern in recent years - and one that might just be ready to break out. Their side is not as imposing as Belgium's and doesn't measure up in terms of experience, but lucky for them they don't have to play Germany until next June - at which time they might be ready to make some noise.

Above all, the Austrians will be watching the development of Marko Arnautovic with rapt interest. He left Vienna at 17 to play at FC Twente in the Netherlands before heading to Inter Milan, where he couldn't get off the bench. This season, Germany's Werder Bremen stepped in and spent 6.5 million euros for him, and a possible starting role awaits.

Marko Arnautovic celebrates

After two goals and an assist in his starting debut, Germany is learning all about Arnautovic

To say Austria has big expectations for the 21-year-old striker would be an understatement. The country's most-capped player, Andreas Herzog, said Austria has had some good players over the years but that "Arnautovic will put us all in the shade if he reaches his potential. He is, by a great margin, the best footballer we have had in 30 years."

Austria does, in fact, boast a number of other exciting young players. Twenty-three-year-old Martin Harnik's own Bremen career stalled out, but he lit up Germany's division two last year with Fortuna Duesseldorf, scoring 13 goals. Now he's hoping to play his way into the side at his new club Stuttgart. And midfielder David Alaba, 18, flirted with the first team at Bayern last season - when he was just 17!

It will also help that young players like these (along with somewhat older ones like Emanuel Pogatetz, Uemit Korkmaz and Christian Fuchs) will be familiar with the Bundesliga. Most Austria squads include seven-10 Bundesliga players, and Germany's top flight is widely watched across the country.

What might play an even bigger role, however, is Austria's almost pathological desire to beat Germany at football - to get one over their big brothers to the north. The delirious play-by-play call on Austrian national radio from the Alpine nation's last big win over Germany at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina ("I wer' narrisch!" or, "I'm going mad!" in Austrian slang) is hallowed in the country's collective memory, and when Germany went down in Vienna in the Euro 2008 final, the Viennese danced in the streets as if they had won, rather than Spain.

Turkey

Anyone who saw Turkey play at that Euro 2008 tournament in Austria and Switzerland, or in Japan/Korea in 2002, will know how much the country's squad is capable of. In both instances, however, Turkey went and failed to qualify for the next major tournament. What Turkey has always needed was consistency, and in new coach Guus Hiddink they are likely to get it. If his track record is anything to go by, expect a great leap forward in results.

After an indifferent start as an international manager with his native Netherlands, Hiddink has been nearly all aces. His golden touch took South Korea to the 2002 World Cup semifinal, Australia into the second round in 2006 and Russia to the semis of Euro 2008.

Joachim Loew and Guus Hiddink

Loew and Hiddink have clashed before - with Loew the victor

(Sure, his Russia tenure ended in disappointment when they missed out on 2010 World Cup qualification, but they'd had the misfortune of landing Germany in their qualifying group - and the two-legged playoffs UEFA requires group runners to engage in are volatile affairs, testing nerves as much as quality.)

Hiddink aside, Turkey will have another ace in the hole: the potential for two "home games" in the group stage. Bizarrely, Germany have chosen Berlin as the site for its hosting of Turkey on October 8.

Yes, a 75,000 seat stadium will allow the German Football Association (DFB) to sell a lot of tickets - but a large proportion of them are likely to be sold to fans of Turkey. Among Berlin's three million citizens are an estimated 200,000 who have roots in Turkey - and another 2.8 million people of Turkish origin live in the rest of Germany. It's a fair bet many of them will want to be at this match, and Germany might turn out to be the second-best supported team at the Olympic Stadium.

Author: Matt Hermann
Editor: Martin Kuebler

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