Confederations Cup preview
Group B throws up an intriguing mix of footballing cultures, both old and new, as the champions of South America and the world, Brazil, Gold Cup holders, Mexico, reigning European champions, Greece and the winners of last year's Asian Cup, Japan, go head to head for the two semi-final places.
Brazil may well be the clear favourites and remain the biggest box office draw in world football, but a glance at the latest FIFA world rankings suggest that they may not have it all their own way. All four sides in the group lie in the current top twenty with Mexico (10th) notionally expected to follow Brazil (1st) into the last eight.
But Otto Rehhagel's Greece (16th) re-wrote the book on confounding expectations during last summer's tournament in Portugal and so should not be underestimated, despite a faltering World Cup qualifying campaign which sees them in a three way battle with Denmark and Turkey for a play-off spot behind Ukraine, to whom they recently lost to a late goal in Athens.
Japan (19th) are clearly the group's underdogs but bring a strong squad to the competition in good spirits after their passage to next year's finals was assured with a 2-0 win over North Korea this week.
As reigning World Champions Brazil, as ever, are the team to beat. And the signs are that, for a change, they will be taking the tournament seriously this time around.
Below strength teams at the 2001 and 2003 championships led to some embarrassing defeats against the likes of relative minnows Australia and, suffering something of a faltering World Cup qualifying campaign, coach Carlos Alberto Parreira sees this competition as an opportunity to fine tune the long term development of his talented side.
A near full strength team will travel to Germany; with one notable exception. Totemic forward Ronaldo asked Parreira to be excused the summer excesses and, though his request was granted, got more than he bargained for.
Perhaps to make a point, the Real Madrid star was dropped from Brazil's emphatic victory over Paraguay as well as the ignominious defeat at the hands of bitter rivals Argentina.
That result has crystallised Brazilian thoughts and Parreira was quick to emphasise the point. 'As far as the national team goes, rest is something relative,' he said. 'To play for Brazil is not a sacrifice, a favour or an obligation.
'It has to involve honour, pleasure and willingness. If the player does not feel that way, he can ask for his hat and leave.'
So what can be expected of the Brazilians? The squad is broadly the same as that which excelled in Korea/Japan. Ageing full-backs Cafu, 36 before the championship's end, and Roberto Carlos, 32, will not appear as the South American giants search for options in those positions.
Barcelona's Belletti and Cicinho, who plays for Sao Paulo, are the two right-backs while Leo, who plays for Brazilian champions Santos, and Hertha Berlin's Gilberto are the alternatives to Roberto Carlos.
With Ronaldo absent, one of a plethora of rising stars will be afforded the chance to make a case for a regular starting place. Adriano, despite his breathtaking performances for Inter, is still considered a substitute - as is Lyon's Juninho Pernambucano.
Yet, to underline the depth of talent Brazil possess, it is 21-year-old Robinho of Santos whose trickery is seen as the future should Ronaldo, overweight and out of form in many people's eyes, fail to hit his previous heights.
With a galaxy of stars to chose from, and a need to put down a marker ahead of next year's finals - as well as the possibility of a revenge match with Argentina - Brazil will certainly be fired up, especially when world player of the year Ronaldinho's reaction to Parreira's call to arms is considered.
The gap toothed magician immediately phoned his boss and asked to be included in the squad, despite a gruelling domestic season in Europe. Hurting from a painful defeat, beware this most skillful of wounded animals.
Otto Rehhagel's European Champions are clearly never to be underestimated. The 100/1 outsiders in the pre-tournament betting produced a combination of rigid tactical discipline, Herculean work rate and some outstanding individual performances - most notably right-back Giourkas Seitaridis, Angelos Charisteas and player of the tournament Theo Zagorakis; all included in the 23 man squad - took them to the crown in Portugal.
Derided in some quarters for their seemingly negative, destructive tactics, no one could deny Rehhagel's alchemy in turning a squad of unheralded players into an efficient, cohesive team of winners.
Life after the heady summer of celebrations, however, has not run smoothly. Despite sticking with effectively the same squad as at the finals, Greece kicked off their World Cup qualifying campaign in a style hardly befitting of champions - defeat to Albania followed by draws with Turkey and Ukraine left them with a difficult task in a competitive group.
A recent home defeat - their first in nearly three years - to Ukraine courtesy of a late Andriy Gushin goal, coupled with a draw in Istanbul, all but ended their hopes of automatic qualification and they face a nervy time in a three way battle with Denmark and Turkey for the play-off spot.
But the Confederations Cup gives them the chance to revel in their role as European Champions, a point that Rehhagel is all too aware of. 'The tournament is another important milestone in the development of my team,' insists the German. 'Even European champions have things to learn.'
And how does he rate the group? 'Of course the game against Brazil will be the most important. But my players know that during the whole tournament this summer in Germany they will be in the shop window and in the spotlight as European champions.
'And I know that my boys have always given everything in the three years since I took charge, whether in friendly games or qualifying matches.'
Still one of the toughest teams around defensively, their current problems emanate from an inability to find the net themselves - three goals in five games against their qualification rivals tells its own story.
Angelos Charisteas has endured a difficult year at club level despite being the scorer of the only goal in the European Championship final, as well as the winner against France.
Werder Bremen remained unconvinced of his ability and, after playing from the bench for five months, offloaded him to Ajax, where he has yet to shine. Ioannis Amanatidis of Kaiserslautern, too, will want to prove himself in front of a sceptical German public.
At the back even the stoic Trainos Dellas has endured a difficult season in Serie A when his dream move to Roma turned sour as the club flirted with relegation in an end of season capitulation.
Greece's real strength lies in midfield, with Georgios Karagounis, Stelios Giannakopoulos and Theodoros Zagorakis pulling the strings and, as they have already proved once, you should write them off at your peril.
In the three way battle for Asian supremacy between the region's big hitters Japan, South Korea and China, the Japanese confirmed their ascendancy at last year's Asian Championships in China.
Despite inconsistent form going into the finals and a rancorous reception from home fans in a fractious final at the Workers Stadium in Beijing, Japan's experience told as they ran out 3-1 winners to add to their 1992 and 2000 triumphs.
The team have been managed by Brazilian legend Arthur Antunes Coimbra, better know as Zico, since Phillipe Troussier stepped down after their last World Cup campaign - a successful jaunt into the second round where they were knocked out by Turkey.
Troussier held an uneasy relationship with the Japanese media and Zico himself, despite his legendary status, has encountered similar travails.
Rumoured to be one defeat away from the sack prior to a qualifier against Bahrain, a victory there coupled with a 2-0 victory over North Korea ensured Japan were the first side to qualify for Germany 2006; his popularity partially restored.
Such is the mutual mistrust between media and manager - Zico harbours a grudge after repeated calls for his dismissal earlier in the World Cup campaign - that a poor showing this summer may yet cost him his job.
'Playing against Brazil will be very special,' said Zico on hearing his charges had been paired in a group with his homeland. Free of any lingering doubts about his and his side's future, the Japan coach is upbeat about his side's chances.
'The old adage that football is just eleven against eleven is very valid,' he continued. 'With the exception of Brazil, who are clearly a cut above us, I think we're on a par with the rest of the teams in our group. I honestly feel that anything could happen. We are going there to win!'
Bold words but is this a realistic ambition? A lot will rest on the form of Europe-based players such as Junichi Inamoto, who has struggled to find his way in English football despite being one of the most gifted of the current crop of Japanese stars.
Despite their recent success all is not well in the Japanese camp and influential playmaker Hidetoshi Nakata has been involved in a number of training ground bust ups with team-mates over the last years.
Japan's chances were further damaged by the news of Feyenoord's Shinji Ono breaking his foot during training earlier this month; Hamburg striker Naohiro Takahara is also doubtful. Zico, though, put a positive spin on his side's chances at the Confederations Cup.
'The resilience and mental powers of this team are very special,' he said. 'We've qualified for the World Cup. Now we can take that momentum into the Confederations Cup.'
Despite all their problems, Japan at least know they can make plans for next year and this tournament will give them the chance to make themselves at home in Germany.
Mexico will be able to draw on a wealth of tournament experience in Germany. The Concacaf nation can boast to have participated in 12 World Cup finals (though they did host two of them), even more than England or France, and look well on their way to making a return to Germany next year having dropped just two points in their qualifying group at the halfway stage.
They currently lead a six-strong field in which the top three automatically qualify, holding a nine point cushion with five matches remaining.
Mexican football is going through something of a renaissance at the moment with Pachuca reaching the round of 16 in this season's Copa Libertadores, only knocked out by another Mexican side, Guadalajara, who hold a commanding lead over Boca Juniors in their quarter-final match up. Universidad de Nuevo León, too, are still in the competition, though a 4-0 first leg reversal to Sao Paulo will be difficult to overcome; this after they dispensed with reigning champions Once Caldas in the previous round.
And, unlike many other Central and South American teams, a strong domestic league has led to a settled and united national squad. With the exception of Barcelona's Rafael Marquez and Gerardo Torrado who plays for Racing Santander in Spain, the entire squad are home based.
And they also have an excellent pedigree in this competition. Perhaps their finest international hour came in the Confederations tournament they themselves hosted back in 1999.
A dramatic 4-3 win in the final against group rivals Brazil propelled Cuahtemoc Blanco to legendary status in Mexico, as it was he who scored the decisive golden goal in front of a packed and partisan Azteca Stadium.
However, domestic success may well be Mexico's undoing. Just days after guiding his club side, America, to the title Blanco withdrew from the squad claiming he was tired. Five Guadalajara players will also be absent due to their ongoing Libertadores commitments, further weakening the Mexican squad in Germany.
The issue has caused divisions and controversy in the country, with some claiming Blanco was given special treatment whilst the Guadalajara players have been pressured to still travel. Brusque and dogmatic Argentine coach Ricardo La Volpe has been forced to defend himself.
'The mistake that all the journalists and the president of Chivas (Jorge Vergara) have made is that I didn't give any special permission to Cuauhtemoc Blanco,' La Volpe said.
'He was on the list, he said he was tired and I replaced him with someone else, I didn't give any special permission for anyone.'
When Vergara said the federation should release his players La Volpe retorted: 'If the Chivas (Guadalajara) players prefer to play in the Libertadores, they can tell me and I'll take them off the list.'
The episode has cast a cloud over a valuable exercise for the Mexicans who come into the tournament off the back of an 18 match unbeaten run but hoping to take the opportunity to test themselves against opposition outside their own region where, with the exception of the United States, they regularly play against some of the weaker sides in world football.
La Volpe, however, remains upbeat. 'It's a great tournament and we want to take the best possible team,' he said recently.
'We have an obligation to do well. It will give us an idea of what we will find in 2006 and allow us to compare ourselves against teams of high potential.'
Additional reporting by Reuters