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The team to beat

Merciless. Frightening. Downright sick.

You can take your pick of descriptors, but the bottom line is this: World champion Germany made China look like a CYO team in the first round of the women's Olympic soccer tournament on Wednesday, whitewashing the Asian powerhouse 8-0 and sending a scary message to the U.S. and every other Olympic medal contender.

Germany may have lost its midfield engine, Maren Meinert and Bettina Wiegmann, to retirement after the World Cup, but the Mannschaft -- scratch that, the WoMannschaft -- hasn't missed a beat.

"It's hard to know where our weaknesses are right now," German defender Steffi Jones told SI.com afterward.

I'd come to see this game instead of the U.S.'s 3-0 win against overmatched Greece, figuring we'd actually learn something useful about the Olympic field from Germany-China, a game matching finalists from the past two World Cups. (I also wanted to hang with the Iraqi men's team before their debut Thursday against Portugal.)

What we learned was this:

• Germany has to be the gold-medal favorite. There's a reason why the Germans wear a new gold star on their jerseys, signifying last year's World Cup title. Most of the team is back, and playmaker Renate Lingor was dominant as Meinert's replacement (as was Viola Odebrecht in Wiegmann's old role).

"It's hard for any team when you lose world-class players, but you saw today that we have some young players who are almost as good," said striker Birgit Prinz, who poured in four goals and continued outhustling the Chinese until the end.

What's more, Japan's 1-0 upset of medal favorite Sweden only make the Germans look scarier.

• China has a long way to go before it hosts the 2007 World Cup and 2008 Olympics. We knew the Steel Roses were rebuilding -- China had five starters aged 22 or younger against Germany -- but coach Zhang Haitao looked like he was searching for the cyanide pills after the game.

• Germany won't take its foot off the gas. When you have a Benz like this one, you don't want to exit from the Autobahn. "Why stop?" Prinz said when I asked her if she thought about calling off the dogs. "It's always good for players' confidence when they score." It also puts a psychological whammy on the young Chinese, who won't soon forget the worst loss in their program's proud soccer history.

Got a real treat in the second game here as the men's gold-medal favorite Argentina pile-drived Serbia & Montenegro 6-0. Carlos Tevez scored two beauties as los Argentinos put on a clinic of one-touch soccer ... Greek soccer jerseys are on sale everywhere here in the wake of the Hellas' "Miracle on Grass" Euro 2004 victory. Got me a blue No. 2 jersey for defender Giourkas Seitaridis, for my money the Euro's most outstanding player. Alas, our man Giourkas was a last-minute scratch from the Greek Olympic team, which tied South Korea 2-2 on a late penalty kick by Dimitrios (Don't Call Me Webster) Papadopolous. Then again, the Greeks could lose every Olympic event and it wouldn't change the euphoria over their Euro champs ... Bus is the best way to travel the three hours between Athens and Patras. That way you don't miss the lovely seascapes heading to this western port city ... Bizarre sight of the week, Vol. 1: Near the SI hotel in Athens' Syntagma Square, there's a regular scene in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in which three Greek bayonet-wielding mountie-types march by in formation wearing khaki kilts, red berets and black fuzzballs on their shoes. Absolutely floored me when I ran into them today ... In the Athens bus station cafeteria, the non-smoking area is *one table*--and even that table has an ashtray.

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