Germany (2nd in FIFA, 3rd in ELO) | Portugal (3rd FIFA / 8th ELO) | Ghana (38th FIFA / 37th ELO) | U.S.A. (13th FIFA / 13th ELO)
June 16 Germany v Portugal June 16 Ghana v U.S.A.
June 21 Germany v Ghana June 22 U.S.A. v Portugal
June 26 U.S.A. v Germany June 26 Portugal v Ghana
Group winner v Group H R-up / Group R-up v Group H winner
G is for Grudges, Group-of-Death, and Grotesque. At a stretch, it can even be for Gruelingly-long-travel, and Going-to-be-tough-to-get-to-the-second-round. G is for Germany and Ghana. And lest I forget, G is also for the middle of PortuGal.
The favorites for the group, and one of the favorites for the tournament, are Germany. The thing about Germany is that they are always at least 70% composed of Germans, guaranteeing a solid determined approach backed by strength and the best technical abilities. They will be tough to score on and difficult to stop. Manager Joachim Löw was Klinsi’s assistant in the German job in 2006, and took charge after him, concreting the sense of identity they developed. Löw was believed to be the tactician then, and this will be his 4th tournament in charge. His 27 man squad includes most of the usual suspects from his time in charge. Most interesting will be the place of Sami Khedira. Out since November with an ACL injury, place in the squad is the key to their success. While I consider him the most vital German midfielder, he is also a positive and unifying force on the bench if he doesn’t play. While Thomas Muller continues to be a heart of the attack, the big story is that Miroslav Klose looks increasingly likely to start in his 4th tournament, and has said this will be his last championship. It may be worth noting that the longest Germany has gone without winning a major championship since WWII is 18 years — the same length since they won their last, in Euro 96. Most recently in World Cup history, the US lost to Germany in the quarter finals in 2002, by a single goal, and in the group stages in 98 by 2.
Portugal are dark horses for many, because of Cristiano Ronaldo. However, their problems also start there, because he is the dominant character in that group, in terms of performance, and personality — without him, it is hard to see where their drive can come from. He powered through against Zlatan’s Sweden, scoring all their goals in the playoff. Unfortunately, this could mean he will be targeted, like Pele in 1966, or Maradona in 90 and 94. While there are some competent players alongside him, like Helder Postiga and Fábio Coentrão, there are almost none who can offer the team anything approaching what he can. I say “almost,” because Ricardo Quaeresma. He has been the great wasted enigmatic force, who squandered his many opportunities at Barcelona, Inter, and Chelsea, only ever really doing well with Porto. After being booted out of Beşiktaş, he played 10 games in Dubai, and was released in May last year. It was January before he signed again for Porto, but his performances this Spring have been among his very best. Though he hasn’t featured since 2012, he has been being named in the 30 man provisional list – head coach, Paulo Bento, may be making a big gamble, but if the form continues, it could be the inspired pick of the World Cup, even if just as cover for Ronaldo. And cover will be needed, for Portugal has some of the least pleasant trips between matches during the World Cup. The US beat their golden generation 3-2 in the first game in 2002, essentially progressing at their expense.
The days of the African or Asian team in a group being the whipping boys are long gone, and Ghana are the proof. Having qualified for the first time in 2006, the Black Stars have continued to develop, making the second round first time out, and the quarters in South Africa. They will be aiming at continuing this development from a solid base of high work-rate, technical ability, discipline and experience. They cruised through qualification and destroyed otherwise unbeaten Egypt in the playoffs. Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari — both now at AC Milan — are still at the heart of a team mostly coming from middling to good European teams, many going to their 2nd or 3rd World Cup. Surprisingly enough, only one Boateng (Kevin Prince) is likely to make the trip this time around, all the more surprising given that he retired in 2011. A certain Asamoah Gyan is also likely to be along. James Kwesi Appiah will be manager, and in him, they have stability, experience and adaptability. A former full international, he was assistant for 5 years, including during the last World Cup, and has been visiting Liverpool and Man City to develop his technical skills too. Effectively, Ghana has knocked the US out in the past two World Cups, winning the last game of the group stages in Germany 2-1, and winning in extra time in South Africa by the same score.
I would imagine that Jurgen Klinsmann groaned inwardly on the World Cup draw that placed the USA in this group. The US is the top team in CONCACAF, but of the qualifiers from North America, only Costa Rica has a group to equal it. You would back the US to beat or draw with any one of these, and get through by beating the weak team in the group. The problem is that there is no apparent weak team, in a group where the second lowest ranked team is the US at 13th. With such good opposition, there are four keys to how this group will pan out for the US:
- how they cope with the psychological effect of facing a strong and resourceful Ghana side that has beaten them in the previous two World Cups;
- how tired Cristiano Ronaldo is after a long season, 3 tough friendlies, and the game against Germany;
- how keen Germany’s B team are to prove their worth in the final group game.
- As for the 4th key, it is how can the big names find their mojo again: Clint Dempsey is starting to find form in MLS, after a poor start, since the snow game, he’s only scored twice — both penalties — for the national team; after what seemed a career defining season, Jozy Altidore’s return to the Premiership looks to have backfired, to a point where I think Aron Jóhannsson might be a better choice to lead the line in Brazil; Landon Donovan is apparently out of favor with Klinsmann, and may be reduced to the role of impact sub (but what an impact sub!).
Fortunately, it is looking like some of the not so big names are putting in a serious shift: Wondo(w) is in form, Zusi, Beckerman, and Diskerud are looking increasingly important, and Besler and Gonzalez may not look world class, but they worked as a unit in qualifying, and should start, if Klinsi doesn’t have a choking fit of doubt. Right full is still an issue — Cherundolo is proving increasingly irreplaceable, it seems. Another player who has become irreplaceable is Michael Bradley, who has gone from brash youngster to midfield general in 4 years. He has probably another world cup in him after this one, but this is where he can become a world star.
It’s a hard group to call — any pair of teams could go through, as long as one of them is Germany. For the US to progress, a draw v Germany could be a key result to target. They will definitely need a win against one of the other two — it is achieveable, but it will be extremely tough.
Being Irish, Martin French will have a different perspective on the World Cup: by all means challenge him on twitter @bluebeardrex. This article incorporates elements of Martin’s column for the Waterford United matchday program with new material specifically for The Coopers.