June 13 Serbia v. Ghana
June 13 Germany v. Australia
June 18 Germany v. Serbia
June 19 Ghana v. Australia
June 23 Ghana v. Germany
June 23 Australia v. Serbia
Favorites: Germany and Serbia
Key players: Tim Cahill (Everton), Mark Schwarzer (Fulham), Brett Emerton (Blackburn), Lucas Neill (Galatasaray), Harry Kewell (Galatasaray)
Australia is a country made up of hard men doing hard things the hard way. These were the men sent to die on the beaches of Gallipoli. The men who conquered the Outback and surf with sharks; descendants of prisoners sent to Van Diemen’s land. Australia is Paul Hogan opening a can of Fosters with his teeth and then slamming it with a Yellowtail chaser. And I think we all know how hard it is to drink Fosters or Yellowtail, let alone at the same time.
That same toughness is found in their soccer team. The Aussies aren’t pretty, but they’re big and strong and they’ll push you around. They make it hard for you to operate in midfield and stifle any creative players you might have. Their toughness in tackle and physical resolve are their main strengths.
Their formation plays to those strengths. Australia lines up in a 4-2-3-1, with two big holding midfielders sitting in front of the defense, and only one striker up top. For years that striker was Mark Viduka, but he’s eaten himself out of contention. Instead, the Aussies will look to go with Harry Kewell, the once highly touted Leeds prospect who has had a career plagued by injury. Supporting Kewell will be a pair of solid attacking wingers in Brett Emerton and Tim Cahill, both plying their trade in England’s physical Premier League. If Australia are to score many goals in this tournament, it will likely be Cahill or Emerton scoring them, not the ineffectual Kewell.
The backline of Australia is a microcosm of their squad. Lucas Neill was an average player in England, but what he lacked in guile or speed, he made up for with determination and grit. Expect hard tackles and sharp elbows from him. The same can be said for their midfield protectors. Jason Culina and Vince Grella will be charged with breaking up attacks before they reach Neill, conceding free kicks rather than letting strikers run at the Aussie’s slower center backs.
Australia has looked good in some of their recent friendlies, whooping Ireland 3-0, beating the Danes by a goal, and, most impressively, holding the Dutch scoreless. While much of the Dutch game involved the Aussies watching Holland outpass and outskill them, they held firm and would not let the Oranje score. If they are to have any success in this world cup, the same will have to happen. However, this is the same team that was just beaten handily by the United States 3-1, never a good sign.
If you like your soccer to be a fine wine, this Australian team is not for you. What they lack in skill, they more than make up for in heart and heavy tackles. Playing Australia is a bit like drinking Yellowtail: tough to swallow and won’t go down easy. That just might be enough to get them to the next round.
Key players: Bastian Schweinsteiger (Bayern Munich), Phillip Lahm (Bayern Munich), Mesut Oezil (Werder Bremen), Sami Khedira (Stuttgart)
One of the most influential artistic and design movements in the last 100 years started in the sleepy German town of Weimar. The Bauhaus was born out of the ashes of post-WWI German society, a product of the openness of the new Republic. One of the parts of the movement rejected the usual artistic subjects of romantic expressionism in favor of a stripped down version of the visual. Art served a function, and there was beauty in that functionality. The functionality of an ordinary, mass produced chair was lovely in its own right, without any baubles or bits to distract the eyes. In fact, any traces of decoration meant solely for aesthetic purposes were unnecessary, and anything that even hinted at style for style’s sake was strictly verboten.
The movement leapt from art to architecture. The modernist school of Mies van der Rohe revolutionized building, one skyline at a time. Tall, black, functional, strong structures rose above the shores of Lake Michigan, symbolizing the broad shoulders of the city in which it sat as well as the modernist, Germanic soul of its architect; a soul forged under the hot coals of rational, functional, German thought.
That same soul has been the foundation of German soccer for the last 50 years. German soccer is functional soccer, and the function of a soccer team is to win. The philosophy filters down to each player. The Germans are never out of position, always make the right pass, and never, ever miss a penalty. Let the Brazilians play to the samba beat; let the French play with Gaullic flair; let the Spanish play with Flamenco style; the Germans are unimpressed with your frills. Style is for losers, the name of the game is to win.
And win they did: Three world cups and three European championships. Imposing their ruthless, physical style, never giving up, winning games late when other teams crumbled under the pressure. By eschewing individual flair for team spirit and collective will, the Germans took on all comers, and almost always emerged victorious. Ask the Hungarians in 54, the Dutch in the 70s, the English every time they go to penalties. No frills, just tough. The Germans are Chris Pronger. The Germans are Jack Lambert. The Germans are Ben Wallace.
The Germans are not going to win this World Cup. This particular German team is stuck in a transition phase. The generation of German players in their 30s is not a vintage one, with only one great player: Michael Ballack. But Ballack is injured and will miss the tournament, leaving Germany without their midfield general and dangerous set piece attacker. Miroslav Klose is past his prime, but will still be counted on to lead the attack. A goal poacher who was never blessed with world class speed, he has become even easier to mark as age has taken what little pace he once had.
The younger generation is talented, but they are not ready to win a world cup. Bastien Schweinsteiger will orchestrate the attack from midfield, surrounded on his flanks by speedy wingers like Mesut Oezil. Sami Khedira will take over Ballack’s defensive role in the middle of midfield.
But midfield will be a problem for the Germans. Without Ballack they lack individual strength, so they will try to make up for it with strength in numbers; packing the center of the park with five midfielders and playing Klose alone up front. This protects a central defense that is strong, but slow. Set pieces should not trouble the Germans, but quick creativity might. Speed certainly will.
The German’s recent form has been good but there are signs of trouble. They have beaten the lesser teams (Bosnia, Malta, Hungary) handily, while losing at home to Argentina. Their world cup group is balanced with teams that traditionally give Germany fits: big, strong teams that will not be bullied.
But let us not forget that this is Germany. They’ve taken lesser teams to international tournaments before and, through the luck of the draw or the penalty spot, come away with great runs and classic victories. It might not be pretty – and really, it almost never is with Germany – but it is effective. As usual, this German team will leave the pretty to its neighbors while it worries about winning. The function of a soccer team is to win soccer games, something the Germans do better than almost anyone. Despite the talent deficiencies, they should not be counted out.
Key players: Sulley Muntari (Inter Milan), Stephen Appiah (Bologna), Asamoah Gyan (Rennes), John Mensah (Sunderland)
For hundreds of years, the manpower of West Africa was hijacked by the slave trade. The future leaders and workers in the region now known as Ghana were removed to British colonies in North America, Spanish and Portuguese colonies in South America, and even parts of Europe, thus depriving the area of some of its prime human resources. The descendants of those caught up in the West African diaspora now ply their trade for countries like Brazil, Portugal, and the United States.
Those who remained in Africa now willingly go abroad. The most talented Ghanians are snapped up at a young age by talent scouts and farmed out to Europe. Some make it, some do not; of those that do, some become citizens of their new homelands and forego the chance to compete for Ghana. That used to happen to West African nations a lot more than it does today. Now, for every Patrick Viera (born in Senegal, plays for France) there are two Michael Essiens.
Unfortunately for this Ghana team, there is only one Michael Essien, and he’s hurt. This is part of a disturbing trend for the Ghanaians, as all of their top players seem to be either out of the competition completely due to injury, or coming off serious injuries. The Ghanain midfield of Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari, and Stephen Appiah is excellent. But they are all injured. With a healthy squad, Ghana is the second best team in this group, without healthy star players, it is not a sure bet that they will win one game.
If they are to win a game, it will because of their organization in defense and a goal from their striker Asamoah Gyan. It had better be from Gyan, because there aren’t too many other options on the team. Ghana’s problem, even with healthy, was a lack of talent up front. They could always control the midfield and play well enough at the back, but it was the lack of a world class striker that held them back at the top of the international game. Gyan is a serviceable international player, but may not be enough given the injuries in midfield. Service will be hard to come by.
Just Ghana’s luck. After years of pouring its resources into the development of the national team and turning their small country into an African powerhouse (2009 Youth World Cup champions), they finally arrive for the first African world cup and their entire roster is injured. Instead of witnessing the organization and skill of a complete African side, the world will once again witness a West African team stripped of best players. Only this time, the culprit is the cruel fate of the injury and not the cruel intention of the slave trader.
Key players: Nemanja Vidic (Manchester United), Dejan Stankovic (Inter Milan), Nikola Zigic (Birmingham), Branislav Ivanovic (Chelsea), Milan Jovanovic (Liverpool)
The most famous Serbian in history is a murderer. Well, he was kind of Serbian…but more Bosnian…but was a supporter of Serbian independence and involved in a clique with young Serbs committed to overthrowing the yoke of Austrian oppression. And besides, the whole murder thing fits the narrative, so we will go with him being the most famous Serb.
Gavrilo Princip stepped onto the world stage in 1914 and murdered the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. 94 years later Nemanja Vidic stepped onto the pitch at Old Trafford and began murdering strikers. Vidic embodies Serbian football to the core: big, mean, and willing to eat small children if they dare threaten his goal. He is the central defender for Manchester United and the leader of the “Famous Four” defenders of Serbia along with Branislav Ivanovic, Neven Subotic, and Aleksander Kolarov. With Vidic anchoring the defense, Serbia are difficult to break down, and very difficult to score on from free kicks. Not to mention difficult to play against without coming away injured.
Up front the Serbs are no less imposing. Nikola Zigic is their front man and he stands all of 6’8. Skill is not Zigic’s game; he likes the ball in the air, is physical, and scores with his head. Flanking Zigic will be Milan Jovanovic and Milos Krasic; behind him sits Dejan Stankovic. All of them are decent, if unspectacular offensive players capable of collectively breaking down a defense on occasion, but not with too much regularity. Free kicks and corners are likely to be Serbia’s most effective means of breaching the other team’s defense.
In qualifying the Serbs beat out a favored France by only allowing 8 goals in 10 games. But their recent form has left much to be desired. Beaten 1-0 at home by New Zealand in a recent friendly, the team was chased off the pitch by angry fans…before the game was finished. The inability to score against New Zealand does not bode well for a team about to take on the likes of Germany.
If Serbia are to struggle somewhere, it will be in their ability to create chances from open play. Like the other teams in this group, they are physical and not very creative offensively. This will play to Serbia’s strengths, as they are the most physical of the bunch and teams without much creativity don’t bother them that much. Playing even more in their favor is the long list of injuries suffered by their opponents, while Serbia remain relatively healthy.
Like Princip, the health of their opponents will be the furthest thing from Serbia’s mind. They are ought for blood and will present a strong challenge to Germany to win this group. If you are looking for a dark horse (literally and figuratively) to make a deep run in this tournament, Serbia might be your best bet.
Group D predictions sure to be wrong:
Serbia 2 v. Ghana 0
Germany 2 v. Australia 1
Germany 1 v. Serbia 1
Ghana 1 v. Australia 3
Ghana 0 v. Germany 2
Australia 1 v. Serbia 1
Germany and Serbia advance