Germany, Ghana, Serbia, Australia
Germany is frustratingly predictable; steady, organized and efficient they always find a way to win when others like England and Holland always seem to find a way to lose.
This is a different German team that is younger and is also more cosmopolitan with sons of immigrants spread across the roster. There are only seven who played in 2006 and 13 of the 23 are 25 years or younger. Experience is critical and in defense they still have Philip Lahm, Arne Friedrich and Per Mertesacker. In Jerome Boateng and Serdar Tasci they have more than adequate defenders, both in their early 20’s who will be around for the next decade. Lahm is menacing on the attack which he does frequently while the others are all strong and tall and rarely get beaten in the air.
They might not even miss Michael Ballack in midfield thanks to the emergence of Mesut Oezil who almost single-handedly destroyed England in the Euro U-21 final last year. Oezil is one of those gifted players who comes along very often and has already shown that he can make the transition from the U-21 world. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thomas Mueller, another emerging star will ensure a steady supply of opportunities for the forwards where Germany is weakest.
Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski are still around, although expect Klose to play a part time role only. The newly minted German citizen, Cacau originally from Brazil will add a flair that they have often lacked. Stefan Kiessling has been on the cusp of the national team for some time but an excellent season in which he finished second in the Bundesliga scoring earned him a trip to South Africa.
I expect Germany to advance fairly far despite their relative inexperience but the organization and style of play will win games.
Disclaimer – as an unrepentant Anglophile whose first awareness of the World Cup was England in 1966 forced me to into the ABG (anyone but Germany) camp and their totally undeserved progress to the final in 1982 secured my lifetime membership. Still nothing will stop them from marching into the second round.
I wouldn’t be so certain of forecasting their progress if it wasn’t for the absence of Michael Essian for Ghana. They don’t have the same luxury as Germany in compensating for the loss of Essien whose world class talent in midfield is at the heart of the Ghanaian team. This was evident in 2006 when Ghana were a different team in the round of 16 against Brazil when he was suspended.
Ghana still has an excellent team with many players returning from the 2006. Defenders, John Pantsil and John Mensah both play in the Premier League. Sulley Montari of Inter Milan will have to pick up the slack in midfield although his disciplinary record could be a problem. In a league game in Italy this season he got two yellows in his first two touches within three minutes of coming on as a sub.
Derek Boateng and Stephen Appiah are two other experienced midfielders that have the experience and skill to play at this level. Up front Ghana needs to be more disciplined and more patient than in ’06 when they constantly wasted opportunities with rushed shots from too far. Asimoah Gyan and Kevin Prince Boateng both have experience and we might see quite a bit of Dominic Adiyiah who has just finished his first year at AC Milan. He was chosen as the best player at the FIFA U20 World Cup last year won by Ghana scoring eight goals in seven games.
They have talent, speed and strength but can be ragged and undisciplined at times. They will probably battle it out with Serbia to see who moves on with Germany.
Serbia’s debut in the finals in 2006 saw them finish last with no points in the ultimate group of death including a 6-0 loss to Argentina at their best. Don’t be fooled by the fact that it was their debut in the finals. As part of the former Yugoslavia they have a longer soccer tradition including a couple of fourth place finishes.
They qualified with ease edging out France for the top spot giving up only 8 goals in 10 matches which reflects their uncompromising toughness associated with many of the former iron curtain countries.
At the back they have two of the toughest Premier League defenders in Nemanja Vidic of Man. Utd and Branislaw Ivanovic of Chelsea. In midfield they have Milan Jovanovic who made his debut at 26 but proved his pedigree with 5 goals in qualifying as well as making quite a few more from his attacking role down the left. He signed with Liverpool prior to the World Cup with Valencia and A.C. Milan both chasing after him as well. The defensive midfield is anchored by Dejan Stankovic who, despite a quiet season with Inter Milan is still the heart and soul of the team.
They are relatively weak up front with Marko Pantelic coming off a strong season with Ajax and Nikola Zigic of Valencia. The ability of Jovanovic and Stankovic to score goals will take some of the burden off the front two. Zigic is listed at 6 foot 8 inches, the Serbian in the Peter Crouch mould which is not necessarily a plus in my book.
Long time coach Radomir Antic has coached both Barcelona and Real Madrid and has been the Serbian coach since 2004. His experience has allowed Serbia to achieve a high level of consistency.
This leaves Australia facing an uphill task in one of the ‘groups of death’. Despite their impressive performance in Germany where they lost to Italy on a penalty in the last minute, they do not appear as strong as they were then.
They still have the ever reliable Mark Schwartzer in goal and a solid defense with Luke Wilkshire and Lucas Neill in defense. Up front they have Tin Cahill and a fit Harry Kewell who has been brilliant on occasion during his career but whether he can still play up to that standard remains to be seen.
The U.S. team beat Australia quite easily in their final warm up game a week ago and if that is any indication Australia will struggle to win any of their games.
1 – Germany
2 – Serbia