G is for Gruelling
No Group in World Cup is easy. G has an ensemble cast with no team favorite for the 2nd spot. Goalden Times previews with Ankit Mitra.
Die Mannschaft go into this year’s tournament as one of the favourites, though the very dilemma of how to play may be their undoing. They had an almost perfect qualifying record with nine wins from ten games scoring 36 goals in the process, which is the highest number of goals by any side in the European qualifying zone.
Germany, who once boasted of devastating strikers like Gerd Muller, Jurgen Klinsmann, Karl-Heinze Rummenigge and Rudi Voller among others, are right now frantically trying to decide who will lead their charge upfront. An ageing Miroslav Klose, current top goal-scorer for Germany (tied with Gerd Muller), is the only option for Löw considering that other strikers haven’t had the best of seasons lately. Mario Gomez (once considered a confirmed starter after Klose), Max Kruse were called up as probables but were not chosen. It is unfortunate that one of the more successful German strikers currently in the Bundesliga, Stefan Kiessling who would have been a logical inclusion, will not be a part of the team because of his personal issues with Löw. It brings back memories of how Stefan Effenberg was ostracized for non-footballing reasons from the German team in the late 90s and early 2000 and how that hurt them.
The midfield is where Germany’s resources are enviable. From the very experienced Bastian Schweinsteiger to the current young superstar Mario Götze, Germany has some of the best midfielders in the world at their disposal. Marco Reus is unlucky to miss out due to his last minute injury. But even then the likes of Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira, Andre Schurrle, Toni Kroos, Julian Draxler, Lucas Podolski, Thomas Muller can create another selection headache for Löw which many a manager would love to have. However, Germany have experimented a lot on its way to the World Cup with their midfield formation, once resorting to a striker-less formation with Götze in a false nine role. It can be said that for that reason they haven’t settled on a system and a first choice player list in this area. It may be their undoing as many of the players thrive under a different role at their club whereas they might have to play in a completely different way for the national team.
Defensively Germany is unpredictable and far from impregnable, as they were once considered. Playing a more fluid style has resulted in the defenders having to play much higher up. It’s not just the defenders who have to be comfortable on the ball, the goalkeeper too must exhibit such qualities. In Manuel Neuer, Germany arguably have the best goalkeeper in the world. However, his maverick ways make him prone to moments of madness which his coach doesn’t appreciate and hence the more pragmatic Roman Weidenfeller is on standby. Captain Philip Lahm will take his place in the usual right fullback position in which he is considered one of the best, but the central defensive pairing is an area of concern for Löw. Mats Hummels has returned after a long layoff due to injury and is yet to find the form that made him one of the hottest prospects a couple of seasons back. Per Mertesaker, in spite of his experience, may lose out to Jerome Boateng due to his obvious lack of speed, which has been exposed time and again by skillful speedy opponents. Boateng has played in the centre back role for a long time for his club – however he is still not as reliable in the role as the injured Holger Badstuber was.
Having come so close and then losing out in the last few editions have made a lot of fans pessimistic about their chances. But, Löw and his boys would love to do justice to their tag and bring home the gold.
The European ‘Seleccao’ go into the World Cup as underdogs with most pundits dismissing them as potential contenders for the crown. Their dire displays during qualifying and the fact they had to come through a play-off doesn’t excite a critic much about their chances. However, it is this very lack of pressure, sometimes mixed with underestimation that may turn out as the trump card for Portugal.
Today Portugal has been equated with Cristiano Ronaldo, and for good measure. The captain is not only the best player Portugal have, but is also the current holder of the World Player of the Year award. His influence on the game is such that at times he has single- handedly changed the morale of the team simply by his presence on the field. Cristiano leads from the front quite literally, and in all honesty he is Portugal’s only reliable option upfront. Strikers Hugo Almeida as well as Helder Postiga really haven’t shone or seemed dangerous in front of goal. Profligacy upfront has cost Portugal a lot in the qualifiers. However, in the World Cup there are no second chances so the lack of other options upfront besides their talismanic captain still is Portugal’s achilles heel.
Portugal’s midfield though less vaunted is actually full of quality. The obvious star is playmaker Joao Moutinho. Long overshadowed and underrated in the shadow of Cristiano, Joao is the actual man who conducts the team’s tempo. If Ronaldo needs to keep scoring, he has to depend on Moutinho for that final ball. Moutinho is ably backed up by the relentless veteran workhorse Raul Meireles, along with the experienced Miguel Veloso and Silvestre Varela. Young gun William Carvalho too injects that burst of excitement and youthful vigour in a very experienced midfield. Nani has had quite a few indifferent seasons. However, if he finds form, his trickery and skill with the ball will come quite handy.
Defensively Portugal have suffered due to absolutely unforgivable lapses of concentration. Pepe and Bruno Alves are a good pairing in the centre but their lack of positional awareness has cost Portugal dearly. But on their day Pepe and Alves are as solid as a rock, not considering they are also extremely good when coming forward during set pieces. Portugal have other options too like Ricardo Costa and Neto but manager Bento has generally favoured the Alves and Pepe pairing. Coentrao on the left full back position is essential for Portugal’s success. His combination with Cristiano in the left wing is Portugal’s most potent attacking option; especially, due to the fact that Portugal tend to play on the counter attack. Hence, the roles of Coentrao and Joao Pereira are vital for the team.
Portugal being vaunted as a one man show and unlikely to win, may come back to haunt their critics as they have the capability and potential to beat every team. However, being plagued by lapses of concentration and also a lot of profligacy on their own part may thwart the dreams of many Navegadore fans.
Klinsmann, who was at the helm of the German side in 2006, is in charge of the US team now and he had his critics questioning his ability after Honduras beat them 2-1 in the first match of the final round of qualifying in the CONCACAF zone. But his side came back strongly and won seven of their ten games scoring 15 goals and finally winning the group four points ahead of the runners-up Costa Rica.
Klinsmann’s US side is very strong in work ethics. Klinsmann has been a tough taskmaster and he has not hesitated to take the tough calls. He shocked the world by leaving out USA’s all time favorite player and leading goal scorer Landon Donovan out of the final squad. But that might just spur the chosen ones – Julian Green (a teenage prospect), MLS veterans Chris Wondolowski and World Cup rookie Brad Davisto put in a bit more to justify the faith bestowed upon them. Klinsmann has been instrumental in building a much deeper player pool, both through persuading dual-nationals (mostly German-Americans) to play for the US national team and giving a chance to the talented players from Major League Soccer in US who didn’t get a look-in in the earlier regime.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard is aging but still efficient. His defenders have experience in Bundesliga and England. Roma’s Michael Bradley will lead the diamond shaped midfield while the upfront will see Clint Dempsey partnering with the Sunderland man Jozy Altidore who had a terrific goal scoring run in the qualifying. In the wings, Julian Green, son of an American father and German mother, who spent part of his youth career at Bayern Munich, may emerge as a hot new prospect after the tournament. After having played for the German under 16, 17 and 19 side, he has opted to play for US at the senior level.
USA had been known for sitting deep, defending with gusto and sneaking in a few points here and there with their counter-attacking. Klinsmann’s current team is more ambitious and likes to keep the ball. But still they cannot boast of the athleticism of a Ghana side, a superstar leading their pack like Portugal or a rich footballing tradition like the Germans. Whether the German World Cup winner’s side can upset the Germans and others in the group is something that we all would wait to see.
Ghana has been the best team of Africa in the last two World Cups. In 2006, the beat Czech Republic and the USA but finally got eliminated by Brazil. 2010 was even more tragic for them. They again beat USA to reach the quarter final and almost became the first African team to make it to the semifinal but a handball on the goal-line by Luis Suarez prevented Dominic Adiyiah from scoring in the last minute and Asamoah Gyan missed the resulting penalty. Uruguay went on to win in penalty shoot-out.
Following their exploits in 2010 World Cup, they were expected to come to Brazil as the best African team ever. But sadly they have regressed following that stupendous campaign. They have faltered in the 2012 and 2013 African Cup of Nations – that too against Zambia and Burkina Faso, teams Ghana are expected to dominate. But they have shown glimpses of their strength in the World Cup qualifying campaign.
Ghana was drawn in one of the most difficult qualifying groups with the 2012 African champions Zambia, Lesotho and Sudan. They did extremely well to win five of their six games and were drawn against seven-time African champions Egypt. Winning 6-1 at home against them, the Black Stars ensured their tickets for Brazil.
The Ayew brothers are yet to ignite the big stage on fire. Wonder kid Isaac Vorsah has failed to progress as expected and finds himself missing from the Brazil boarding flight. Gyan is vying his trade in the middle-east instead of playing in a top European side. Still Gyan will definitely mean business upfront with able support from the midfield from the likes of Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari. Kevin-Prince Boateng with his all-round ability will be another threat. Gahana has very skillful wide men and one of them, the Olympique de Marseille winger Andre Ayew, may also emerge as one of the stars of the tournament. But Ghana’s fortunes will depend on the performance of versatile Juventus midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah. Asamoah can slot in effortlessly anywhere in the Ghanaian midfield playing in a 3-5-2 formation – be it a box-to-box central midfield role, anchorman, defensive left winger or the attacking lynchpin. Overall Ghana is a very strong prospect with key strength being industriousness and stamina. Their weakness is their temperament the fact that they lack experience at such a high stakes tournament and that they don’t have a player who can see the team through in dire situations. Also they could have done with a creative player in the central midfield role aka Yaya Toure of Ivory Coast or at least the experience of Nigerian John Obi Mikel. May be the return to form of Boateng may ease the burden on Asamoah and allow him to express himself more freely.
Germany and Portugal are the likely contenders to qualify from the group. However, both Ghana and USA may prove to be giant killers and cause an upset. There will be a number of crunch games in the group. The result of Portugal vs Germany will probably decide the group topper; the two teams met thrice in the last four major tournaments, with Germany keeping a 100 percent winning record. But this may be Cristiano’s last World Cup and he will be expected to be the man with a mission. Germany vs USA will be another interesting match with Klinsmann and Low in the respective dugouts.
Ghana and USA met each other in the last two versions of the tournament in the knock out stage with Ghana winning both the times. This will be the first time when they meet at the group stage. This match will also be a memorable one as it would see the Boateng brothers locking horns with each other.