Posted by: mdegeorge | May 24, 2010

World Cup Diagnosis Group D: “D” for “Death”

The 2010 World Cup is just 24 days away and the anticipation is reaching a fever pitch. To commemorate one of the greatest happenings in all of sport, I’ll be breaking down the tournament group by group over the next three weeks. There are four teams per group, so the Doctor will be in for the four big questions concerning the group.

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The teams (FIFA World Rankings in parenthesis):

Germany (6): 8-0-2 in UEFA qualification Group 4 (first place)

Serbia (16): 7-2-1 in UEFA qualification Group 7 (first place)

Australia (20): 9-2-3 in AFC qualification Group 1 and Group A

Ghana (32): 8-3-1 in CAF qualification Group 5 and Group D

Will this year’s “group of death” live up to its billing?

It’s the most challenging group on paper and includes three squads who progressed from the group stage in the last World Cup. It’s also the only group in South Africa with all four nations returning from the 2006 Finals (Serbia was then Serbia and Montenegro, but none of the 23 players on the roster were of Montenegrin descent). Germany remains a sizeable favorite, but nothing will be guaranteed in this group. Ghana has played well of late, finishing second in the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations after a shaky qualification run, and they have the experience of 2006 to their advantage.

The Serbs are nothing to scoff at after they waltzed through qualification in a group that also contained Austria, France, and Romania. They allowed only eight goals in 10 matches—and just one at home—while scoring 22. They are an experienced team with one of the best defensive units (Nemanja Vidic, Aleksandar Lukovic, Aleksandar Kolarov, Branislav Ivanovic, and Neven Subotic for cover) in all the field. They will go as far as the creative midfield tandem of Milan Jovanovic, their leading scorer in qualification, and Inter’s Dejan Stankovic can take them.

The Socceroos are also a veteran team with eight outfield player 30 years of age or older. Their defense, led by the imposing Lucas Neill and Craig Moore and backstopped by Mark Schwarzer, was breached just four times in 12 qualifying matches. The available strikers are somewhat dubious in quality, with the rejuvenated Harry Kewell (who few would regard as a “striker” even in his best days) and Joshua Kennedy the only ones to have previously scored for their county. The scoring burden will fall on a midfield spearheaded by Tim Cahill and Brett Emerton, the joint-leading scorers in qualification.

Will anyone halt Germany’s progress?

The answer to that question in UEFA qualification was a resounding “no”, with only Spain and the Netherlands posting better qualifying records. They scored 26 goals in 10 matches while conceding only five, and their only draws came against a pesky Finland squad.

But this German team still has questions to answer ahead of the Finals. Goalkeeping, long a strength under the capable stewardship of Oliver Khan and Jens Lehmann, has suddenly fallen to an open audition. The tragic death of Robert Enke and an injury to first-choice Rene Adler mean three keepers—Hans-Jorg Butt, Manuel Neuer, and Tim Wiese—with a combined eight caps will do battle for starting honors. The 24-year-old Neuer looks to be the early favorite for manager Joachim Low (can’t say I agree with the choice).

They’re also without a captain thanks to an ankle injury suffered by Chelsea’s Michael Ballack, which leaves the midfield short on age and experience. Bastian Schweinsteiger is the elder statesman with 74 caps at age 25, and Low surprisingly opted for more youth by naming 23-year-old Sami Khedira as Ballack’s replacement instead of the more seasoned Thomas Hitzlsperger (51 caps at age 28). The striking contingent is still unsettled, as two of the players most likely to lead the line in South Africa, Mario Gomez and Miroslav Klose, have been out of form for Bayern Munich this season (18 goals in 70 appearances).

Can Ghana advance from another tough group?

The Black Stars surprised many when they emerged from 2006’s “group of death” against Italy, the Czech Republic, and the United States. They have 12 holdovers from that squad included in the provisional roster and may be primed for another run.

The backbone of the squad is largely intact, with Richard Kingson in goal, John Paintsil and John Mensah anchoring the defense, Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari in the midfield, and Matthew Amoah and Asamoah Gyan up front. Their biggest question is over the health of Essien, who has been injured for the majority of the season. He last appeared for Chelsea on Dec. 8 when he tore his hamstring, and recovered just in time to injure his knee with the Black Stars at AFCON, an injury that was supposed to keep on the sidelines for just six weeks. After several setbacks and surgeries, he still hasn’t gotten back on the pitch.

Essien’s health may be the key to Ghana’s progress. They scored just four goals in five games at AFCON with Essien logging just 82 minutes. He’s a stabilizing force in the midfield and the kind of do-everything player that would be essential to survive this group.

Will brotherly love go out the window in Group D?

The June 23 contest between Ghana and Germany won’t just have ramifications for who progresses to the knockout stages (in all likelihood). If all goes right in team selection, it’ll also be one of the first contests pitting two brothers playing for different countries. Defender Jerome Boateng of Germany and his half-brother Kevin-Prince, a midfielder for Ghana, could both be included in their respective nations’ squads for the trip to South Africa and may go head-to-head in Group D’s penultimate clash.

But there’s more to it. Suddenly, Kevin-Prince, who excelled for Portsmouth during their catastrophic season but is still uncapped by the national team, is public enemy number 1 in Germany. It was Boateng’s tackle on Ballack in the FA Cup Final that injured the German captain and will keep him from South Africa. Ballack has even threatened legal action over the tackle, for which Boateng was originally given a yellow card. Don’t expect any pleasantries between the sides when they meet up, regardless of the family ties.

Final Diagnosis:

It’s hard to fathom Germany failing to progress from this group, even with the uncertainty in goal. Ghana does have the home-continent advantage and the experience of last time around, but my Euro-bias is going with Serbia to progress by the slimmest of margins. Ghana’s struggles to find the back of the net set the stage for a cagey, 1-0 Serbia win on day one of group play. The Serbs are also the only squad capable of taking a point away from a full German team, and should be able to get by the Aussies. Look for Ghana to slot into third and the Australians to finish fourth.

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