Hey, it’s Group G! GROUP OF DEATH? Maybe. It’s definitely not an easy one. The ever efficient Germans will be one of the favorites to win it all, the best or second best player in the world depending on who you ask will hopefully be leading Portugal (or hopefully not if you’re a USMNT fan), and the most successful African team at the previous World Cup, Ghana, will all stand in the way of the USMNT’s advancement to the round of 16. This should be a fun group for the neutral fan as it has the potential to be extremely tight.
How they got to Brazil
Germany absolutely cruised to the top of their UEFA qualifying group posting a nine wins, one draw, and zero loss record. Germany has had a lot of consistency in terms of management and players at the international level making this one of the few true teams in the tournament and so it is no surprise they decimated their group.
The Manager – Joachim Löw
Low has been fairly successful as manager of the German national team, but for a country that has won a lot of silverware on the international scene he’s not been able to get it done late on in tournaments. He lost in the 2008 Euro finals to Spain, then lost to Spain again in the 2010 World Cup semi-finals, and most recently were defeated by Italy in the Euro 2012 semi-finals despite the expectations that they would once again be squaring off with Spain for the European Championship. Löw’s squad could potentially be weaker than in the previous tournaments due to the lack of an out-and-out striker as Miroslav Klose, who will be attempting to break the original Ronaldo’s record of goals scored in World Cups, is in the twilight of his career. Löw could instead elect to copy Spain’s tactic of sometimes deploying no striker at all and instead making use of the wealth of attacking midfielders he has at his disposal though perhaps his best option here, Dortmund winger/attacking midfielder Marco Reus, was just recently ruled out of the tournament due to injury. I suspect if Germany under peform in Brazil, Löw will be out of a job.
The Star – Phillip Lahm
The thirty-year old Lahm has long been regarded as one of the best right backs in the world, but he’s just recently been employed as a midfielder by Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola to great success. It wasn’t known until yesterday which position Lahm will play in Brazil, but with Germany experiencing a hoist of injury problems in the deep part of their midfield with Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira, Germany’s traditional holding midfield pairing, are both coming off injuries and struggling with fitness, and Dortmund midfielder Ilkay Gündogan has been ruled out of the World Cup altogether due to injury, Lahm is expected to start there. Guardiola, whose Barcelona sides were perhaps some of the best possession football teams to ever exist, has said that Lahm is the most intelligent player he’s ever coached. Guardiola himself was a holding midfielder in his playing days for Barca recognized that intelligence and decided to use it in the middle of the pitch where it can be put to best use. Holding midfielders need great decision making, awareness, and positioning which are all attributes closely related to footballing intelligence and Lahm has these in spades.
(Lahm creating a goal for Germany with a bursting run forward into the box.)
Biggest Strength – Attacking Midfielders/Winger Hybrids
Mesut Özil, Julian Draxler, Mario Götze, André Schürrle, Toni Kroos, Lukas Podolski, and the injured Marcos Reus are all comfortable playing through the middle or out wide and each is extremely highly rated at the club level making Löw’s job of deciding who gets to play each match extremely difficult. Özil and Mueller are probably guarantees to start. Mueller is probably the best goalscorer of the lot having the unique trait of being a midfielder who scores most of his goals rather close to the net often making deep runs into the box to find himself on the end of crosses.
In a country absolutely stacked with world class players at his position, Özil is perhaps just a notch above his peers. He is perhaps the master of the assist as he has shown the ability to feed his forwards goals for both the German national team and at Real Madrid and Arsenal. This past season with Arsenal, his first, was disappointing by the high standards set for a player of his class, but he also was not paired with the same type of forwards he was at Madrid. He often played behind Olivier Giroud, who though a great striker, is played more for his ability to bring other players into the game and drop deep to receive the ball, then for his ability to make runs in behind the defense which Özil is a magician at exploiting. He is one of the most intelligent offensive soccer players in Brazil and his dribbling technique is near perfect as he seems to always be in complete control of the ball. His effort is sometimes brought into question by fans though his managers never seem to agree with the criticism and have always praised the attacking midfielder for the undeniable quality that he possesses.
(Ozil showing off his sublime passing technique for Germany.)
Measurement of Success
Germany has come too close only to come up short in major tournaments over the years to be happy with anything but winning the whole thing.
How they got to Brazil
Portugal finished a lone point behind Russia in their UEFA qualifying group which forced them into a playoff against Sweden to secure qualification. The playoff against Sweden was the most heralded of such as pitted two of the best forwards in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, against each other. The playoff lived up to the billing as well. During the first leg Ronaldo was able to grab a late goal in what was a tight match with not a ton of goalscoring opportunities. The second leg delivered the entertainment as Ronaldo put three past Sweden’s defense all on the counter while Ibrahimovic kept the outcome of the playoff in question with two spectacular goals of his own.
The Manager – Paulo Bento
Bento will be bringing most of his starting XI from the 2012 European Championships to Brazil. In 2012 he managed Portugal to the semi-finals where they lost to eventual champions Spain in a penalty shootout. Bento employs his team rather tactically depending on the opposition. The team is quite capable of taking the game to the opponent, but against the better squads in the tournament will be happy to sit back and hope to feed Ronaldo on the counter. Some of Bento’s squad selections have been controversial, especially not bringing the enigmatic Ricardo Quaresma to Brazil. Quaresma has long been known to possess unbelievable talent, but as his career went on it became clear he would never become the player that was expected of him due to his maturity. After being a flop at various spots throughout Europe he returned to Portugal to play for Porto and had a great season for the club. Portugal lack in attack behind Ronaldo and Quaresma seemed like an ideal player to at the very least bring to Brazil as he contributes skills to the team that no one else on the squad besides Ronaldo possesses. He was cut from the 23 man squad though and will be watching from home. If Portugal struggle up front in this tournament then Bento’s decision to leave the winger/forward back home will surely come under fire. Still, Bento’s consistency in his squad selection will be seen as a plus for the Portuguese as they are all quite familiar with each other.
(Portugal outcast Ricardo Quaresma secures advancement for Porto in the Europa League against Napoli.)
The Star – Cristiano Ronaldo
Love him or hate him, Ronaldo is when fit the most awe inspiring star in a sport filled with them. Watching Ronaldo progress from his early days at Lisbon and Manchester United has been fascinating to watch. He evolved from a player full of tricks and flair to an efficient goalscoring machine. Few possess the ability to shoot with power and accuracy off either foot like Ronaldo and despite his pretty boy image he excels at attacking the ball with his head in the air; the man just loves to score goals. He can be a bit selfish at times, but it’s hard to blame him as that selfishness often results in goals. In a sport where many of the best dribblers are smaller players he stands out for his remarkable ability to shuttle in between and past defenders even in tight spaces. He’s a versatile free kicker take as he has both the standard curling free kick, but also employs a spin-less knuckler that is makes it impossible for the keeper to judge the flight of the ball.
He will be relied upon heavily by his teammates to score as Portugal has been unable to field a legitimate threat at striker for the past few major tournaments. Portugal have the quality to beat most of the teams in the field with or without Ronaldo, but if they are going to threaten to actually win the cup then Ronaldo’s ability must be on full display.
(Ronaldo showing off his signature step-overs as he abuses the Schalke defender in the Champions League.)
Biggest Strength – Continuity
I mentioned earlier that Portugal are largely unchanged from their Euro 2012 side and that will benefit them greatly in Brazil. They’ve developed a style of play and firm understanding with one another throughout that tournament and again in qualifying. They know who they are. In a sport where chemistry and familiarity are as important a soccer it’s hard to overstate the importance of continuity.
Measurement of Success
Portugal are generally considered a tier below the top teams in major tournaments, but considering Ronaldo is in his prime and was in great form for the national team leading into the tournament, Portugal will have to hope their star can carry them to their first ever World Cup title.
How they got to Brazil
Ghana was the most impressive team in CAF qualifying as they cruised through their group and into a two-legged playoff against the Bob Bradley managed Egypt. There they smashed the Egyptians in the first leg, 6-1, and never looked back.
The Manager –James Kwesi Appiah
Appia has been with the Ghanian national team since 2007 when he started as an assistant manager. He took over the head role in 2012 and has overseen Ghana’s impressive qualifying campaign since. He has employed mainly a 4-4-2 with Ghana unlike the 4-5-1 they tended towards in 2010 in hopes of opening up more space for star striker Asamoah Gyan. He is not a manager who likes to fiddle with his team, preferring instead of stick with a consistent starting lineup and thus far it seemed to have work well for him. The question is will the more attacking approach prove successful against the higher quality opposition in Brazil
The Star – Asamoah Gyan
Gyan is without a doubt the star of this team and was the catalyst behind Ghana’s 2010 run, but he also is not playing in anything near a top league and thus no one gets to see him on a regular basis. He plays at a club level for Al Ain which is part of the United Arab Emirates top division. He’s making an astronomical amount of money to do so and has scored an insane 59 goals in 47 appearances since making his loan from Sunderland to Al Ain permanent. He has missed two crucial penalties in major international tournaments for the Black Stars. In 2010 he missed the penalty that resulted from Luis Suarez’s infamous intentional handball that would have sent Ghana to the semi-finals. He then missed a penalty in the semi-finals of the 2012 African Cup of Nations in a match that Ghana would end up losing 1-0. It’ll be interesting to see what happens if he is put in that position again.
(Gyan scores the first goal against Egypt in their CAF World Cup qualifier playoff.)
Biggest Strength – Pace
Ghana possesses a ton of pace up front in the form of players like Gyan and Majeed Waris. Waris (Who since has been ruled out with a thigh injury) particularly could be key to Ghana advancing out of a difficult group. Germany and Portugal will get forward at times against the Black Stars which will create room behind for Waris to run into. If Ghana’s midfield quickly shuttle the ball forward after winning possession in those matches it wouldn’t be surprising to see Ghana upset one of the two European giants. Waris’s pace and runs will also take pressure off Gyan, opening up space for the striker to operate in and making it unable for the defenses of Group G to focus fully on the Ghanaian star.
Measurement of Success
Ghana will feel it deserved a spot in the semi-finals in 2010 and will hope to accomplish that which they barely missed out in South Africa. This group is certainly tough, but Ghana is very capable.
How they got to Brazil
On a Boeing-sized bald eagle piloted by John Cougar Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen, that’s how. Actually, fellow WFNY FC writer Mitchell Joseph detailed the USMNT journey in great detail here so just read that.
The Manager – Jürgen Klinsmann
Klinsmann has upset the popular sport media in the US by stating that the USMNT can’t win the World Cup, but his readiness to admit that fact is exactly why he’s perfect for the job. Klisnmann has never struck me as a great manager through any of his stints including being in charge of the German national team in 2006 and later being the main man at Bayern Munich, but Klinsmann vision for soccer in the United States goes beyond just what audiences will view Monday evening and is why he’s well suited for the position. He is not merely interested in winning trophies, but laying a new foundation for youth development which is desperately needed in the States. He will be judged for how the USMNT performs in Brazil, but 2018 is what he really has his eye on and this long term approach will hopefully set up consistent success for USMNT going forward.
Star Player – Michael Bradley
Michael Bradley is the best player on the USMNT, but I am curious just how good he actually is. As an avid fan of the Italian top division I got to watch a fair amount of him during the 2012-2013 season as well as the beginning of this previous one with Roma. He lacked consistent playing time during the first half of the 13-14 campaign because Roma is blessed with a wealth of talent in the midfield area at present with the likes of De Rossi, Strootman, and Pjanic on the roster. There’s no shame playing behind any of those players as Strootman and Pjanic’s stars seem to be on the rise as they both enter their primes and De Rossi has long been considered one of the better midfielders in the world for both club and country. Perhaps Bradley wasn’t good enough to be a nailed on starter at Roma, but I’m not sure he had to take a step all the way back to the MLS. That’s not to hate on the MLS. The MLS has been improving the average quality of its rosters for some time now as teams are looking to fill their squads with global talent more and more, but it’s still not equal to top South American or European leagues. I mean look at this team Bradley lined up in at the San Siro against AC Milan Bradley gets to be a star in the MLS, but he’s just 26. He could play four more years in one of the top leagues possibly and then still be able to come back to the MLS as a star, perhaps even after the 2018 World Cup. Watch his highlights from this match and look at the squad he is playing in. That front six is ridiculously talented!
Nonetheless as frustrating as it is that he decided to return home, he is still a pleasure to watch play as he is an all-action sort of midfielder who pops up all over the field doing whatever must be done. He actually reminds me of more aggressive version of former England midfielder Scott Parker. I don’t want him to be the creative force in my midfield, but he’ll give me a little of everything and can at times be the team’s engine.
(Bradley nutmegging the ref in one of his early Toronto FC matches.)
Biggest Strength – Won’t have to play possession football
The USMNT often struggles against lesser competition due to their inability to break down teams that line up cynically against them. They will not face such a team in Group G as they will be the underdog in every match. This will allow them to cater their play towards the counter where I believe they can be extremely effective at times. Altidore seems to be a boom/bust striker and has hopefully regained some confidence after netting two nice goals against Nigeria in the USMNT’s most recent friendly. He will often be expected to finish many of these counters and if he’s able to do so the USMNT could certainly shock the world.
(Altidore finishing off a USMNT counter against Nigeria.)
Measurement of Success
This varies greatly among fans, but personally I’d be thrilled if they were able to grab two or more points from a group this tough