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The Cup Running Over


May 19, 2010 9:45 AM

Surprise Selections (and other news) from Group D, the Group of Death -- Germany, Ghana, Serbia, and Australia

This may be the toughest group to call in South Africa because it is, in fact, the toughest: All four of these teams would qualify from most of the other groups. But that's why they call it the group of death.

So, it's on to recent developments with the teams, in an order of finish that could well be reversed:

    
    GERMANY

There's a good argument that the most successful team in the history of the World Cup hasn't been Brazil but Germany. Winners three times, this team has never failed to get to the quarterfinals over the last seven tourneys and has finished third and second respectively at the last two.

But if there's ever going to be a tournament where the Germans stumble, it's turning out that this could be the one. The group is difficult and even if the Germans do emerge winning the group, they could face both Argentina and Spain on the road to another possible final. Captain and midfielder Michael Ballack was injured earlier this month at Chelsea and will miss the proceedings. The Germans are down to their third-string keeper (who is still admittedly miles better than anything England has to offer), after the first-string choice, Robert Enke, tragically committed suicide last autumn and the second-string choice, Rene Adler, got injured in the spring.

Even Bayern Munich's success at getting to the Champions League final will probably hurt this team. As we've pointed out before, European club success in a country actually hurts the national team because it makes it likelier that many of its players will be bushed by the time they get to South Africa.

Germany did its usual stellar job in qualification (8-0-2, in a group that included Russia), so few squad surprises were expected beyond the ones dictated by injury. The strikers remain Lukas Podolski (Cologne) and Miroslav Klose (Bayern Munich) and fans will continue to hope that both continue to play better for country than club. Podolski, particularly, was abysmal for much of the past season at Cologne, failing to score for six months between September and March.  ("For the sake of Germany and the striker himself," wrote Clark Whitney recently on goal.com, "Podolski must not participate in the 2010 World Cup." ) The problem is that the Germans don't have too many other options there.

As expected, midfield mainstay Thomas Hitzlsperger was left off the squad after moving from Stuttgart to Lazio and failing to see enough action. The surprise call-ups went to young former stars of the German Under-21's -- the unpronounceable Hamburg defender Dennis Aogo and Bayern Munich's midfielder and defender Holger Badstuber.

In fact, now with Ballack gone, Germany will be looking for its "youngsters" to step up - not just Aogo and Badstuber, but Marko "Matchbox" Marin, the former Under-21 player of the year, Werder Bremen's young hotshot Mesut Ozil, only 21, playmaker Toni Kroos (on loan to Bayer Leverkeusen), only 20, and 21-year-old Jerome Boateng (Hamburg), whose brother plays for Ghana, in the kind of twist that only the eligibility standards for international soccer can produce. That's a lot of responsibility on some very young shoulders.

This has already been a spring of discontent in Germany, what with the country having to take on much of the bailout for EU member Greece. "We Are the Schmucks of Europe," lamented Germany largest newspaper, the tabloid Bild, in reaction. If Germany unexpectedly stumbles, they may have to run the headline again.


    GHANA

Ghana is the African team with the best chance to do well in South Africa - if it can get out of this impossible group, and if superstar midfielder Michael Essien (Chelsea and our choice for MVP of the tourney) is healthy enough to play despite his knee injury. Those are two big "ifs," of course.

Ghana did well last time, emerging from 2006's "group of death" before losing in the round of 16 to Brazil. That was one of the youngest teams in Germany, so this is essentially the same team, with a few more youngsters thrown in, given that Ghana won the Under-20 World Cup last year. The 20-year-old rising star defender Samuel Inkoom (Basle) is on the team, as are midfielder Agyemang Badu (Udinese), midfielder Dede Ayew (Arlese Avignon), and striker Dominic Adiyah (Milan).

But it's the world-class midfield that will determine how far Ghana goes - not only Essien but also Inter's Sulley Muntari and Stephen Appiah (Bologna). This team has two winnable games in the next rounds if it can finish in the Top 2 here. If that happened, Ghana would go farther than any African team has gone before.

Japan+v+Ghana+International+Friendly.jpg
If Essien doesn't shine, Ghana won't either (Image from Getty Images Europe)

        SERBIA

If we could write our preview book guide over again now (rather than a few months ago), the major change we'd make is to move Serbia up. This is a dangerous team, which plays just the kind of soccer that could thrive at altitude. Unfortunately in the first round, none of its games are at the highest elevations.

Still it opens with Ghana and win that and Serbia could be formidable. This is a team, after all, that won its European qualification group over France and Romania. Very physical, big, and deliberate (think of a better Greece), Serbia boasts some of the best midfielders and defenders in the tournament - captain Dejan Stankovic (Inter), Nemanja Vidic (Man U), and Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic. The surprise selections were few and far between. Ace skipper Radomir Antic, formerly a manager at both Barca and Real Madrid, has had his squad well organized for months, if not years. Any surprises will have to come by the way they play, not whom they field.


    AUSTRALIA

Australia is quite a decent team - probably better than the US. But it got this impossible draw so unless it can pull off some unexpected upsets, it could well be going home after three games. The big news Down Under is that the Aussies' best-known player, Harry Kewell (Galatasaray), probably won't make the trip because of injury. But that's actually a plus, since he's well over the hill, replaced most likely by young teenage striker-winger Tommy Oar, late of Brisbane and now headed to FC Utrecht in Holland. If he could emerge, it would be a big plus, since Australia's weakness is that it hasn't been able to find even one serviceable striker and doesn't score a ton.

It's on defense where Australia shines, led by one of the best keepers at the tournament - Mark Schwarzer of Fulham. The Dutch coach, Pim Verbeek, has been criticized for his "grind it out" approach, but the personnel is dictating the style more than the manager. Plus, he's displeased fans at home by being honest. "We can surprise," he said, "but to win the World Cup you need at least 20 very good players. If you think we can win the World Cup with these players, not really."

Interesting? No - the game with Serbia could look like it's being played in ten inches of mud. But the only way Australia emerges is by posting shutouts. Few expect that, including Verbeek.


Steven and Harrison Stark are the co-authors of World Cup 2010: The Indispensable Guide to Soccer and Geopolitics, recently published by Blue River Press. They are analyzing the World Cup for Real Clear Sports.


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