With the start of the FIFA World Cup 2014 less than a week away it's time to take a look at each group: the teams, the key players and matches, and offer my predictions. Here I look at Group G, containing Germany, Portugal, United States and Ghana.
Germany’s World Cup drought currently stands at 24 years - the longest in their history. The pressure is on Joachim Low to deliver in Brazil. The 54-year-old has led Die Adler for eight years now and there is growing sense that it is time for him to repay the faith and patience shown to him by the DFB.
Low’s teams have come to be admirable losers in recent tournaments: often playing the most compelling and attractive football, but always finding some way to fall short when it looked like success was theirs for the taking.
There has been misfortune in those failures as at both Euro 2008 and the World Cup in South Africa four years ago Germany came up against this generation’s all-conquering Spanish team. However, semi-final defeat to Italy two years ago at Euro 2012 was seen a bit of a watershed moment. Since then the once appraised Low has slowly seen his reputation and ability to lead the German team to tournament glory.
Low is contracted until the end of Euro 2016, but he could find himself out of a job by the end of July if Germany don’t at least reach the final. The strong expectations are that it is time for this German team to deliver.
The core of the squad have been together for a long time and have plenty of experience in major tournaments. Germany’s top two clubs - Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund - have dominated the Champions League in the past few seasons. The atmosphere has never been more right for a German victory.
Low and his team will feel confident about their group and should ease into the knockout rounds, even with the unsettling presence of Cristiano Ronaldo. However, collectively and individually, the Real Madrid superstar aside, the Germans are unmatched in Group G.
Key player: Mesut Ozil
It’s not a simple task singling out one player in the German team. Bastian Schweinsteiger’s efficiency in midfield cannot be overstated, and Toni Kroos has emerged this season as one of the Europe’s best playmakers. There is a plethora of attacking midfielder talent - although Dortmund’s outstanding Marco Reus will be a big miss - and you can expect captain Philip Lahm to drive the team on wherever he plays.
However, Arsenal’s enigmatic maestro, Mesut Ozil, is the player you feel could be the difference if Germany are to shake off their ‘nearly men’ tag.
Ozil has had a bit of an indifferent season in England following his £42.5 million move to Arsenal from Real Madrid. After a sensational start, Ozil’s form dropped over the winter months, the body language became a bit more discontented, and he was badly affected by a missed penalty in Arsenal’s Champions League last 16 defeat to Bayern Munich. There have been rumours that Ozil doesn’t feel loved enough at Arsenal, that he hasn’t quite been made the focal point at the Emirates.
Back in the Germany squad Ozil will probably regain that role as a central figure. He has been at the heart of everything that has been good about Germany in the past couple of tournaments. Low will be counting on his chief playmaker to come good and prove he is still worth the hype and remains among the world’s elite.
World Cup best
Winners: 1954, 1974 & 1990
Odds: 13-2 (Bet365)
If there is one team at the World Cup set-up to get the most out of one player it is Paulo Bento’s Portugal. In current Ballon d’Or holder Cristiano Ronaldo Portugal have an extraordinary footballer at the peak of his powers and the only footballer on the planet who can stand alongside Lionel Messi.
The importance of Ronaldo to the Portuguese can be underlined by his role in their 4-2 (aggregate) play-off defeat of Sweden that earned their place in Brazil. Ronaldo scored all four goals, including a stunning hat trick in the second leg in Sweden.
Portugal will be set-up to sit deep and invite the opposition forward, then with the trap laid release Ronaldo to devastating effect on the counter through the excellent passing range provided by Miguel Veloso and Joao Moutinho.
It is a pretty simple plan and it’s been seen elsewhere that if the threat Ronaldo poses can be nullified, there is little else in the way of cutting edge or creativity. The trouble is stopping the Real Madrid forward isn’t so simple.
Veteran forwards Almeida and Postiga remain with the squad, but neither have ever looked convincing in the major tournaments. Then again the problem of a top class centre forward has plagued Portugal since the retirement of the legendary Eusebio.
As always there is no shortage of talented technical midfield players, but Portugal will lack an edge to defeat the world’s top teams. Although they will believe they should qualify for the knock-out stage an quarter-final appearance may be the most they can expect.
Key player: Cristiano Ronaldo
Portugal’s best player by some considerable distance. The national captain, Ballon d’Or holder and now Champions League winner would love to cap a phenomenal year with World Cup success.
Like his arch-rival Messi, some would argue Ronaldo has yet to make a substantial impact on a major tournament. It’s fair enough, although I thought Ronaldo did a fantastic job leading Portugal to the Euro 2012 final four. Still, he would love to add to his legacy a World Cup that had his name written all over it.
It is unlikely that will pan out as I don’t believe Ronaldo has enough backing from a Portugal side that lacks the talent of the previous, so-called, ‘golden generation’. But it is not beyond the Portugal captain to drag this team along by the sheer force of his will and talent in the manner of Maradona in 1986.
World Cup best
Third Place: 1966
Odds: 25-1 (BetFred)
Given the political and economical power of the USA it seems an inevitability that one day they will produce a dominant national team. The progress of ‘soccer’ in the US has been a little more gradual than some hoped for or expected after the success of USA 94, but there is definitely progress being made. You only have to look at the number of players in the squad plying their trade in Europe’s top divisions to see the US is now exporting talented footballers with regularity.
Yet the real growth will come when a domestic league is established that not only produces world class players, but is able to draw Europe’s finest talent at its peak. Right now the MLS is seen as a haven for journeymen or international veterans whose star has long since begun to expire.
United States have done well in recent tournaments, reaching the last eight in 2002 and the round of 16 in South Africa four years ago. Curiously they were eliminated in South Africa by Ghana, so an element of revenge may be on the minds of the US squad in Brazil. On top of that is the meeting with Germany (a repeat of their 2002 QF defeat), where there will be some novelty attached to their manager, Jurgen Klinsmann, being a legendary German international (and World Cup winner with West Germany in 1990).
BBC Sport’s Mark Lawrenson has suggested United States could beat Portugal to second spot in the group, but I find this assessment hopeful at best. It’s a tough group for Klinsmann’s men and it could end up being seen as a tournament where they took a step backwards as three defeats is certainly not implausible.
Key player: Tim Howard
It is unlikely the USA will dominate many matches in the group and any success they have you feel 35-year-old Everton goalkeeper Howard will play a major role in.
The US have a strong recent history of producing outstanding goalkeepers and Howard is another (understudy Brad Guzan of Aston Villa is not bad either) off that production line. It will be a busy few weeks for Howard though and he will need to repeat his excellent performances from South Africa four years ago if the United States are going to get close to matching their final 16 appearance.
Clint Dempsey captains the side and he once again looks the most likely threat, especially with the absence of Landon Donovan. Bayern Munich’s Julian Green could be a surprise package if given match time.
World Cup best
Odds: 200-1 (Betway)
It’s still an image that stands clear and vivid in my memory. Ghana’s talented striker Asamoah Gyan steps up to take a penalty in the dying moments of extra time in the World Cup quarter-final. The Black Stars are on the cusp of making history by becoming the first ever African team to reach the final four of a World Cup.
A whole continent mourned as Gyan’s strike smashed against the crossbar and Ghana went on to lose the subsequent penalty shoot out to Uruguay. Four years on Ghana are well-placed to produce at least a repeat performance and look to be Africa’s brightest hope in Brazil.
There won’t quite be the same swagger and hustle and bustle in midfield: Michael Essien, after a series of injuries, is not the dominant player he was four years ago, and the classy Stephen Appiah has retired. Nevertheless, there are still experienced campaigners such as Sulley Muntari and Kevin-Prince Boateng, complemented by exciting young talent like Christian Atsu, Wakaso Mubarak and the Ayew brothers.
Ghana no longer have the presence at the back of John Mensah that served them so well in previous tournaments, so a lot will rest on the French based duo Jonathan and John Boye.
The Black Stars will likely find themselves in a three-way tussle with Portugal and United States, but even if they lack a blockbuster talent like Cristiano Ronaldo I can see them pulling off a surprise defeat of Portugal.
Key player: Kwadwo Asamoah
Juventus midfielder Asamoah is an incredibly experienced player despite being just 25-years-old, having made almost 200 appearances in Serie A and the veteran of 62 internationals with the Black Stars.
Asamoah is the successor to Stephen Appiah and will act as the main playmaker, with no shortage of gusto, in the Ghana midfield, forging a powerful partnership with Milan’s Sulley Muntari.
The key to Ghana getting past Portugal will probably come down to how well Asamoah and Muntari function in the midfield battle and how successfully contain Portugal’s attempts to unleash Ronaldo on the break, while ensuring they retain quality in their own possession to force a way through.
World Cup best
Odds: 200-1 (SkyBet)
United States v Germany (26 June, Recife, 13.00 local time)
More novelty than key encounter, German legend Jurgen Klinsmann leading United States against his own nation, who he played for and managed at World Cups, provides an interesting World Cup story.
If all goes with the form book it could be a dead rubber with Germany safely through and United States eliminated. However, should either side need a result, well then it could be a blockbuster.
The very idea of Klinsmann leading his team to victory over Germany, and even eliminating the latter, is something that is just too sensational not to contemplate.
Portugal v Ghana (26 June, Brasilia, 13.00 local time)
In a group with intriguing match ups at every turn, this could well be the ultimate decisive encounter.
On paper Portugal and Ghana look likely candidates for the second qualification spot behind expected group winners Germany, and it presents an interesting image of a man desperate to complete his own personal legacy up against a team, and a nation, no doubt still aggrieved by the cruel circumstances of their elimination from the African World Cup four years ago.
Take Ronaldo out of the equation and both sides are equally matched and impossible to separate, but throw the Real Madrid superstar back into the mix and that could be the difference.
Germany again look strong and are fancied as potential tournament winners. Ghana and Portugal have very little between them and a Klinsmann-inspired USA cannot be ruled out. I’m backing Ghana to make even further progress as a footballing nation and heal some of the pain of 2010’s elimination.
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