Monday, June 9, 2014

2014 World Cup Preview: Group G

For the second time in three World Cups, the United States finds themselves in the Group of Death. There will be no easy games in this group that features two of the top three teams in the world in Germany and Portugal, one of the top two players in the world in Christiano Ronaldo, and super-villains Ghana that have eliminated the United States from the last two World Cups. Nothing will be easy in Group G, and the teams that advance very well may do so on goal differential.

I've teamed up with Pat (follow him on Twitter @The_Incline) to preview the 32 teams in the tournament.

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World Cup Appearances: 18 (including West Germany)
Best Result: Champions (1954, 1974 (West Germany),1990)
How they Qualified: Won UEFA Qualification Group
FIFA Ranking: 2

On the international stage, there are no sure things, except for Germany advancing to the Quarterfinals in the World Cup. The Germans have advanced to the Quarters every year since 1982, finishing in the top 3 in 6 of those 8 World Cups. Germany has been one of the most successful nations on the world stage and looked poised for another deep run in this tournament. The Germans breezed through qualification, winning 9 games and drawing one while scoring a UEFA-leading 36 goals. The German team is loaded with a mix of young talent and experience. Forward Miroslav Klose, Midfielders Lukas Podolski and Bastain Schweinsteiger and defenseman Philipp Lahm all have over 100 caps. Klose, Podolski and Mario Gomez have all scored over 25 goals at the international level and midfielder Mesut Ozil was third in scoring in the UEFA qualifiers with 8 goals and Thomas Muller won the Golden Boot at the 2010 World Cup as a 20-year old. Germany is in the midst of an incredibly strong international run that saw them take third at the 2006 World Cup, second at Euro 2008, third at the 2010 World Cup and third at Euro 2012. Germany is one of the strongest teams in the tournament, but they do not have an easy road ahead after being drawn into the "Group of Death." There is a level of familiarty between this group as Germany and Portugal were in the same Group at Euro 2012 and they were matched in a group with Ghana at the 2010 World Cup.

Pat's Players to Watch

  • Mario Götze: A 22-year-old attacking midfielder, Goetze is considered the country's most promising and exciting talent. He helped Borussia Dortmund win two consecutive Bundesliga championships, then stunned his childhood club by taking advantage of an opt-out clause in his contract to move to Bayern Munich. Brazil could be a breakout stage for the youngster.
  • Mesut Özil: The 25 year-old Marco Reus was going to appear in this spot but he was recently ruled out for the World Cup with an ankle injury. As such, another highly talented 25-year old German midfielder gets the nod. Özil is a distribution machine, setting up 11 goals and scoring 6 more for Arsenal this past season. He has a wealth of international experience, with 3 assists and a goal at the 2010 World Cup and the same numbers at Euro 2012. 

World Cup Appearances: 6
Best Result: Third Place (1966)
How they Qualified: Defeated Sweden in UEFA Playoff
FIFA Ranking: 3

After a fourth-place finish in the 2006 World Cup, expectations were high in 2010, but Portugal fell to Spain in the Round of 16. Since 2010, they have ascended in the World Rankings to their peak position where they currently sit. The Portugese also made a run to the semi-finals at Euro 2012 where they fell to Spain on Penalties. In a controversial decision, the Portugese manager slotted Christiano Ronaldo last in the order and their best player never got the opportunity to take a penalty kick after Spain secured a 4-2 advantage. Ronaldo is one of the best players in the world and carried Portugal to the World Cup after scoring all four of the team's goals in the play-off against Sweden (including a hat trick in the second leg). Portugal is a talented offensive team that is incredibly dangerous on the attack. That said, they have suffered some bizarre results in the past year, including a friendly loss to Ecuador on home soil and two draws against Israel in World Cup qualifying. Germany are the clear favorites to advance from this group, but the second spot is wide open between Portugal, the US and Ghana.

Pat's Players to Watch

  • Cristiano Ronaldo: Really? Would I put anyone else in this place? The “hair-gelled one” is truly a sight to behold. You don’t really need to know the stats from his time at Manchester United and Real Madrid. You just need to know that he is dominant and playing the best football (or soccer, whichever you prefer) of anyone in the world. This could be a nightmare matchup for the USMNT.
  • Pepe: A strong defender, who also happens to play for Real Madrid. There is argument over whether Pepe or Vincent Kompany are the best center backs in the world. In either case, Pepe presents a challenge for any forward (cough, Jozy Altidore, cough) and also possesses a mean streak. 

World Cup Appearances: 10
Best Result: Third Place (1930)
How they Qualified: Won CONCACAF Hexagonal
FIFA Ranking: 13

The United States couldn't possibly have gotten a worse draw in the tournament. Since Jurgen Klinsmann took over as coach in 2011, the United States has scored victories over international powerhouses Italy and Germany. Klinsmann led the United States to the Gold Cup Championship in 2013 and to top their qualification group while scoring victories in Friendlies against World Cup Qualifiers Bosnia and Herzegovina and South Korea. The Americans are peaking at the right time with established veteran Clint Dempsey along with the incredibly talented Jozy Altidore on the front lines. The biggest story is not who is here but who isn't - namely Landon Donovan, the nation's all-time leading international scorer. The US played well in their three Send-Off Series matches, scoring twice in each game and looking much better on the offensive end against Turkey and Nigeria when Dempsey was in the lineup.

The United States will kick off the tournament against World Cup nemesis Ghana, who dealt the death blow to the United States in the Round of 16 with an overtime goal in the 2010 World Cup and also eliminited the Americans from the 2006 World Cup. The US also has a history with Germany (outside of those two World Wars). In 1998 the US fell to Germany in the Group Stage and in 2002 the Germans defeated the Americans in the quarterfinals (marking the deepest the US had advanced in the World Cup since 1930). The United States also scored a 3-2 victory over Portugal in the Group Stage of the 2002 tournament, which is the last time the two nations met on the pitch. Even though this might be the best roster the United States has fielded in a World Cup in quite some time, the level of competition is incredibly high with two of the top 3 teams in the FIFA World Rankings and nemesis Ghana looming in the group stages. If the United States is able to emerge, they are talented enough to make a run in this tournament.

Pat's Players to Watch

  • Michael Bradley: The son of the former coach made a shocking move from AS Roma to Toronto FC this spring. In my opinion, Bradley is by far the best player on the US side. If Klinsmann deploys a diamond in the midfield, Bradley will go box-to-box, defending and attacking. A healthy, effective Bradley will give the US a chance to advance from their "Group of Death".
  • Jozy Altidore: In the US’ final tuneup match against Nigeria before leaving for Brazil, Altidore finally broke out of his goalscoring drought. After a rough year (to say the least) at Sunderland, Jozy will need to bounce back in Brazil. While playing for AZ Alkmaar in the goal-heavy Dutch league, the fortunes turned to the worst for Altidore. Hopefully, for the USMNT’s sake, Altidore will get a boost from his two goal effort versus Nigeria. 

World Cup Appearances: 3
Best Result: Quarterfinals (2010)
How they Qualified: Defeated Egypt on aggregate points in CAF Playoff
FIFA Ranking: 38

If you watched the World Cup draw, chances are you were tweeting #AnyoneButGhana. As luck would have it, the United States was not only drawn into a group with Ghana, but got them in the first match of the tournament. Ghana is appearing in their third consecutive World Cup and has eliminated the United States from contention in both (defeating the US in the final Group Stage match in 2006 and in the Round of 16 in 2010). Ghana is very solid in the midfield but have some questions on the back line. They tend to find their offense off the counter-attack with team captain Asamoah Gyan as the lone striker. Gyan was third in goals in the group stage of CAF qualification (with 4) and led the way in the playoff stage (with 2), tying him for the overall scoring lead in the qualification tournament. Most Americans know Gyan as the Super-Villain that scored in overtime to eliminate the United States in 2010.

Pat's Players to Watch

  • Asamoah Gyan: The striker is the definition of a poacher. He is currently the all-time goalscorer for Ghana and will look to add to that total in Brazil. He currently plays for Al Ain of United Arab Emirates Pro League. Gyan led the UAE league in goals and made name for himself at Sunderland in the BPL. 
  • Christian Atsu: Every team needs a “super sub” or two. The Chelsea winger spent last season on loan at Vitesse of the Dutch Eredivisie. Known for his speed and dribbling, a talent such as Atsu is quite a luxury for Ghana, especially in a group with other world powers. Atsu is another one of those players who could be propelled into superstardom with a strong performance in Brazil.

Ian's PredictionPat's Prediction

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