Countdown to South Africa: Group D

Countdown to South Africa: Group D

Michael LeClair and Jaime Heilbron

In every World Cup, analysts and players alike try desperately to label one specific group the “Group of Death.” Initially, this label went to Group G, containing Brazil, Portugal and the Ivory Coast, but upon further review, Group D was put into this category. With Australia, Germany, Ghana and Serbia, the group presents four sides capable, on any given day, of knocking off the top sides in the world. In the World Cup, the unexpected is to be expected, and nowhere will this be a more accurate sentiment than in Group D.

Australia

AUSSIE AUSSIE AUSSIE OYE OYE OYE! The Socceroos are making their second consecutive appearance at the World Cup, their first as representatives of Asia. After decades of Oceanic domination, the Aussies moved to the Asian Football Confederation, reaching the quarterfinals of the 2007 Asian Cup and cruising to qualification for this World Cup.

Australia is managed by Dutchman Pim Verbeek, whose teams are known for their slow tempo and over-reliance on crosses in the offensive third. In short, if you want to watch entertaining football, look elsewhere. Though their style is dull at best (for English Premier League fans, think Stoke City), it is effective, as results have shown.

The Australians find themselves in a position similar to that of the United States in the early part of the 2000s. Their nation has a very young domestic league, the A-League, and their best talent plies their trade abroad. Players like Harry Kewell and Lucas Neill are products of the old generation of Australian soccer, but there are a number of quality, young players making their way through the domestic ranks, as their roster for the Asian Cup qualifier against Indonesia shows. Best among the youth is American-born striker Bruce Djite. The 6-foot tall Djite has the ability to play a key role in Verbeek’s cross-heavy offense if he makes the final cut for South Africa.

Player to watch: Everton midfielder Tim Cahill. With an offense that functions so prominently on the wings, it is necessary to have good defense in the center of midfield to prevent counter-attacks, and Cahill will be crucial here. Failure to play good defense and maintain some possession will condemn the Australians to an early exit. Good play from Cahill and his midfield partners could propel the Aussies further than you might think.

Germany

Germany comes into South Africa as one of the tournament favorites, and rightly so. Under the watchful eye of Joachim Löw, Germany finished second in Euro 2008, and then dominated their World Cup Qualifying group, going undefeated. Their best performance: a 1-0 win over Russia in Moscow, the Russians’ first competitive home loss since 1998.

Die Mannschaft have a rich World Cup tradition, as West Germany claimed the title three times, most recently in 1990. They have been in every World Cup since 1934, with the exception of 1950, when German international teams were banned from competition in the aftermath of World War II. Runners-up in 2002 and third place finishers as the hosts in 2006, Germany has a pedigree, both historically and contemporarily, that few can claim to equal.

Captain Michael Ballack, one of the few Germans who play outside the Bundesliga, is the anchor of the team. His passion and performance in the clutch give Germany a significant leg up on their opponent. American fans may remember his goal in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals that sent the United States packing. They may also remember his theatrics in the 2009 UEFA Champions League semi-final, where he and Didier Drogba seemed intent on murdering the referee. Regardless, Ballack is the core of Germany, both in spirit and play, and they will no doubt be relying on a top-class performance in the legend’s final World Cup.

Player to watch: Midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger. The Bayern Munich man, once the toast of football, has fallen off the radar in recent years, even falling out of Löw’s starting XI for a time. If his performance reaches the height of his ability, Germany will run circles around their opposition, all the way to the final. times. An entire country will be relying on him to score Greece’s first goal ever in a World Cup.

Ghana

Out of all the African teams, Ghana had arguably the toughest qualification to this summer’s World Cup. Ghana advanced from their qualifying group after winning a tie-breaker over Gabon and Libya, who finished with the same amount of points, advancing on goal differential. At home, Ghana went undefeated, and picked up one away victory from three matches. Ghana’s eleven goals, however, against four by the opposition, were enough to catapult them to their second straight tournament appearance.

Ghana’s only World Cup appearance was in 2006 and was highly successful, especially for a first-timer. The Black Stars, who have been praised by their speed, footwork and developing technique, were placed in the Group of Death with eventual champion Italy, the Czech Republic and the United States. Ghana lost its first game against Italy 2-0, then proceeded to upset the Czechs 2-0, before upending the U.S. to advance to the Round of 16. In the second round, the Black Stars fell to defending

champion Brazil, 3-0.

Player to watch: Manuel Agogo is the current goal-scoring leader of Ghana, leading all current players with fourteen goals. Agogo’s performance in the competition will be critical to the African team’s chances of advancing to the single elimination round.

Serbia

The Serbian national football team finished first in Group 7 of UEFA World Cup Qualification. Serbia finished ahead of France, favorites to win the group. The Serbs posted a 7-2-1 record, with both of their losses coming on the road; the tie a home result against France. In their other four home games, Serbia obtained important shutout victories over Austria, the Faroe Islands, Lithuania and Romania. A great reason for the Serbs’ success, however, was their ability to win away from home. Serbia won a total of three games on the road, defeating Austria, Romania and the Faroe Islands. With a total of 22 points, the Serbs qualified to South Africa directly, to the surprise of many.

Serbia probably gets the record for the most participations under different names. In 1998, they played as Yugoslavia. Eight years later in Germany, they were Serbia & Montenegro. This time around they will be Serbia, but who knows what it will be next time? The Serbs have participated in a total of eleven World Cups, ten as Yugoslavia. Their most successful participations have been fourth place finishes in 1930 and 1962.

The 2006 World Cup was an embarrassment for Serbia. The Serbs were placed in an incredibly difficult group with the Netherlands, Argentina and Ivory Coast. In their first match, Serbia lost a heartbreaker against the Netherlands 1-0. In their second game, they were humiliated by the Argentines, 6-0, and in the third one, playing only for pride, they fell to Ivory Coast 3-2, despite leading 2-0 at one point.

Player to watch: Valencia C.F. Nikola ??igi?c leads current Serbian players in goals scored with 16. He is currently on a loan to Racing de Santander and has scored 13 goals in 19 games. ??igi?c’s continued success will be crucial to his team’s hopes of second round participation.