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Group G: Germany, Portugal, Ghana, USA
Ghana! How the memories of that callous exit four years ago in the quarter-finals linger. This is a particularly hard group, with three favourites and a threatening outsider in the USA. It’s just like the NFL playoffs, honestly not – and don’t mention to an American that their team could very well draw every game.
Never fear for Germany. They are always perfectly prepared for these tournaments. Even in 2002, with an ageing squad and a limited style of play they made it to the final. In recent years their emphasis has shifted more towards passing football, with the result that they are now one of Europe’s most attractive, entertaining sides to watch. That transformation can probably be traced back to 2006 and the World Cup on German soil, when under the Goldmund- like teachings of Jurgen Klinsmann inhibitions were thrown to the winds in search of footballing nirvana. Four years later, Germany trounced England and Argentina before falling at the semi-finals. This time around, having married the search for knowledge and artistic perfection, they may go all the way to winning the thing.
Let’s play word association with Portugal. RONALDO. There, I’m done. It’s true, however. The entire team is set up around the bronzed would-be demigod, in order to retrieve the most out of of the sculpted hull of his talent. Even the central striker, Helder Postiga, is basically there as a decoy – he’s average by nature and design, and could probably stand on the pitch ruminating on the Book of Disquiet for all of the times he touches the ball. The same goes for the squad’s only other true striker: Hugo Almeida exists for Portugal to play the role of a particularly bent copper, directing enquiries away from the scene of the crime so that his more illustrious pickpocketed accomplice can strike.
I expect Ghana to go the furthest of any of the African sides, as they did four years ago – if, that is, they can get past Germany and Portugal to make it out of the group. The midfield is full of powerful players – look out for Kwadwo Asamoah, who performed admirably for Juventus last season, shunting up and down the right wing like a particularly nimble, skilful heavy goods vehicle. There are more than whispers that Christian Atsu could be the “African Lionel Messi”. While I find such comparisons tiresome and a tad distasteful, there’s no doubt that the young man has a kerosene canister and more of talent waiting to burn. Ghana will surely be motivated by those nightmares of Luis Suárez saving the ball on the goal line- and they appear a good bet to right those wrongs.
USA, USA: the Americans will bring the sort of effusive nationalism that comes naturally as a result of playing sport against yourself while proclaiming it as “World This and That”. The aforementioned Klinsmann is now in charge of the US – and has been stating to all and sundry amongst the home media that his side have no chance of winning the World Cup. This is an overstatement: they have very little chance at so much as getting out of the group, but such expressions of humility are not really acceptable in the Land of the Free. If the USA make the round of 16, their tournament will have been a success – through realist, if not stars-and-stripes shaped, eyes.
Prediction: 1) Ghana 2) Germany 3) Portugal 4) USA
Group H: Algeria, Belgium, Korea Republic, Russia
Like the difficult second album, this group appears initially hard to love, but may prove less challenging fare than its indigestible exterior suggests.
If the form guides go to plan then Belgium should progress easily: they are possessors of a clutch of talented players maturing together at just the right time. Eden Hazard is the best of them – a smoking gun of a threat on the left wing with dribbling skills, a fine calibre of shot and a stone-cold eye for a killer pass. He’s backed up by Axel Witsel, a scowling henchman of a defensive midfielder liable to break your legs and spirit, and Vincent Kompany, a classy central defender known by coaches and media alike as a “leader of men”, as if Manaus were Stirling Bridge and Algeria Mel Gibson’s poor approximation of William Wallace. York will not fall – but Belgium might, if they cannot figure out a way to score more goals.
Russia are the second favourites in Group H. They have one of the tournament’s finest goalkeepers, Igor Akinfeev, and a highly experienced central defensive partnership. The coach, Fabio Capello, is of course the same man who took England to the brink of footballing nihilism four years ago, so he should find himself right at home amongst the descendants of Dostoyevsky. The absence of captain Roman Shirokov is a blow – he is an action-man of a midfielder and was central to Capello’s utilitarian plans that nevertheless find room for the creative talents of the flashy Alan Dzagoev, whose stock-market crashes in form are countered by a rare, Bolshoi-like elegance. In homage to their great novelists of centuries past, Russia are ultimately a team of realists – a useful quality to have in the stoic atmosphere of a World Cup campaign.
It’s twelve years ago since South Korea’s Cinderella run to the 2002 World Cup semi-finals, when they knocked out both Spain and Italy with the help of some, ahem, interestingly biased decisions. Their best attacking threat is Bayer Leverkusen’s Song Heung-Min, who has caught the ever-roving glances of Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur in the manner of an innocent Iowan sweetheart on prom night. They will not be the belles of their own ball as they were in 2002 – but South Korea are still technically adept enough to limber their way out of a weak group.
Four years ago in South Africa, Algeria were a sideshow attraction of one of the ugliest World Cup groups ever, as they joined England, Slovenia and the USA in creating cult 90-minute exhibitions of how not to play the “beautiful game”. To be fair, it was mostly England’s fault- Algeria are another side for whom qualifying for a major tournament is a major achievement. They are unlikely to be much more aesthetically pleasing this time around, though Sofiane Feghouli provides a skilful, hard-running danger down the right wing. For Algeria, qualification from this group is an unreachably high skylight – much more likely is a fast exit down the fire escape of failure.
Prediction: 1) Belgium 2) Russia 3) Korea Republic 4) Algeria