It’s that time. Oh when the Yanks, come marching in…well, sorry, but the in-depth preview for the good guys will not be included in this preview. Instead, I’ve devoted my efforts into giving the Americans their own, unique, stand alone preview for World Cup 2014. If you’re one of PTBN’s many faithful reading this, or someone who stumbled onto this World Cup preview by chance, don’t ‘x’ out just yet, there’s lots to cover in Groups G&H. The United States could potentially shock the world by coming out of Group G, but the potential “Group of Death” also includes Die Mannschaft, the Germans are one of the world’s most accomplished soccer nations, and every four years, millions in Deutschland clamor for the ultimate prize. The Germans may have the best shot of any team to win the World Cup not from South America…the bad news is, no European team has ever won the World Cup in the Americas. On the Germans’ heels is Portugal, led by famous Vogue boy toy, and I guess pretty damn good player Cristiano Ronaldo. Whether it’s good news or bad news is up to personal taste, but there will be no shortage of shirtless Ronaldo on ESPN this summer, whether Portugal wins or loses. Ghana, a country most Americans could not find on a map, has been the mortal enemy of the Yanks the last two World Cups, and will likely have us biting our fingernails again in June. In Group H, Belgium is quickly becoming a sexy pick to go deep in this year’s field, but they’ll be tested mightily against the Group G winner in the knockout stage. It’s either a chance for the Belgians to make a statement, or yet again fail to live up to expectations. Here are the final two groupings for the 2014 World Cup!
Germany – I’ve been neutral throughout this preview, but there are two teams I absolutely cannot be neutral in discussing. The first, is the US Men’s National Team. There is nothing more that I want than the United States to win the World Cup. That being said, I was born in Speyer, West Germany, to American parents, as a red blooded American citizen. Still, I was not immune to the Deutscher influence. I began kicking a soccer ball at the age of 4, and my upbringing in Karlsruhe and Stuttgart were heavy factors in shaping my love of the game of soccer throughout my life. It’s my heavily biased opinion that between their national team’s performance, both at the World Cup, the Euros and their outstanding professional league, the Bundesliga, Germany is the greatest soccer nation in the world. It’s my love for “Die Mannschaft” that has made the past 10 years so infuriating. Germany has been at the cusp of regaining their rightful throne atop European soccer, only to be thwarted at the last minute…by Spain’s “tiki-taka”. The loss in the 2010 World Cup final was heartbreaking, as it was the same team that bounced Germany out of the Euros two years prior. Still, I have faith. The German brand of soccer is not a catchphrase, it’s timeless. The Germans have built their soccer kingdom by embracing the game’s fundamentals, and employing those fundamentals with some of soccer’s greatest athletes. Germany relies on sound, stout and accountable defense, quality goalkeeping, midfielders who can routinely fall back and play world class defense, while also being top flight playmakers and creators, and relentless forwards who control the pace of play through sensible passing and ball control…waiting for the right time to strike, doing everything possible to not give up possession on the German side of the field. The reason Germany has routinely been one of the top performers at the World Cup is their team never excels at one thing, it’s proficient at many aspects of the game, making their teams a tough matchup for any style of play. The Germans can grind a game out through passing and possession for 90 minutes, they have athletes like Bayern Munich’s Philipp Lahm who can counter from deep in the backfield and prolific forwards who can press the ball forward nonstop if there are lapses in the opposition’s defense. This year, Germany has as deep a roster as any in the World Cup. Lahm will yet again wear the armband and captain Germany in 2014, along with keeper Manuel Neuer also of Bayern Munich, who, with Lahm, have been the foundation of the post Michael Ballack Germany. The key to Germany’s team this year will be balance, balance between players like Lahm and Neuer who have significant international experience, and young stars like 21 year old offensive minded midfielder Mario Gotze of Munich. Gotze might not even be the most potent piece of Germany’s attack in 2014, the team packs a powerful punch in both midfield and at forward. Helping Gotze in midfield are Thomas Muller and stalwart Sebastian Schweinstager all also from Germany’s top club. Up front, the Germans have Lukas Podolski of Arsenal, Andre Schurrle of Chelsea and Marco Reus of Borussia Dortmund. The wildcard? Seasoned veteran Miroslav Klose, Klose is 35, but he’s one of the greatest World Cup scorers of all time. In defense, the Germans will have Dortmund back Mats Hummels along with Arsenal’s Per Mertesacker, Munich’s Jerome Boateng and the captain, Lahm, who will play back in defense or as defensive midfielder. The German ‘bench’ will be occupied by players like defender Schalke’s Julian Draxler, Real Madrid’s Sami Khedira and midfielder Toni Kroos of Bayern Munich. Germany’s starting XI is among the absolute best in Brazil and their depth might be unmatched…the next generation of German soccer is ready to take the world by storm, is this the year coach Joachim Low finally delivers? Germany should be the favorite for group G and should have their eyes on the trophy in Brazil.
Ghana – Ghana has played antagonist to the United States in the past two World Cups. This isn’t an uncommon theme, somehow, many nations become continual foes in the World Cup seeding, just ask Nigeria about Argentina. Still, the country will have to play at its top form to make noise in the group stage, despite their impressive roster. Ghana had their best ever performance in the World Cup in South Africa, and if they can come out of a group that has Germany, Portugal and the United States, that may be even more impressive. Ghana is especially strong in midfield, where they’ve got a talented group of players making their living in Europe. The team’s best known player may be Milan’s Michael Essien, he’s joined in the midfield by Juventus player Kwadwo Asamoah. A wildcard for Ghana is Schalke defender and midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng, Boateng was initially brought up through Germany’s national youth teams. He’s made his living for an impressive variety of clubs at age 27, including Hertha Berlin, Dortmund, Tottenham Hotspur, AC Milan and now Schalke. For the career of a journeyman, that’s a pretty impressive resume. Ghana could finish as low as fourth, or, as high as second. This emphasizes the strength of Group G in this year’s World Cup. They’d challenge for the top spot, or runner-up of at least a few groups elsewhere in this year’s field.
Portugal – The discussion of Portugal begins with the FIFA Balloon d’Or (Golden Boot) winner Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo is not only the face of Portugal, but to much of the world, he’s the face of the sport, period. Ronaldo has routinely been one of Europe’s most ferocious club players, but in 2013, Ronaldo put together the best season of his career, excelling for both club and country. Still, there’s serious questions about the Ronaldo that shows up wearing the Portugal shirt. Portugal didn’t have the same dominant performance entering the World Cup as group rival Germany, and the team will have to live up to its full potential and perhaps more, if they with to avoid an unfavorable result against Ghana and the United States. Helping lead the attack up front with Ronaldo will be Manchester United’s Nani and Helder Postiga of Lazio. While both are quality compliments to Ronaldo, Ronaldo will control the pace and effectiveness of the Portuguese attack without question. Anchoring the team in the rear will be defender Pepe of Real Madrid, who, despite reaching the age of 31, seems to be in top form heading into Brazil, coming off of Real Madrid’s Champion League victory. The team is not as stout in midfield, Joao Moutinho of AS Monaco is likely the team’s strongest midfielder, but they lack the quality in midfield they posses at forward. Portugal should be the odds-on favorite to finish second in Group G, but as they’ve learned on the international stage, even with Ronaldo, potential alone does not bring results. Portugal does not have the pressure on their backs of Germany, but they also cannot take their matches with Ghana or the United States for granted. A draw, or loss against either could be the difference between advancing and going home far too early with the world’s best player.
United States – There will be a standalone preview for the United States. The United States goes into Brazil off a particularly strong calendar year of international play, but serious questions remain, especially on the team’s back line. Defense, and finishing will be a serious concern for the US if they wish to advance out of Group G. As it stands, the team can finish anywhere from fourth, to second, if everything goes their way.
Algeria – Algeria was one of the last teams in this year’s World Cup, and it’s going to be an uphill battle for the Algerians if they wish to advance past the group stage. Luckily, Algeria is in one of the weakest groups in the tournament, but part of that is because most teams were crossing their fingers hoping Algeria or South Korea would end up in their group instead of a more quality opponent. The team is very likely the fourth best in the four team pool, but the group’s best teams, Belgium and Russia, aren’t near infallible or as strong as some of the other favorites in the World Cup’s seeding. It’s a long, long shot…but not impossible that Algeria draw a positive result against either nation. A more likely great outcome for the Algerians would be a World Cup victory over South Korea, another underpowered team who will likely exit at the group stage. Algeria is home to Valencia’s Sofiane Feghouli, the midfielder played internationally as a youth for France, before declaring for the Algerian National Team. Striker Islam Slimani who plays for Sporting Clube de Portugal and Tottenham’s Nabil Bentaleb. Bentaleb made his EPL debut with Tottenham at age 19 last season.
Belgium – Belgium is by far the most talented team in Group H and the team made it into the World Cup rather comfortably, finishing first in their qualifying group ahead of fellow World Cup competitor Croatia and WC 2010 qualifier Serbia. Belgium’s most important player may be its captain, and Man City captain, defender Vincent Kompany. Kompany is in the prime of his career, riding high off of Manchester City’s success in the Premier League, and coupled that with Belgium’s stellar play in qualifying and the team might have all the right ingredients for a deep run. Midfielder Eden Hazard has become a full fledged star for Chelsea and may be the nation’s most exciting player to watch on television. Another young star for the Belgians in the 2014 World Cup is Everton’s Romelu Lukaku, Lukaku played alongside Hazard at Chelsea before going on loan. Players like Hazard, Lukaku and Atletico Madrid keeper Thibaut Courtois exemplify the great mix of young and seasoned talent the Belgians are bringing to Brazil. Along with Kompany, all are under the age of 30, either in the prime or entering the prime of their careers. This isn’t unfamiliar territory for the country, however, they routinely bring a solid team to the World Cup, but have yet to see their identity shift from that of the underdog, to a team that others must fear as a challenger to the throne. In UEFA, Belgium is firmly below the level of teams like Spain, Germany and Italy, but they’ve yet to really entrench themselves firmly into that second tier and while teams like England and France are still rebuilding, there’s no better time than now for Belgium to make an impression on the global stage. Belgium should advance out of the group stage easily, but the pressure will be on for a coming out party against Germany or Portugal in the next round, if the team wants to let the world know it’s arrived.
Russia – The Russians finished ahead of Portugal in qualifying and while much of this was due to Portugal’s poor play, the nation’s 2014 squad is not to be taken lightly. Russia lacks the young superstars of Group H foe Belgium, but if the team plays well, they should finish no lower than second in a particularly weak group. In true Russian fashion, the team is entirely homegrown. Almost all of the team’s final roster make their living in the Russian Football Premier League. The league is home to a couple of very good European clubs, namely CSKA Moscow, home to Russia’s excellent keeper Igor Akinfeev. The 28 year old keeper has been playing professionally in Russia since age 17, and since he has never had the sort of exposure players in more popular leagues like EPL, Bundesliga or La Liga are accustomed to, he’s likely not a household name to many. However, Akinfeev could be one of the most underrated keepers in the entire World Cup field this summer. The team has quality experience on offense, led by former Sevilla and current St. Petersburg striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov. The face of Russian soccer moving forward, along with players like Akinfeev, is likely 23 year old midfielder Alan Dzagoev of CKSA Moscow. Dzagoev appeared on most European fans’ radars after leading all scorers in the 2012 Euros. It’s puzzling why so few of the roster plays for quality teams outside of Russia, however, it’s not unlikely Dzagoev could land on a competitive club elsewhere, asking the question, do Russia’s best feel a sense of pride staying home, or is the game passing the Russian Football Premier League by? Either way, the team should get a good idea where its domestic league, and player development system compares to some of Europe’s best clubs, they’ll battle Belgium in the group stage and could play either Germany or Portugal if they advance to the knockout round.
South Korea – South Korea may have had the easiest road to Brazil of all Group H’s teams, and it’s their underwhelming performance in qualifying that has them fighting with Algeria for the group’s 3rd or 4th spot on paper. Still, South Korea has a respectable history in the World Cup, with 9 appearances, their most famous being a trip to the semifinals on their home turf in 2002. The manager of this year’s team, Hong Myung-Bo, is a national hero, due to his service for the men’s national team during their semifinal run. Under Hong, 21 year old phenom Son Heung-min of Bayer Leverkusen looks to bring the “Taegeuk Warriors” back to prominence with a strong finish in the group stage. Setting the table for Son will be Swansea midfielder Ki Sung-Yueng. If the two can find each other plenty during the group stage, especially in their opener against Russia, the South Koreans have a fighting chance for the knockout stage. History is on their side, too. South Korea has performed well in recent World Cups, with their brilliant 2002 run and another strong performance into the round of 16 in 2010. The team had a misstep in 2010, but they’re more than capable of pushing Russia to their limit.