The Group of Death... or so it seems. It's a fascinating mixture of teams with histories against each other, with revenge and reunions on almost everyone's mind. So what does that mean for the table?
Germany are the class of the group no matter their issues, and to be fair they do have some. The defense doesn't quite inspire the confidence of past groups of German defenders, especially in the middle. They are solid, but not overly special in that area. Germany's midfield might be as good as any team in the tournament, but by virtue of how they play, they are entirely reliant on the midfield to do the creating, scoring, and cleaning up. They have a bevy of technically gifted players who can do almost anything with the ball at their feet, but they really only have one defensive midfielder in Sami Khedira and he is still regaining fitness after a long-term injury layoff. Speaking of injury layoffs, Manuel Neuer is still dealing with a troublesome injury post Bayern Munich season, and he hasn't yet played in Germany's lead up to the tournament. So it seems like Germany could be a surprise entrant in the "big Euro team to flame out in the group stage" sweepstakes? Steady on. They are still filled with players not only from Bayern, but Dortmund too, and that means that despite some noticeable flaws they are still loaded with quality everywhere. The real question for me comes in the form of the scoring, and who will grab that role and run with it. The other tournament favorites you might say have that kind of talismanic player, and Germany simply doesn't. If they can find one, then this may just be the tournament to break their hoodoo.
Ghana always seems to play Germany and the United States at every World Cup, and this one is no different. But for Ghana, who were missed penalties away from the semifinals in 2010: Are they still Africa's best team? And if so, how far can that take them in a tough group and tough draw? They are still typically strong in the midfield as per usual with players like Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari, and Kevin Prince-Boateng while they've added some new talent in like Kwadwo Asamoah of Juventus, the Ayew's of Marseille, and some other young talent that bears watching. And the one constant is still Asamoah Gyan, who has tortured US fans for 4 years and may well do more of that in Brazil. The one worry as it seems to be the case with every African team sans Cameroon is the defense, and it is young here, but the strength of the midfield for Ghana might mitigate that somewhat. They don't really have the creative impetus in midfield that they could really use, and the big players of past tournaments are now getting older, especially Essien, so Ghana could easily be had in that respect. But, some of this young talent like Majeed Waris and Wakaso Mubarak have plenty of one thing: speed, which could equalize some of the issues. They will have it difficult getting out of the group by virtue of who else is in it, but do not discount them.
Portugal's golden generation have long gone, and it seems that they may be waiting for a new one to develop by virtue of the roster they put out for every major tournament. Even so, they always make it out of the group stage at every one... every one since 2002. And they still have this guy Ronaldo who you may know is pretty good. But Portugal is not just him and him alone. The defense still has strength in players like Fabio Coentrao and Pepe among others, even if that unit is getting older. Nani is still around and will provide a unique aspect on the flanks for the Portuguese, and the midfield is marshalled by one of the best in the world in Joao Moutinho, who'd better get the credit he deserves after this tournament because he is an incredibly good central midfielder. But I'd be lying if I said this team didn't come down to one player, and certainly Paulo Bento has agreed by the way the tactics are set up. They are designed to channel everything to Ronaldo, because they know he can break the game open if its set up for him. And when he's on his day, he can and will do that. Trying to shut him down seems like a futile effort, so shutting down his channels and proxies are better solutions, and Portugal's success will be dictated by how well the other teams can do that. Despite their issues in qualifying, and what the US media wants to tell you about how they are a one man team, they always get out of their group in major tournaments, at least in recent times. Remember this too: they were penalties away from the Euro Final 2 years ago.
And now for the elephant in the room. This US team has been the most talked about, maybe ever, and therefore every aspect of this team has been dissected comprehensively. You'll know most of the narratives and the storylines already, so I'll try my best to give you something new. Hmmm... nah, I can't do that. What really matters for this US team is how the back 4 coalesces and how quickly that happens. They'll have to be bend but don't break in this tournament by nature of the formations they'll play ahead of them, since there will be acres of space in the midfield for players to operate in. Can this incredibly green back 4 do that on a consistent basis against the attackers they'll be going up against? I have my doubts. This team's strength is going forward, and when Michael Bradley takes the keys and runs with it, the US is a tough side to beat. Jozy Altidore's form is almost irrelevant so long as he's holding up play and dominating physically as we know he can do, so long as Clint Dempsey is scoring (and he's certainly in form). The other worry about the supposed Diamond formation is not only the lack of width, but the lack of creative players at the edges. Graham Zusi and Alejandro Bedoya are interesting wingers who can track back with the best of them, but lack the creative edge that some of the bench options have. A formation change to the usual 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-2-2 is the best way to go about fixing this, but it remains to be seen whether that will happen or not. The other worry I have (and this might be making new ground) is fitness, and not that they won't be fit (they certainly will be). It's whether they'll be drained. Jurgen Klinsmann likes his training, and we're already seeing that players are commenting on how tough the training has been. Could the US team be out of gas before the group even starts? Now can they advance out of this group... sure they can. They did in 2002, and 1994. But their problems are holding me back from saying that they will.
Prediction: It's wide open, although I expect Germany and Portugal to be the teams that advance out of the group despite this. Ghana's midfield isn't quite as dominant as it once was, and the US has formation and defensive issues that don't look like they'll be fixed in time for when the games start.
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