Sunday marks the first round of games in what is probably the most competitive top-to-bottom group in this year’s WC, and also gives USA fans a look at their next two opponents.
Algeria v. Slovenia (7:30 AM, Group C)
One-sentence preview: The afterthoughts in the USA-England group try to sneak into qualifying position.
Slovenia are a close to unknown as is possible for a team that makes it through European qualifying. They came in second in a weak qualifying group, then won a playoff on the away-goals rule when Russia managed to get two players red carded. They’ve only played one recent friendly, a 3-1 win over New Zealand that didn’t do much to clarify their. Probably their most established player on the club level is their keeper, who plays for Udinese in Italy. They also have young MF named Rene Krhin who is on Inter Milan’s roster, though it’s unclear whether he’s ready for prime time. What the team really does well is prevent goals—they gave up only 6 in their 12 qualifying games.
Algeria is also not exactly running over with household names. Unlike Slovenia, Algeria did play enough recent friendlies to give a sense of their form. Unfortunately for them, those friendlies included 3-0 bootings at the hands of Serbia and Ireland, who are Euro countries of roughly similar strength to Slovenia. We cop to knowing relatively little about their roster, though it’s worth keeping an eye on Portsmouth back Nadir Belhadj, who came back from injury to look frisky in the English FA Cup final this year.
If you’re a USA fan, what you’re rooting for here is a goalless draw. The USA don’t want to risk Slovenia getting out to a quick 3-point start, which would let them play for a draw against the USA, and then need only to pull a point off of an England team with nothing to play for in order to advance out of the group. (Assuming, of course, that England beat the USA today.) So root for boredom as hard as you can.
Prediction: Slovenia 1-0 Algeria. Boring, but not boring enough for the USA’s tastes.
Serbia v. Ghana (10:00 AM, Group D)
One-sentence preview: I went to a rugby match and a soccer game broke out.
These are two big sides, though they’ve chosen to deploy their size in different ways. Serbia are sturdy at the back, featuring defenders Nemanja Vidic (who’s 6’2”, and who we think was the second-best player for Man U this past season) and Neven Subotic (6’4”). So there’s not going to be much in the way of aerial goals for the Ghanaians. Up front, Serbia are led by Ajax’s Marko Pantelic, who is a great finisher, but no longer much of an athlete.
Ghana put its horses in the midfield, where the 6’+ Boateng brothers and Inter Milan holding MF Sulley Muntari combine to give Ghana a ton of athleticism. However, the squad don’t really have a top-class striker—their top striker, Asamoah Gyan, plays for a middling French club. Their recent results also haven’t been all that encouraging, with a narrow 1-0 win over Latvia preceded by a 4-1 thumping at the Netherlands.
There are no soft touches in this group, and there won’t be any in this game either. We think a lot comes down to the crowd—if the Ghanaians are adopted by the South African crowd, they should get a burst of energy useful in breaking down the Serbs.
Prediction: Serbia 1-1 Ghana. Serbia are a popular dark horse pick for the sharps, but we don’t like them quite that much.
Germany v. Australia (2:30 PM, Group D)
One-sentence preview: There may not be much skill, but the effort level will be off the charts.
Honestly, we could pretty much cut-and-paste the England-USA preview here. As in that match, Australia are faced with the problem of trying to beat a team that relies on the same style (high pressure, high effort), but can call on better players to execute that style. The only real difference is that where both England and the USA had hotheads in their teams, here (as you’d expect) all the crazy guys are Australian. Tim Cahill is both Australia’s best player and a card magnet; if he picks up an early yellow, he’ll have to play scared and could lose some of his effectiveness.
Germany lost their captain, Michael Ballack, to an ankle injury picked up when one of the Ghanaian Boateng boys crashed into him during the English FA Cup final (more on that before the Germany-Ghana match). But Germany are the absolute best at plugging replacement parts into the machine and rolling on in major tournaments.
Prediction: Germany 2-0 Australia.